What is important to you? Today, it might be that you leave work on time (for the first time this week). Tomorrow it might be that you remember to collect your dry-cleaning.
What makes you happy? Today it might be your 6pm spin class. Tomorrow it might be that you are going on an external training course.
Although you may not always be consciously aware of it, your values inform, influence and guide your behaviour.
When life is good, and you feel fulfilled and happy, it is likely because you are living congruently with your values. If you are feeling unfulfilled with life or are experiencing stress or illness, it may be helpful to discover what your values are so that you can start making committed changes towards living more in line with them.
Values are an integral part of Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) which is a mindfulness-based therapy and self-help approach. ACT’s goal is to help you create a rich and meaningful life while at the same time helping you to accept the difficulties that inevitably come with this. As an ACT therapist I have worked with many clients to help them identify their values so that they can live healthier, happier lives.
What are values?
Values are directions. Goals are signposts.
Values aren’t tangible things that we ‘accomplish’, ‘own’ or ‘achieve’; nor are they goals that we can tick off. While goals are an important aspect of achievement, they are often poor short-term motivators. For example, you may have the goal to be 2kg lighter in four weeks’ time; you can’t meet the goal today, and so you eat a piece of chocolate cake. If you value having a healthy body this can be an immediate motivator for you to not eat that piece of chocolate cake.
Values provide a blueprint for how you want to behave as a human being on an ongoing basis.
They are not about how you want to feel or what you want to get from others. Happiness is not a value, it is a feeling.
Values are subjective and up to you.
They do not need to be justified. They are not right or wrong; they are only right for you. I like pineapple on my pizza, you may hate it.
Values are not rules but are flexible without strict boundaries or limits.
If you start to treat your values as though they are rules you could miss their true worth and meaning.
Values are not always about making you feel good.
For example, you may value a healthy body but in order to move towards this goal you may need to have painful dental work done and accept the anxiety of visiting your dentist.
Values are as individual as you are.
They may change across your life time and be different across different life domains.
Values may need to be prioritised.
For example, my top value is caring for my family and others. When I am away from my family at a training conference, moving towards my value of learning, I am unable to do the caring for them that I value in the same way. On these occasions I love to prepare a tasty meal in advance or bake them a nice treat to enjoy. While I am at the training I can still move towards my caring value and I enjoy taking the time to talk and listen to others; if I can pick up a coffee for someone or help them with something I will.
How can defining your values help you?
Values give you purpose and direction and guide how you live your life.
Values can make goals more meaningful and help to provide motivation while you work towards achieving them. For example, if your goal is to work in the creative industry and your value is to be creative, until you are able to achieve this goal and align with this value in the workplace you can connect with this value in your free time.
Values help you to make choices and decisions.
For example, a client came to see me because she wasn’t sure whether to continue with a fairly new relationship. She identified that her values included: adventure, beauty (in objects and the environment) and social connections. The relationship was creating lots of opportunities for her to move towards these values which made her happy during those times, but she was deeply unhappy at others. By identifying her values it provided an opportunity to independently move towards them and she decided to end the relationship.
Values help you to build resilience by keeping you connected with your sense of purpose and direction despite change or stress.
I worked with a client who was feeling very stressed. I asked what had changed recently and she said it was so busy she was going in to work earlier each day to get everything done. She identified that one of her values was beauty (in herself) and mentioned that she had not had time to attend to her normal beauty regime. She had not realised the impact this was having on her wellbeing. She decided to get up half an hour earlier (and go to bed half an hour earlier) in order to do those things that were important to her. She immediately began to feel happier and more fulfilled and was able to manage her work situation much better.
How can you define your values?
There are many ways to identify and define your own values, including some great online exercises. I recommend spending around 30 minutes and for each of the four main domains write down a few words or sentences that answer the following questions.
Work: paid, voluntary, education, domestic chores
Love: family, friendships, relationships, parenting
Health: wellbeing, physical, spiritual
Leisure: entertainment, hobbies, relaxation
What is important to me? What am I good at? What do I really enjoy doing? What do I want to be remembered for? What are my skills? When am I the happiest? What makes me proud? What do I want to stand for in life?
Do you see any patterns? Recurrent themes across life domains may indicate your values, or you may find that you have different themes, and therefore values, within different domains.
Examples of values include adventure, excitement, fairness, integrity, independence, kindness, loyalty, patience, trust.
Define your values from what you have written – if this is challenging use one of the great values lists online to help you. Once you have a list of values rate them based on how important they are to you in your life at the moment. Aim to choose your top six most important values.
How do these core values make your feel when you read them? Would you be willing and comfortable to share these values with people you love or trust?
Write out these values and keep them somewhere so you can read them again. I recommend keeping all the notes you make when you do this values exercise. I find it interesting and helpful to look back at it when I redo this exercise, which I do every few months. Over the last few years I have found my own top six values have been fairly consistent although their priority has changed.
How can you live towards your values?
Now that you have identified your values, you can choose to commit to doing things that help you to move towards them. These things can be simple or small. There are many ways you can do this, but one way I like to do this is to pick one of my values and consciously focus on it over a day allowing it to inform or guide my behaviour.
I recommend you reflect weekly on how you have lived towards your values. Ask yourself what you can do more of next week and aim to increase your values-based actions week by week. You may find that when you are behaving more in line with your values you may want to change or discard old patterns of behaviour, beliefs or opinions that are not congruent with them. Remember that moving towards your values is not always about feeling good and you may find yourself navigating some difficult thoughts or feelings while still moving towards your values. Finally, regularly check-in with your top values, especially if you begin to feel unfulfilled.
When you know your values and make choices and decisions that guide your behaviour in the support of these values, this can help you create a healthier and happier life.
There are lots of free ACT resources available online as well as some wonderful (and life improving) books. I love anything written by Dr Russ Harris, particularly his book “The Happiness Trap” which I thoroughly recommend.