Ole Varming is a consultant educational psychologist with the private firm Paedagogisk Udyikling & Fomyelse (PUF): GL TORV 11, DK 4880 NYSTED, Denmark.


Values Education And Making Life Worth Living

Ole Varming

Camus (1942) begins his novel Le Mythe de Sisyphe with the following lines: There is only one philosophical problem: Suicide. To decide if life is worth living or not is to answer the basic questions of philosophy. This quotation easily comes to mind when one considers the background for the many suicides, attempts to suicide and thoughts of suicide which have occurred in many Western countries during the last few decades. This tendency is strange and surprising because we have believed that the Welfare State would give everybody a better life. Of course we should be proud of what has been built up during this period: more and more people have been able to satisfy more and more needs. Have material values been given a high priority at the expense of spiritual values? Is this the reason why the suicide frequency has gone up? Has society - despite material wealth - grown more inhuman to live in? Why do not the majority of people in Danish and other societies consider suicide as a temptation or possibility? Or in other words: Which values give the majority of people in Denmark the spirit to live? Which values give an elementary experience of what gives meaning to their life and what role does values education have in this?


In 1993 a short article was published in about twenty Danish newspapers (Varming 1995). The article told about the rising number of suicides, suicide attempts and suicide thoughts, and ended with the question: What makes life worth living for you? Readers were asked to write short essays answering this question. The idea was to throw light on which reflections and experiences based on values and philosophy protect a large number of people from suicide thoughts. Or, in order to connect to the quotation from Camus: How are the basic questions in philosophy answered in the modern life? An analysis of the reader's essays is reported later in this paper.

The research literature has shed little light on this topic - probably because there was no reason to pose this question. The meaning of life was more or less instilled into children during their upbringing. Everybody who grew up in the "old" society became part of, by direct or indirect influence, the same values, which all could be derived from the same concepts: God, King and Country. A solid common basic set of values was the result of open and hidden influences in home and school.

Today, life is more or less handed over to each of us to create our own meaning: we do not have a common basis of values. In other words, it is handed over to each of us to find out what is important in our life and what the good life is, because there are many different ways to understand and explain life. Modern humans' lives become personal projects, where each person through constant choices creates his or her life. This is true for both children and grown-ups. We must acknowledge that the common basis of values has crumbled away and that everybody experiences ethical confusion. This confusion is partly due to the Church no longer being an authority in questions of ethics and values (1) and to different sciences taking over the role of the authority. There is no longer only one authority for meaning, but many authorities, each of which gives good explanations about how life is organised and could be understood. In modem life we have to live with this secularizing and pluralism, and we have to understand that in the future we have to survive with continuing values confusion. Neither secularization nor pluralism need in itself to be problems, but they can develop to relativism where everything seems to be unimportant.

This modem situation is especially difficult for young people who have problems in finding an identity. In earlier generations identity was developed in a local environment making common cause with family and local society. Today young people have to create their own identity. This demands (1) personal and social competence (2) self confidence (3) breath of outlook, (4) ability to look at life as a whole (5) skills of communicating demands/wishes in a socially acceptable way, and (6) full self control so as not to offend the group. As most adults know, it is not easy to attain these criteria of maturity. However, it is the development of these criteria that are needed to cope with secularization nor pluralism, and to escape relativism.

A Study of Spirits

A few days after the publication of the newspaper article, the first essays arrived. After about two weeks 240 essays had been received. 1 will now share some main results of an analysis of the responses. Of the 240 answers 88% were written by women and 12% by men. The main age range of respondents was 50-80 years, about 20% between 20 and 50 years, a few above the age of 80, and a substantial number of 12-15 year-olds. Responses from middle-aged people were lacking and so the data are not representative. However, it was important that so many elderly people had responded, because it was regarded as an advantage to have many people answering the question on the basis of many years of experience.

What were the main themes in the essay? A large majority concentrated on solidarity - the importance of others in our lives. The answers mentioned the importance of partners, children, friends, parents and family, where code words were trust, helpfulness, sympathy and contact. Most answers expressed solidarity in one form or another, and indicated that meaning to life is given by:

  1. Breaking the tendency to regard yourself as the centre of everything and go beyond selfishness: for instance, to take care of other people, animals and nature;
  2. Feeling of being close to other people, especially the family and close friends - that is, to love and be loved;
  3. Together with other people building up a community of values: for instance in associations and clubs; and
  4. As an ethical ideal, cultivating those parts of the human personality, which makes it natural to take care of other people and to show unselfishness. For example, taking care of ill members of the family such as sick children, and senile parents.

