The start of a new year is often a time when people make new year’s resolutions and set goals for what they want to accomplish in the coming year. From extensive research we know that well-defined goals increase the likelihood that we will achieve the things we want.
Goals are future oriented, something that we are striving to achieve, change or obtain at a later time. Interestingly, people who become overly goal-focused may also experience frustration and a lack of fulfilment. Their focus on the future and achieving the next milestone may mean they put off experiencing joy or success until the goal has been achieved. Often I hear statements such as “once I lose that five kilograms (goal) then I will feel much happier”, or “when I get that promotion (goal) work will be so much more satisfying”. In both scenarios, happiness and satisfaction is tied to achieving a goal.
However, what if the goal is not achieved or it takes considerable time to accomplish? How can we experience meaning and purpose every day? One answer to those questions is to take stock of, clarify and make a conscious choice to act on our values.
What are values?
Values are what we want to stand for in life, how we want to behave and the global qualities of our actions – Russ Harris, MD The Happiness Trap. Values are something that you can do on an ongoing basis, for example, being loving, accepting, curious, assertive, fair, or nurturing. In contrast, being happy, confident or content are not values, these are feelings or emotional outcomes. Being respected, valued or loved are also not values, as these relate to how others behave towards you.
What is so special about values?
Values are an expression of what really matters to us. Acting on our values brings meaning, purpose and fulfilment that comes from being true to ourselves. Values can be used in every facet of our life, our relationships, our work, our health and our leisure time. Knowing our values can help us make choices about how we might act in response to stressful or challenging situations. Despite how we are feeling, we can still take actions that are in line with our values. For example, in the midst of discussing a sensitive issue with your partner, how do you want to behave? Is it with hostility or avoidance? Is this in line with your values as a partner? Or do you want to engage with honesty and compassion? Being in touch with your values can help you to respond more effectively, engage fully in your life, even when faced with emotionally difficult situations.
Unlike goals, values are ongoing, they aren’t completed and can’t be crossed off your bucket list as “achieved”. Values are not future focused, they are accessible here and now, we can choose to behave in ways aligned to them in each moment. Values aren’t dependent on whether or not we achieve a goal. They are flexible; there are multiple ways in which you can act on your values at any given time. When our behaviours don’t align to our values, people may feel lost, our achievements may feel empty and our experiences may lack a sense of meaning.
How can I use values in my life?
In relationships, being clear on our values helps us to define the qualities of our own behaviour and the sort of partner we want to be (for example, supportive, caring, affectionate). Acting on our values in a relationship can be very empowering. Even though we can’t control how our partner behaves, we do have control over how we act and respond, which can help pave the way for constructive communication and meaningful engagement with our partner.
As a parent, acting in ways that align to the sort of parent we want to be (which might include values such as being nurturing, patient, curious, as examples), can help us derive meaning, especially on days we feel like we are down in the trenches, sleep-deprived, and when pursuing any goal may seem impossible. Knowing our values can also be helpful in guiding how we behave when we are dealing with difficult parenting situations (e.g., toddler tantrums, rebellious teenage behaviour).
Workplaces are often goal-driven environments, but they can also be complex and fluid. Acting on our values allow us to be purposeful in our actions even if there is ambiguity. As a leader, behaving in line with our values (which might include authenticity, encouragement, fairness) also provides consistency for our direct reports, providing them with a sense of stability and certainty about the future.
If values are so important, should I forget about my goals?
Values and goals serve different purposes. Goals help to keep us moving while values are like a compass, providing direction and a link between our goals, giving them meaning. To help live a values-based life, use your values as a starting point when setting goals and taking action towards your goals. If values underpin your actions, then the outcome of your goals becomes less important in leading a rich and meaningful life.
So before the year marches on, consider making time re-visit or discover your values. What do you want to stand for and how do you want to behave? If you are working towards a goal, ask yourself if it is aligned with what truly matters to you? Think about the little things you could do to take values-guided action in different areas of your life each day.
Emma Wienker is a Psychologist and works with people experiencing various life transitions and challenges. Helping clients identify their values is a central part in supporting clients on their journey to make meaningful changes, find alternative ways to reduce their struggle with painful thoughts and feelings, and engage fully in a purposeful life.
For more reading on values see Russ Harris, MD: ACT With Love and The Happiness Trap.