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The Nature Of Interest

We saw in an earlier chapter that personal habits have their rise in
race habits or instincts. Let us now see how interest helps the
individual to select from his instinctive acts those which are useful to
build into personal habits. Instinct impartially starts the child in the
performance of many different activities, but does not dictate what
particular acts shall be retained to serve as the basis for habits.
Interest comes in at this point and says, This act is of more value
than that act; continue this act and drop that. Instinct prompts the
babe to countless movements of body and limb. Interest picks out those
that are most vitally connected with the welfare of the organism, and
the child comes to prefer these rather than the others. Thus it is that
out of the random movements of arms and legs and head and body we
finally develop the cooerdinated activities which are infinitely more
useful than the random ones were. And these activities, originating in
instincts, and selected by interest, are soon crystallized into habits.

INTEREST A SELECTIVE AGENT.--The same truth holds for mental activities
as for physical. A thousand channels lie open for your stream of thought
at this moment, but your interest has beckoned it into the one
particular channel which, for the time, at least, appears to be of the
greatest subjective value; and it is now following that channel unless
your will has compelled it to leave that for another. Your thinking as
naturally follows your interest as the needle does the magnet, hence
your thought activities are conditioned largely by your interests. This
is equivalent to saying that your mental habits rest back finally upon
your interests.

Everyone knows what it is to be interested; but interest, like other
elementary states of consciousness, cannot be rigidly defined. (1)
Subjectively considered, interest may be looked upon as a feeling
attitude which assigns our activities their place in a subjective scale
of values, and hence selects among them. (2) Objectively considered, an
interest is the object which calls forth the feeling. (3) Functionally
considered, interest is the dynamic phase of consciousness.

in driving a horse rather than in riding a bicycle, it is because the
former has a greater subjective value to you than the latter. If you are
interested in reading these words instead of thinking about the next
social function or the last picnic party, it is because at this moment
the thought suggested appeals to you as of more value than the other
lines of thought. From this it follows that your standards of values are
revealed in the character of your interests. The young man who is
interested in the race track, in gaming, and in low resorts confesses by
the fact that these things occupy a high place among the things which
appeal to him as subjectively valuable. The mother whose interests are
chiefly in clubs and other social organizations places these higher in
her scale of values than her home. The reader who can become interested
only in light, trashy literature must admit that matter of this type
ranks higher in his subjective scale of values than the works of the
masters. Teachers and students whose strongest interest is in grade
marks value these more highly than true attainment. For, whatever may be
our claims or assertions, interest is finally an infallible barometer of
the values we assign to our activities.

In the case of some of our feelings it is not always possible to ascribe
an objective side to them. A feeling of ennui, of impending evil, or of
bounding vivacity, may be produced by an unanalyzable complex of causes.
But interest, while it is related primarily to the activities of the
self, is carried over from the activity to the object which occasions
the activity. That is, interest has both an objective and a subjective
side. On the subjective side a certain activity connected with
self-expression is worth so much; on the objective side a certain object
is worth so much as related to this self-expression. Thus we say, I have
an interest in books or in business; my daily activities, my
self-expression, are governed with reference to these objects. They are
my interests.

INTEREST DYNAMIC.--Many of our milder feelings terminate within
ourselves, never attaining sufficient force as motives to impel us to
action. Not so with interest. Its very nature is dynamic. Whatever it
seizes upon becomes ipso facto an object for some activity, for some
form of expression of the self. Are we interested in a new book, we must
read it; in a new invention, we must see it, handle it, test it; in some
vocation or avocation, we must pursue it. Interest is impulsive. It
gives its possessor no opportunity for lethargic rest and quiet, but
constantly urges him to action. Grown ardent, interest becomes
enthusiasm, without which, says Emerson, nothing great was ever
accomplished. Are we an Edison, with a strong interest centered in
mechanical invention, it will drive us day and night in a ceaseless
activity which scarcely gives us time for food and sleep. Are we a
Lincoln, with an undying interest in the Union, this motive will make
possible superhuman efforts for the accomplishment of our end. Are we
man or woman anywhere, in any walk of life, so we are dominated by
mighty interests grown into enthusiasm for some object, we shall find
great purposes growing within us, and our life will be one of activity
and achievement. On the contrary, a life which has developed no great
interest lacks motive power. Of necessity such a life must be devoid of
purpose and hence barren of results, counting little while it is being
lived, and little missed by the world when it is gone.

HABIT ANTAGONISTIC TO INTEREST.--While, as we have seen, interest is
necessary to the formation of habits, yet habits once formed are
antagonistic to interest. That is, acts which are so habitually
performed that they do themselves are accompanied by a minimum of
interest. They come to be done without attentive consciousness, hence
interest cannot attach to their performance. Many of the activities
which make up the daily round of our lives are of this kind. As long as
habit is being modified in some degree, as long as we are improving in
our ways of doing things, interest will still cling to the process; but
let us once settle into an unmodified rut, and interest quickly fades
away. We then have the conditions present which make of us either a
machine or a drudge.

Next: Direct And Indirect Interest

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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