These types of answers characterised by solidarity could also be labeled under the concept of transcendency formulated by Frankl (1970). His understanding of being human means to go beyond yourself in searching after life's meaning and to establish a meeting with another human being, and that human beings are able to take part in creative activities which do not have ourselves as a centre, but have a broader meaning as a purpose.

The concept of self transcendency could also be used as a headline over the large number of answers coming in as a second choice: nature. Many essay writers gave very beautiful descriptions of what nature means to them. In third place came a Christian attitude to life and a fourth priority was given to good health including healthy eating habits. After these five priorities came good leisure activities, engagement in life, curiosity, humour and capacity to make decisions about your own life.

It is amazing that only three people mentioned work as important. This is interesting, especially that since childhood everybody is told of the importance of being able to manage a job, to make a career, to become wealthy and take care of a family. Three people who mentioned work did not attach importance to work itself, but to the possibility it gives them to meet other people. Seemingly, work does not count, when people consider what makes life worth living. Although it was expected that schooling would be important to living a good life, school is not mentioned at all.

The following example is cited to show the general tendency in the 240 essays. The essay is written by a twenty-one year-old woman and as with the other essays it is written in order to answer the question: What makes life worth living? That I feel at home in two places - with my parents and childhood - and youth friends in my native town and also with my boyfriend and new friends in Copenhagen. I regard this as two bases. That I have somebody who takes care of me and that thereby I myself have somebody to take care of. That I am loved and valued by those I love. That I feel that life is a school, where I can influence my learning. That I try to be open and positive to all impressions and experiences I get every day and that I think of what I can learn from all that. That I tell myself that every second is a gift, which has to be enjoyed in the best possible way. That sometimes I succeed in enjoying the present moment instead of looking forward and wondering how something should possibly be better. That sometimes I think of what I am happy at and feel lucky with my life.

Consequently, when many people are asked what makes their life worth living they think of other people, especially family and friends. In Denmark at least most schools - intentionally or non-intentionally - prepare students for the future with values belonging to the labour market - not with values belonging to grown-up people: family life, leisure-time activities and the political life.


We ought to ask ourselves, and one another, about how relevant it is to stress training for work in a situation where people attach minimum importance to work and maximum importance to getting on well with people. The topic is seen in perspective when illuminated by results from the research of Adler-Karlsson (1983). He found that the total working hours is much shorter than most of us can imagine. Work plays a much lesser part in our life than we generally imagine. He found that work only accounts for 12.5% of people's total waking state. Consequently, he concludes, work is a very small part of life. If you prepare yourself for filling life, the only life you've got, with a worthwhile content you have to direct your attention much more towards your leisure time than towards your working life.

Perhaps we have to re-evaluate the extent of training for work that goes on in schools. Even serious politicians doubt that it is possible to totally reduce unemployment. Some people will be without work. Perhaps we need to question the school's main task in a modern society. Perhaps we should consider the main purpose of education as helping students to find answers to the question: What do 1 want to do with my life?

In a Danish understanding of values education there are two central concepts: spirits and life ability. "Spirits" implies an elementary experience of life's meaningfulness and "life ability" implies a content of leisure ability, family ability and political ability, with a definite meaning wish and ability to take responsibility for your own life. Logstrup (1985) coined the phrase "life understanding" which is important in this connection. Life understanding gives priority to children's experiences of identity building and self-esteem. In this way children are assisted to create meaning by giving confidence and feelings of belonging to a comprehensive life and a social network. Without each other we are nothing. Therefore values education primarily is an ethical subject, if ethics is defined as follows: A vision about the good life together with and for other people.

(1) In the Danish literature it is common to distinguish between morals, ethics and values. Morals are standards/norms for identifying right and wrong. Ethics is the theory about what is right and wrong. Value indicates a firm conviction that a particular behaviour or kind of life is personally or socially preferred for other kinds of behaviour or kinds of life. For more detail on this see Rokeach (1973).


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