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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.

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.