Many of the motivational tools I recommend involve clarifying your values. When you are fully clear on a value, you not only see logically that the value contributes to your success and well-being, but you also feel some pleasure as you contemplate it. That pleasure is the emotion of love (or liking or affection or any of its forms).
To be clear, I am using “value” here in the psychological, personal sense. I mean something you desire to gain or keep because you believe it will better your life. Or in other words, some object that has already been integrated with your pleasure system as I explain in my article How Values Form.
If you don’t feel love as you contemplate something that you believe is a value to you, you have introspective evidence that something else is going on.
It could be that you are too tense to feel as gentle an emotion as love. Or it could be that you are distracted or overloaded by other issues so that you don’t have enough crow space to isolate an emotion of love. Or it could be that you are experiencing threat-based emotions such as fear or anger that swamp any other affective response. In these cases, you will experience your love for the object at other times when such factors aren’t present.
On the other hand, it could be that you have only a theoretical understanding of why the object you are contemplating is good. Qua value, it “floats.” It is not emotionally real to you that this object benefits your life.
When this happens, there is only a frail line of reasoning that leads you to conclude the “floating” value is good for you. It has not been integrated with the rest of your knowledge or your value hierarchy. A floating value is a problem. It won’t motivate action because it has no direct link to the pleasure system. But it can trigger guilt when you don’t pursue it: when you notice the disconnect between thought and action, i.e., a breach of integrity.
Many values start out as just an idea in the mind that is floating. The remedy is to integrate the value, see exactly how it connects — logically and emotionally — to the values you hold that are already clear and well-established. The more your values are integrated, the better your spontaneous motivation will align with your conscious intentions and the easier it will be to compose yourself after an upset. Integrating your values continues throughout your life. You will discover new treasures and retire old ones. Over time, you reshape your value hierarchy in the service of your vision of your ideal future.
If integrating your values sounds appealing, I recommend as a first step you first learn to concretize the values you already have. As an adult, you have many, many values, but you may or may not have focused on them or connected them together. In this and the next few articles, I will show you how to do this.
A simple way to identify your values: examine the objects around you
If you turn your attention inward and ask, “What are my values?” you may or may not get much of an answer. If you can name your values, it will be because you have taken steps to figure them out. This kind of self-awareness takes effort and attention to acquire. Values are not directly introspectable.
However, the evidence of your values is literally all around you.
Look around. Look at the objects that are in the same room as you. List four of them just for good measure.
Every object in the room you are in bears some relationship to your values. It may or may not be a value to you, but some values must be involved in your being near it.
If the object is yours, why did you purchase it or bring it into the room? How have you interacted with it? You must have wanted something and acted to gain and keep it in relation to this object, or you wouldn’t own it. If the object is not yours, why are you here in a room with it? What brought you here? What were you up to?
You uncover the values by telling the story of why this object is in this room with you and how you’ve interacted with it. In the story, you will find some values — things you act to gain and keep because you believe they are good for your life. When you flesh out the details, you can also flesh out an area of your value hierarchy.
Fleshing out values starting with the three cows
For example, there is a large print of three cows hanging on my wall. It is “Mazzoleni’s Girls” by Robin Eschner. I had that print framed at the Coop in Harvard Square more than 30 years ago, and I’ve been carting it around from home to home ever since. Obviously, I’ve been “acting to gain and keep it.” I feel pleasure looking at it. It’s a value.
Starting from this one obvious concrete value, I could then flesh out many deeper values by asking “why?” many more times.
Why do I feel pleasure?
The cows remind me of Renee, NoCo, and Lindy, three cows who lived in our field for two years during my childhood. The print captures how they looked when they wanted their water barrel refilled: intent yet relaxed. They would congregate next to the barrel, staring at the house until one of the kids ran out with the hose to give them a refill.
Nice story, but why does remembering the cows give me pleasure?
That was a fun episode in my childhood, which triggers a whole series of amusing cow stories. It also triggers memories of my father sitting on the porch enjoying watching those cows. And the rainy night my mother helped the farmer and his wife with NoCo’s breech delivery of her calf. NoCo was short for “No Cooperation.”
Now we have some other values identified: Nostalgia, humor, my mother and my father.
