The most successful action I have taken to sustainably improve my mental health has been to think about how I can live better.
The catalyst for this action was Pius Ang, a psychologist from Access Melbourne. His cadence reminded me of Barack Obama both over phone and in person. In our first physical meeting he introduced me to the concept of values.
To me values are beliefs that you identify with. They influence your goals and actions and yet you may not have thought about what your values are. I first thought about mine when I was 25 years old.
A reference that I found excellent for discovering what I valued was the Schwartz theory of basic human values created by psychologist Shalom Schwartz. The theory identified 10 basic values:
- Self-direction (creativity, freedom, choosing your own goals, curiosity, independence)
- Stimulation (a varied life, an exciting life, daringness)
- Hedonism (pleasure, enjoyment of life, self-indulgence)
- Achievement (ambition, success, capability, influence)
- Power (authority, wealth, social power)
- Security (social order, family security, national security, cleanliness, reciprocation of favours)
- Conformity (obedience, self-discipline, politeness, honouring parents and elders)
- Tradition (respect for tradition, humility, devotion, acceptance of your portion in life)
- Benevolence (helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness, responsibility, loyalty, true friendship, mature love)
- Universalism (broadmindedness, social justice, equality, a world at peace, a world of beauty, unity with nature, wisdom, protecting the environment)
You may see yourself as having many or all of these values. What is particularly interesting to learn is the relative importance that you give to each.
The three values that I most identify with are:
Discovering that my greatest value was hedonism was a revelation. I had assumed that my motivations would be higher up Maslow’s hierarchy. Instead I learned that as an affluent atheist with no dependents or apparent purpose my greatest motivation is pleasure.
This discovery helped me understand my relationship with depression. I was happy and healthy when I was living my life in accordance with what I valued. Depression was what happened when I wasn’t having sex.
My next value was self-direction. It was perhaps my earliest value, something I have maintained for as long as I can remember. I am curious, think independently and have attained enough wealth to ensure that I can remain so.
Third was universalism. I believe that we are all equal and persistently work to improve equality. I hope that someday this will be my highest value.
I was delighted to learn that my motivations were so simple. These three values have since become a mantra that remind me to spend each moment doing what I value and ignoring what I don’t.
To be mature you have to realise what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbours, of their parents or family. Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.