What matters and is important to me? How Values Can Give Us a Sense of Direction in Life
Updated: Aug 4
This is a topic that comes up frequently in sessions with clients and always sparks a very interesting conversation about values. Values are useful to explore for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s important to think about what values actually are in this context and how they are different to goals. A metaphor can be helpful for this – values give us direction, like a compass point, whereas goals are more like the destination that the direction gets us to. When we act in line with our values it has a beneficial impact on our wellbeing, so when thinking about goals and what we want to get out of life, if we incorporate a consideration of our personal values into the mix it can really enhance the goals that we set ourselves.
Values give us a sense of direction in life
Another way in which values can help us is connected to motivation. We all have commitments and responsibilities that are challenging and difficult. When we think about doing these things we may experience difficult thoughts such as “it’s boring”, “I don’t want to do it”, “it’s awful” and what travels with that flavour of thinking…none other than difficult and challenging emotions – perhaps some anxiety, or frustration, or even disgust!
Take for example the chore of cleaning the toilet. It’s not a pleasant job and I doubt anyone finds it a fun task (I certainly don’t) and if I think about “having” to do it then I immediately get thoughts along the lines of “uggh that’s such a tedious task” “I hate doing it” “why can’t someone else do it” – that kind of thinking weighs heavy and can attract feelings such as low mood and resentment. This can then contribute to avoidance type behaviours…”I can always do it later”.
But if I ask myself “why would I want to do it?” and try to connect with my values, then I’m thinking about the importance I place in looking after my home, myself, my family and my guests. This immediately feels lighter – it doesn’t feel like such a burden because I am relating the task to things that are meaningful and important to me.
Values can give us motivation
We all have a sense of our values and our moral outlook, but my guess is that if I gave you a blank sheet of paper and asked you to write down a list of your values then it wouldn’t be the easiest of tasks. I have various exercises to help clients think about this, and one is to invite them to think about who they admire.
Usually when we admire someone it is because they have personal qualities that resonate with us and we would seek to emulate. It’s really important that when we do this, we think about the qualities of that person, rather than their circumstances or material situation – so rather than citing Bill Gates because he’s a successful magnate with a huge fortune (which represents his destination), it would be thinking about what his personal characteristics are that got him there – apparently as a child he was small for his age and bullied, but he was curious, imaginative, diligent and prepared to take risks…qualities that served him well throughout the years as he took chances on opportunities that others may have not been brave enough to take (for example, dropping out of Harvard University to follow his dream of setting up his own company).
Another way of identifying our values is to reflect on our past and identify the times when we felt at our best. See if you can pinpoint the times in your life when you were happiest, proudest, most fulfilled and satisfied - both in your working/student life and your personal life. Think about why you were feeling that way on those occasions, how these feelings gave your life meaning and purpose, what other people were involved, and if there were any other factors that contributed to you feeling that way.
Once you have put together a list of different values see if you can narrow it down to no more than five. This process of prioritising can be a really interesting exercise and helps us to think about what is really important to us and where our priorities lie. Then you can start to think about how you are living out these core values in life…and if you find you’re missing the mark, it will provide an opportunity to consider whether a change in direction might be in order to get you back on track towards living your best life.
James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, sets himself an annual exercise in which he uses his core values to reflect on whether he is living as the best version of himself – he calls it his integrity report and reflects on the following questions:
What are the core values that drive my life and work?
How am I living and working with integrity right now?
How can I set a higher standard in the future?
Why don’t you give it a go and see what you come up with…then let me know in the comments section below how you got on.