Any one of these could be explored further. For example, the story of my mother helping with the breech birth strikes me as a great example of her adventurousness. She was always up for a new experience. It was something I loved about her. Thinking about it now, it’s a value I want to cultivate more in my life.
Finding deeper values
There are many deeper values of mine that could be uncovered starting with “why questions” about this concrete object. The most obvious one is, why do I keep it on display? No other print from that time is still on a wall in my house. Moreover, if its main value to me were nostalgia, I could blow up a picture of the real cows. Why don’t I have a photograph of Renee, NoCo, and Lindy on my wall?
This line of questioning gets me to think about my esthetic values.
This print pulls me into the scene. It is not just a pretty picture, it has esthetic power for me. When I look at it, I am drawn to contemplate those cows, similarly to how my father was drawn to contemplate the cows in real life. When you are quietly absorbed in contemplating a scene, the perceptual experience helps you clear your mind and settle your emotions. You gain the value of emotional presence.
I can also make values explicit by noticing the specific parts of the picture that draw me in.
The original was done in watercolors, using mostly purple and green for two of the three cows.
Cows are not purple and green. But somehow, these two cows are perfectly captured using those colors.
I can get quite absorbed in tracing out how that works — how those colors give personality to those two cows, who are otherwise just standing there staring at you. Among other things, I think the color helps the soulful eyes stand out. The third cow, who is black and white, gets her personality from how she’s interacting with the other two.
There is some lesson in the colors of this painting about identifying the essentials, which I puzzle over when I look at it. It is part of a larger question that interests me professionally — how do you identify and communicate the essentials? I don’t think the print would still be on my wall if the cows were all black and white. And even though I have spent a lot of time appreciating the colors over the years, I only fully articulated the values involved when I chose to analyze it for this article.
It strikes me that the hair whorls, which are also quite fascinating, may also be related to establishing the personality of each cow…
Values found in the trash
In the cows example, the object itself was a value to me. As a piece of art, it is designed for contemplation. What about objects on the opposite end of the spectrum? What about something that is literally trash? How could you find values in that?
For the purpose of concretization, I looked in my wastebasket and found a slightly damp Kleenex. It had been used to blot up a little spill of water, then thrown away.
It is no longer a value to me, but its story is still a lead to many values.
Why did I wipe up the water? Water is essential to human life! It’s a value! I had the water in a glass on the desk so I could drink it!
But then I accidentally spilled some. When it’s on my desk, water is no longer a beverage. It is a threat to my thinking notebook.
Bingo. Another value. My thinking notebook is important to me — I use it to record my thoughts and clarify my ideas. I want to be able to reread it to do that thinking. If the ink gets smudged or the pages get stuck together, I can’t do that.
This is a line of enquiry that could lead me to identify many more work values, but let’s go on to another line of enquiry.
Why did I wipe up the water with a Kleenex rather than a paper towel? Because the Kleenex was handy. Why was it handy? Because I keep boxes of Kleenex in every room in the house, roughly within 10 feet of any location. In fact, in my pantry I keep 5-10 boxes of Kleenex-brand tissues on hand to make sure we don’t run out during the next pandemic- or hurricane-induced run on household supplies. Why Kleenex brand? Softness. I like the way they feel on my nose.
Bingo. More values are involved. Kleenexes in general are a value to me, as are convenience, softness, reliability.
Know your values
I hope you get the picture. You could literally take any object around you and trace out deeper values to you that are related to that object.
This is a fun and easy exercise. Most people will be smiling after they do it. It can sometimes work as a quick mood lifter. A homeschooler says she is going to make it into a game with her kids.
But fun is not the point of the exercise or the article.
Tracing out the value connections in your life is a basic mental process. The more self-awareness you have about your values, the better you can judge what’s important to you and the more you can avoid internal conflict. Once you are in conflict, it takes more skill to figure out why you feel what you feel or why you aren’t feeling motivated to do the “right” thing.
In this article, I’ve concretized the simplest cases — the relations of values to objects around you. In subsequent articles, I will flesh out how you identify values in more complex cases.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge of your own values is power over your motivation.
Photo Credit: Mazzoleni’s Girls, 1986, by Robin Eschner, watercolor 55″ x 76.” Used by permission of the artist.