Our values include time and money

Music and singing is a longtime hobby for me. It gives me great pleasure, which is the primary reason that people have hobbies. I have spent a lot of time over the last few decades developing my ear and my voice.

I have recently started developing a new skill that integrates with previous skills. We have had a piano in our home since our kids were small, and it has been a while since it was tuned. I decided that I would learn how to tune it, recognizing that it is a specialized skill that takes significant time to learn and also hours of time for each physical tuning process.

Still, I love a challenge, and I set aside a significant chunk of time for it, but it took a lot more than I allocated. In future tunings I expect I will get better and quicker, but a professional piano tuner could have done it in far less time, and the result might have been better. If you divide the fee a professional charges by the hours it took me, I didn’t make a very good wage or investment in time, which highlights a problem with the concept of value in a lot of economic thinking. Many people believe that economic activity occurs only when money is involved. Gross domestic product embeds this thinking in national statistics.

Piano tuning is just one of the thousands of things that people might do around their homes that are not compensated. Yesterday a neighbor came over and asked to borrow some baking soda. That is a small thing, but people often help neighbors, friends, and family with no thought of compensation. Most people belong to churches, fraternal orders, or other community groups, for which they donate a tremendous amount of time. None of this production of goods or services can be measured objectively and, thus, is excluded from the statistics. All of it, however, is valued by someone, somewhere, and all of it adds to the well-being of the individuals in society.

Value is an interesting concept that people don’t typically give much thought to, though they use it unconsciously throughout the day, every day. Whenever someone makes a decision, he or she is deciding which expected outcome is more valuable, which result will create more happiness, more income, more time, or from another perspective, less heartache, less stress, and so on. On a mundane basis, we speak of the market value of something as its selling price, but price itself is fluid. Not everyone pays the same price, and not everyone buys or abstains from buying for the same reasons. There are always, in every instance, non-monetary factors that play into our decisions.

In my immediate case, learning to tune a piano does not make much economic sense if I consider the benefit as an hourly rate of pay or, more realistically, an hourly rate of saving. Economic sense, however, has to do with more than money exchanges. I value my time and the other things that I can do or need to get done. Those other things that I can’t do are the price I pay for the time I spend. In this circumstance, the value I placed on learning the new skill was greater than the value I placed on the alternative uses of time and resources.

That is the case of every hobby or volunteer activity where time is given to an activity with no expectation of monetary reward. The reward is internal, in satisfaction, in relationship-building, in happiness, and other such things, and that reward is different for every person. Value is personal and not objectively measurable.

Dan McLaughlin, a Randolph resident, is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com.