Investigating Our Values

“There is no right or wrong, no good or bad, when it comes to values. What you value is what you value—end of story!” writes Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT. But, living our values can lead us either to depression or to well-being.

Values of Batman
The Values of Batman

Once, I valued Batman. We had the same first name. He was wealthy and lived in a mansion but didn’t have to work. Catwoman had the hots for him. Aunt Harriet was there to reassure me that his reason for resisting Catwoman wasn’t that he was traumatizing his youthful ward Dick Grayson.

I wasn’t excited by the crime fighting or the costume, but I could go for a secret identity, a fire pole to my man cave, and a sports car that went so fast it needed parachutes to brake!

So, when a classmate showed me a mini Batman action figure he’d scored from a corner store gumball machine, I was impressed.

My Game of Chance

I scoped out the machine to gauge my odds after school. There were far more stale gumballs than Batman-themed treasures, but I decided to risk it.

I pleaded my case for an extra nickel to Mom when I got home. She wasn’t keen on the idea, but, to reinforce the value of sharing, decided to give me two nickels: one for me, and one for my brother, who was restricted to a homemade wheelie cart due to Legg-Calve-Perthes. I had to earn the nickel by giving Brother a shot at the treasure, too.    

As I raced to the store after school the next day, I realized I had to work out whose nickel was whose. I put my nickel in my right pocket and Brother’s nickel in my left. I eagerly put the right pocket nickel in the slot, turned the crank, and got a…

Gumball.

Shit! I mean, Shoot!

I started to walk away but remembered that I had to bring Brother a stale gumball, too. His nickel went in, I turned the crank, and he got…

The Last Laugh

Dad noticed I was sulky when he got home from work and asked me what was wrong.

Brother was playing with his new Batmobile and I was envious. I told Dad what had happened.

He laughed. Hard.

“Why didn’t you just keep it?” Dad asked. “He never would have known.”

He laughed harder.

It hurt to be laughed at.

It hurt to feel foolish.

I felt foolish for giving my brother a chance.

How Not to Teach Right and Wrong

What I’ve picked up on brain development from childhood to adulthood helps me understand the mistakes parents make in attempting to civilize their children.

They tell kids how they’re supposed to behave. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” But, children don’t learn by doing what they’re told. They learn through observation and experience.

Every time I attended a church service, I observed adults asking forgiveness for breaking the rules that they told their children to follow.

I knew from experience that it was more fun to break the rules than to follow them.

The long-term reward of getting into heaven was an abstract concept. The short-term reward of getting my own way felt good right now.

Breaking the rules now and asking forgiveness later nets me both the short-term and the long-term reward.

Value Formation

I had no first-hand experience with independent wealth, but on TV it looked more appealing than working a 40-hour-plus job to support a wife and kids. So, I never envisioned myself as a fireman, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. This was before the age of Silicon Valley tech billionaires, so I looked to entertainment.

I enjoyed movies, TV, and books. I observed that best-selling authors earned more for paperback and film rights to one book than my dad earned in twenty years. If I devoted all my efforts to writing a best-seller, I’d be set.

Living My Values

Flash forward twenty years. Cracking the best-seller code proved tricky, but I did my best. I observed that a higher proportion of best-selling authors had journalism and advertising backgrounds than English degrees, so I majored in journalism. I worked in advertising because it had a higher starting salary.

Chicago was a hotbed for theater, not books or movies. But, shows that started in Chicago often moved to New York and then to Hollywood. So, I wrote ads during the day and plays at night. The actresses and models surrounding me weren’t as into me as Catwoman was into Batman, but that was only one hit show away.

A Game-Changing Idea

A best-selling book about a new class of antidepressants that chemically altered people’s personalities changed my life. My journalism, theater, and marketing instincts all fired at once. Fantasies about personality transplants were hot at the time. Here was a timely, real life personality transplanting drug.

While reading the book, I was surprised to discover that I met the criteria for a diagnosis of clinical depression myself. So, I took a professional and personal interest in the research.

The problem with the drug wasn’t that it changed my personality, it’s that it didn’t prompt me to investigate the values that had shaped it. It was neurochemical, mood altering band-aid, not a cure for what truly ailed me.

No Right and Wrong

George Lucas credited Joseph Campbell’s writings for inspiring Star Wars. I followed his lead along with every other Lucas wannabe plundering the world’s great mythologies for story ideas.

The idea that resonated with me was a spiritual tradition that didn’t preach right and wrong. It investigated values through observation and experience.

Investigating My Values
  • I don’t have first hand experience with independent wealth, but I’ve observed that many who do spend a fair amount of time in rehab.
  • I don’t have sexy Catwomen crawling all over me, but millionaires and billionaires who date and marry them seem to break up and divorce a lot.
  • Avoidance of appearing foolish led to acute risk aversion and perpetual self-consciousness.
  • Envy of more successful writers led to bitterness and disdain for the entertainment preferences of the masses.
  • Keeping news of opportunities to myself led me to  resent when fellow writers and co-workers failed to share opportunities with me.

Gradually investigating these underperforming values and substituting ones more conducive to well-being transformed my day-to-day life and personality more than any antidepressant ever could.

Ten Minute Exercise

My current values include a willingness to share the categories of actions, speech, and thoughts that the authors of the original mindfulness manual flagged for investigation.

  1. Before turning in for the night, find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
  2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
  3. Grab a notebook or online journaling tool to record your findings.
  4. Think back on your day, noting what occurred when you and others acted in accordance with the values below. (Include personal interactions, news stories, social media posts, reading, or TV viewing.) The hypothesis: the attributes on the left trend toward mental stress and the ones on the right trend toward mental well-being. See if you agree.
  • Killing vs. Saving Life
  • Taking What is Not Freely Given vs. No-Strings-Attached Generosity
  • Sexual Misconduct vs. Friendship or Sex within Committed Relationships
  • False Speech vs. Truthfulness
  • Divisive Speech or Badmouthing vs. Finding Common Ground or Praising Positive Behaviors
  • Insulting or Harsh Speech vs. Gentle, Caring Speech
  • Idle Gossip or Talking Behind Someone’s Back vs. Purposeful Conversation Involving Only Those Present
  • Envy of Others vs. Appreciation of Others’ Good Fortune
  • Wishing Others Harm vs. Wishing Others Well
  • Doubt and Inaction vs. Well-Intended Action

5. When the timer sounds, take a moment to reflect on your findings before going to sleep.

Helpful Hint: I always found this cheat sheet useful when looking for ways to amp up conflict between characters. One or more of these values drives conflict almost everywhere I look.

Application: If we discover a value or two that isn’t working for us, we can test its opposite and observe the results. Doing this exercise before turning in for the night will influence the way we process the events of the day while we sleep. As we more intuitively adopt values conducive to well-being, we live with fewer regrets.

It’s important to use this exercise to examine our own values and behavior, not to judge the values and behavior of others.

Using it to understand the stresses others face can deepen our sense of well-being. Using it to  judge others can make us more depressed.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.