Life can often feel like an endless checklist of tasks to accomplish and goals to achieve. Sometimes we can get wrapped up in the checklist and lose sight of the reason behind our actions. Allowing ourselves to take a step back and identify the why behind our actions provides space for us to live our lives with intention and bring greater meaning to the checklist of goals we make for ourselves. Living with intention begins with clarifying our values and creating goals that are in alignment with our values. Over the past few years as a therapist — and in my own personal life — I’ve found that the day-to-day stressors we face, and the goals we set out to achieve, can overshadow our values and we can find ourselves lost and unhappy.
To start off, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘values’.
According to Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapy, values are like a compass “giving direction and guidance [to an] ongoing journey.”
Another perspective on values that I like comes from Russ Harris, who says that values are “your heart’s deepest desires for how you want to behave in life, the way you want to interact with and relate to the world, other people, and yourself.”
The origin of our values can come from various sources and may change over time. Values are different from goals because they can never quite be “achieved.” Instead, they serve as motivators for us as we move through life.
Hayes breaks down values into 5 key points:
1. Values are here and now; goals are in the future
2. Values never need to be justified.
3. Values often need to be prioritized
4. Values are best held lightly
5. Values are freely chosen
Our society is very much goal-focused, making it easy to get distracted and distanced from value-focused living. Without identifying our values, life can feel purposeless and without meaning. Sure, we may be achieving goals and finding success, but our success may not be in congruence with what matters to us in the big picture. This disconnect between goals and values can impact our wellbeing and lead to mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. Values are important as they allow us to appreciate the moments when we are fulfilling our values and find joy in the journey.
As your understanding of values grow, you may wonder where you should start with your own value identification. As a therapist, I have found that many people feel uneasy when asked about their values; I remember having the same nervous feeling the first time I was asked. The question that Harris poses can feel overwhelming and too big to tackle: “deep down, what is important to you?”
Thankfully, Harris and others have provided guidance to assist the process of identifying values.