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Healing Space | The value of intangibles

Should we put our faith in what we can’t see, measure, quantify or otherwise value?

November 27, 2021 / 08:00 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

The argument against cryptocurrency is that it doesn’t stand for anything tangible. It simply has an assigned value collectively agreed upon. And yet, once, salt which we now purchase for Rs 2 to 20 depending on what variety and quantity you buy, was currency. Shares stand for the goods and services, bonds for borrowings, lendings, the gold standard had its equal measure, and yet do goods, services, debt bonds or even gold have value unless we value them? How do we assign value to the things in our life that we cannot measure?

And yet we do it all the time. We buy down priced shares or debt based on the reputation of the company, their ethics, the promise of their fulfilment, the standing of their board of directors, their work ethic, all of which are intangible assets. On the other hand, no matter how high priced an IPO is and with what bombast it comes through, you can’t get people to subscribe if they are not fundamentally convinced by the noise and parade. The entire sum of socio-psychological assets a company holds is its intangible wealth.

If anything, this week has shown us that the intangible matters more, not less, than the tangible backing that a company has. In times of dubious backers, no matter how powerful, the market senses a scam and cools its heels.

We are also constantly assigning intangible value to our lives to make them more meaningful. This is in the form of art, valued at more than the value of the materials it is constructed from. Italian artist Salvatore Garau sold his sculpture of the Buddha, ‘I Am’ for 15,000 Euros in 2020. It was made of nothing, which was a statement on the Buddha’s principle of Shunyata as an absolute truth.


We find value in love, which artists and poets have been trying to describe for millennia, and we still cannot find a definition of. We cannot say what happiness is, or what exact things make us happy.

A concerted process of psychological and spiritual enquiry (or just watching Succession) begin to reveal to us that no matter the amount of money we make, the super-rich remain miserable. And the value of our lives comes from the intangibles; the sense of purpose, the feeling of belonging, of being productive and pride that comes from success, or positive feedback for our contributions. Some of these do have tangible output to accompany them, but you pin your daughter’s artwork on your soft board long after you realise it has no inherent value, for a reason. The memory of her childhood has value for you.

Our values also come in tangible and intangible forms. Tangible value derives worth from its association with another thing that is inherently good. Intangible value holds value because it is inherently good.

Organisations give employees vacations even when the days off eat into vital deadlines because the happiness and work-life balance of the employee is inherently good in itself. While companies make the mistake of valuing that in terms of tangible benefit, i.e., metrics that prove productivity increases if the individual is well-rested, that is a measure that devalues the intangible asset. A company that only gives time off to be able to exploit the employee later (you may find that sometimes your boss dumps you with extra work when you return from vacation), is minimising the value of your time off. People quit their jobs, as with the Great Resignation, no matter how much of a pay hike they get, when the gap between assigned inherent value differs from tangible value.

Intangible value will always be stronger than tangible value because being intrinsic, its value does not diminish based on external forces. There’s a point where you say, “I’m not sitting at work beyond 6 o’clock for my own sanity.” You prioritise the most you’re willing to buy-in. Since the limit is self-defined, you’re not only more likely to stick to it, like any good investor, you’re also exiting without risking your portfolio to a fear of missing out.

Healing Space 30 How to define your intangible values boxNow you know what to move towards and how to negotiate when you look for the opportunity you want.
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of 'Sit Your Self Down', a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and 'Anitya', a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
first published: Nov 27, 2021 08:00 pm
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