What are ‘junk values’?
I recently listened to the brilliant (if somewhat controversial!) Johann Hari on the Feel Better Live More podcast with Dr Rangan Chatterjee and found one of his ideas particularly interesting… the notion of ‘junk values’.
Hari described this concept in an article in the LA Times: “Junk food looks like food, but it doesn’t meet our underlying nutritional needs. In a similar way, junk values don’t meet our underlying psychological needs — to have meaning and connection in our lives. Extrinsic values are KFC for the soul. Yet our culture constantly pushes us to live extrinsically.”
On the podcast, Hari talked about how these ‘junk values’ can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing and are particularly toxic for young people. He also mentioned an experiment in a school in America which was designed to help teenagers think about their values by looking at what they felt they had ‘got’ to have in life and then examining the reasons why. They then looked at what they felt was ‘meaningful’ in life and discussed that. While the actual experiment lasted for a few months, I think that this could be a great tutor time activity, which could be done over the course of one or two days.
Tutor time worksheet
With this in mind, I have created a simple worksheet that can be printed off and copied for students to fill in themselves, or displayed on a whiteboard and students can write their ideas on paper. I would strongly recommend they spend time thinking about the questions on their own and write their ideas down, rather than discussing them out loud straight away. I think writing them down is much more effective and means that everyone gets a chance to think about their own experiences and values, instead of simply listening to the most outspoken kid in the class for 10 minutes!
How do I use the worksheet?
I would recommend using the worksheet in the following way:
- Hand out the sheet or display the first box on the board. Don’t explain what the purpose of the worksheet is, and don’t go into any detail about the concept of ‘junk values’ at this stage. Simply ask students to think about the things they need in life and why they need them. Examples could include food, water, air, etc (bascially, the bottom rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid!). Ask a few members of the class to share their ideas, if they are comfortable doing so. At this point, some students may include material possessions such as an iPhone or even certain types of designer clothing. Don’t pass any judgement on what they write or say here, just listen and make notes on the board if you want to and if they are happy with that.
- The second box on the worksheet asks students to make a list of the things they want in life and why they want them. Answers here could range from a new phone, to more followers on Instagram, to passing exams, to getting married and having children in the future. Reasons could be practical, such as the one given on the sheet, or related to how these things would make them feel. For example, “I want to have more followers on Instagram and I want to get more likes on my posts, as this makes me feel happy.” Again, this is purely an exercise for students to write down their ideas, share them if they feel comfortable doing so, with no judgement.
- In the third box, students need to analyse where these thoughts have come from. With the Instagram example above, they might think that it makes them happy because they get a buzz from having lots of likes on their photos, or it might be because they see influencers with thousands of followers and want to emulate them. At this point, you can start to have a class discussion about where we get our ideas from, the power of advertising and the concept of ‘junk values’. Will the things in the middle box really improve your life and wellbeing, or are they actually just things you have been told you want by advertisers and influencers online?
- On the second page of the worksheet, students are asked to think about the meaningful things in life. First, they should write some examples of times when they have felt happy, loved, valued and/or satisfied. This may be difficult for some students, and they may need some time to do the task. Again, they can share their ideas if they are happy to do so.
- The last box is a ‘plan of action’ in many respects. When students have had a chance to think about the things that are really meaningful in life, as opposed to the things that Hari calls ‘junk values’, they need to consider how they can actually incorporate them into their lives. If a student says she feels happy when she plays the guitar, for example, she needs to work out how to carve time into her schedule to simply sit and play and feel content. Writing something down tends to make you feel more accountable and like you actually have to go ahead and do it.
- A week or so, and then a month or so, after the session, ask students how they feel about ‘junk values’ now and if they still want the things on their list. Also ask whether they have actually done the meaningful things they ‘promised’ themselves they’d do. Ask how this has made them feel. If they haven’t done it, explore reasons why.
The key to this worksheet is allowing an atmosphere of no judgement, no ridicule and a safe space to explore ideas that may be quite challenging to the students and their values (and maybe even give teachers some food for thought, too!).
Let me know how you get on with the worksheet, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, tagging me on Instagram or Twitter (both @katelanguages) or letting me know on Facebook.