Values & Value Systems: Focus On Common Values To Find Happiness

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A society can be defined by the values that it considers important, and in a heterogeneous society like ours, where multiple value systems exist, peaceful coexistence and growth can only come if we are able to identify and nurture common values.

The development of values and value systems is closely intertwined with religion, and very often these are first influences that one is exposed to as a child.

Religion is not only a means to understand and connect with the divine, but also a method of bringing order and discipline within a society. Rules are defined based upon values, and not following these rules is classified as a sin. Not following these rules invites punishment, if not in this life, definitely after death, or in the next life.

How these values are defined is dependent upon where and when the religion originated, which is why value systems of different religions sometimes differ so much, despite the fact that all of them espouse practically the same basic principles.

As someone who was born into a Hindu household and has studied in a Christian school, as a child, I remember feeling disconcerted when reading about two brothers and their offerings to God. One brother offered rice, while the other sacrificed a lamb; and God punished the one who offered rice as it was deemed unworthy. The dissonance in my young mind came because I had automatically assumed that the one who killed an innocent lamb would be punished while the other brother would be rewarded. This was probably when I began to realise how, based upon one’s perspective, the same facts could lead to different inferences.

While they originated with religion, with the passage of time, values and value systems also became linked to the state of the economy – whether it was prosperous or not, the economic system followed – capitalist, socialist or mixed, and the economic strata to which one belonged – rich, poor or middle class.

Which is why today, with the entire world within our smartphones, we are simultaneously subject to multiple value systems, some of which contain contradictory values.

Take my generation for example, born in the 60’s and growing up in the 70’s, we lived in an era of shortages and moral science was an important subject in the curriculum. Vanity, pride, waste and unnecessary spending were abhorred, whereas humility, reusing and repurposing of objects and saving for a rainy day were desired virtues.

Today, vanity is an industry in itself, as we struggle to look good in our social media posts, where we humble brag about the awards we receive and inform the world how well we and our children are doing.

We take pride in discarding the old and ringing in the new – even as we struggle to develop systems to cope with the ever-increasing waste.

The other day, as I read about the proposal to ban vehicles more than 15 years old, I was reminded of the wonder I felt when reading about cars being abandoned in scrapyards in the US, and wishing they could be sent here to India, where owning a car was a dream.

Living within one’s means was a lesson drilled into every child’s head then. Today, the survival of our economy depends upon consumers spending as much as they can, even if it means spending beyond their limits, through the availability of easy debt.

While these and other such values can at best cause unease and mild resentment when challenged, some, especially those that are linked to our religious or political beliefs, can bring out the worst in us.

Even a decade ago, there was enough distancing between groups professing differing value systems and hence there wasn’t much discord.

But now, as technology makes the world smaller, we are being exposed with much greater intensity to other value systems, and this is leading to increasing discomfort within ourselves as well as in our society.

When confronted with a value system that is different from ours, one’s instinctive reaction is to proclaim it as false and not worthy of following. We tend to forget that to someone who has grown up following it and believing it to be true, it can appear as a personal affront, thereby provoking a sometimes violent reaction.

It is possible for people to change value systems if they so wish, and this does happen. Interestingly, when it comes to religious or political beliefs, it has been seen that these ‘new converts’ are usually much more dogmatic and are far more prone to take offence to anything resembling criticism of their newly acquired values and beliefs.

As we grow older, we develop our own unique value systems based upon our perspective of the world. And as this implies, even in the most homogeneous of societies, there will always be differences between its members.

Which is why, if we wish to take offence, there will always be something that offends us. On the other hand, if we are ready to accept that differences will always exist, and focus on common values, we will always be able to find peace, happiness and growth.

Ultimately, the choice is always ours – as individuals or as a society.

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