Getting in Touch with Your Values

What Are Values?

Values are guiding principles of your life; they are usually enduring and long lasting, although it is definitely possible for them to change as you evolve as a person. Values are the important concepts, attitudes and ideas that matter most to you. Values are personal, and nobody else can decide for you what you value. Only you can know what you care about, and you can't normally make yourself care about something you don't value. Values are not goals that you can accomplish and complete, but they may be sources of the goals that you have and want to complete.

An example of a value is justice. It's really important to some people, and less important to others. If's it's one of your highest values, then, although you can't tick it off a list as something you've done, you can live according to it. You might, for instance, notice that the way that pay is allocated at your work is unjust. If you really value justice, then you may make a goal to take action, and discuss the pay situation with your workplace. If you don't value justice, then you are less likely to take any action.

Values give our lives meaning. They infuse the events and situations in our lives with a sense of purpose, and indicate to us which things we want to put energy into, and which things that we can leave out.

Why Are Values Important?

Values are important because there is evidence that people who live harmony with their values enjoy greater wellbeing, and weather the challenges of life with energy and persistence. People whose actions are in conflict with their values feel overwhelmed by the challenges in their lives, and express frustration and hopelessness.

Consider this example; let's take a person who really values honesty. At their work, they discover that the product they have been marketing is faulty, and management is aware, but they have decided not to inform staff, and sell the products anyway. A person who does not place a high value on honesty might not have a problem with this. The person who values honesty, however, is likely to feel that some action is required. Whether the person takes the difficult step of confronting their managers, whistle-blowing, or seeking alternative employment, they are likely to experience some difficulties and stress in relation to the action they take. If the stress they experience is driven by an important value, they will be willing to endure it, because they know they are doing the right thing. On the other hand, the stress associated with violating your values, in this case, continuing to market the faulty product, is more likely to disturb and frustrate this person, and less likely to be tolerable to them.

When you really value something, you are likely to happily, or at least patiently, endure a hardship in order to work towards your value. Some people have been willing to go to prison or die for their values. When you have to endure a hardship for something you don't care about, you are less likely to persevere. When you have to endure a hardship for something that violates your values, frustration, stress, anxiety and depression are likely results.

Can I Identify My Own Values?

There are several ways to identify your own values if you aren't in touch with them at the moment. Values can change over the course of your lifetime, and sometimes significant events will challenge and change your values. If you spend time getting in touch with your values today, it's important to review them from time to time so that you are in touch with yourself now, not the you from 5 years ago. It is worthwhile, however, to get in touch with your values because, particularly in our culture of advertising, you may find that there is lots of encouragement around you to adopt values that may not be true to your own.

If you don't take the time to explore your own values, then you may be living in conflict with your values without even realising it. This can result in feelings of emptiness and frustration.

  • Think about the main domains of your life, and list things that might matter to you. – Some important domains of life may be:
    • Relationships
    • Work / Education / Volunteering
    • Health
    • Leisure / Hobbies
    • Spirituality
  • Think About What Does and Does not Matter to You – If you think about important things in your life, and things that other people find important, you can learn to listen to your body's responses.
    • Imagine having something that people value, for instance: financial security, wealth, children, a life partner, world peace, a job that contributes to society, etc...
    • Does it feel meaningful to imagine having it?
    • Does it feel upsetting to imagine never having it?
    • Are you indifferent?
    • Your responses tell you how much you value these things.
  • 80th Birthday Exercise – Imagine that you are turning 80, and the most important people in your life are going to be there. Imagine that this is a great party, exactly as you'd like it to be. Choose three people that you love and respect to give a speech or write a card about you, and to talk about what a great life you've had. Make this your fantasy 80th birthday, where these people can be anyone you want, even if it's impossible that they would be at your 80th birthday, and they say everything you would want to hear about your life. What do they talk about? Are you on track for this?
  • Values Sort Cards – Therapists who work with motivational interviewing and acceptance and commitment therapy have developed values sort cards, with common values on the cards, that you can sort into categories: important to me, not important to me, and very important to me. You can purchase these online.

How Can I Live More in Harmony with My Values?

Once you've identified your values, it's worth asking how closely you're living according to them. If you look at the important domains in your life, are you satisfied that your values are being met? If not, what changes could you make to improve the harmony between your life and your values?

What steps can you take to life a more meaningful, valued life?

  • List the problems in your current life that are preventing you from living according to your values, and decide which one to tackle first.
  • Take each problem one at a time.
  • For each problem, brainstorm possible solutions. List every idea you have without being critical or considering how realistic it is.
  • Once you have a complete list, look at each option, and consider the Pros and Cons of the solution. Do this in writing if it will help you to think more clearly.
  • When you've settled on the best solution, break it down into small, specific, achievable steps.
  • Decide on realistic dates that you can attempt those steps, and commit to taking action to live a more valued life.
  • Once you've taken some action, make a time to evaluate how it went, and think about how to keep going, or try a new solution if it didn't work out.

Living a valued life is not always easy, and you will encounter obstacles, but if you have taken the time to be familiar with and confident of your values, those challenges will seem well worth it!

For More Information

Academic References

Arkowitz, H, Henny A. Westra, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick (2007) Motivational Interviewing in the Treatment of Psychological Problems (Applications of Motivational Interviewing)

Harris, R (2007) The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living. Australia: Exisle Publishing.

Hayes SC and Smith S (2005) Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life. New Harbinger Publications.