“A Rich, Full, Meaningful Life: Part 1 - Your Life.”
Would you like to live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life?
Would you like to feel empowered in life, love, relationships, parenting, family life, and work, no matter what twists, turns, ups and downs, changes, and challenges life throws at you?
It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life, and bogged down in chores, driving kids to extra curriculars, and work. But what if you could find a way to stop being a cog in the machine of life? Connecting with your values is a fantastic way to do just that.
“When you go through life guided by your values, not only do you gain a sense of vitality and joyfulness, but you also experience that life can be rich, full and meaningful, even when bad things happen.”
1. What are Values?
“Values describe what you want to do. And how you want to do it – how you want to behave towards your friends, your family, your neighbours, your body, your environment, your work, etc.”
When we talk about values, we are talking about statements that we make about what matters to us in terms of how we want to live life and be in the world – what we want to be doing in life, where we want to invest time, energy and focus in the world, how we want to act and what type of person we would like to be e.g., a loving partner/parent, a loyal friend, honest, courageous, generous, hard-working. But values are more than statements, they are guiding principles that help us find our way, inspire us in our actions, and motivate us as we journey through life.
Defining your values, these guiding principles, helps you to know what matters to you, what it is that you truly want your life to be about. When you know this, you are then able to make intentional choices based on your principles rather than drifting through life or living reactively to things that happen.
“Values are desired qualities of action” (Russ Harris) and this means that values describe what we want our actions to be in an ongoing way as we journey through life.
Jenna LeJeune and Jason Luoma say “It often takes a crisis or significant loss to make us stop the autopilot of our lives, focus on what really matters, and live life with vigor. But what if it were possible to live with that kind of clarity of purpose and values without something terrible needing to happen.”
It is absolutely possible to live with clarity of purpose and values.
“Living a values-based life is about living with intention, consciously choosing to live out a well-lived life, whatever that means to you personally.” Jenna LeJeune and Jason Luoma
In a nutshell, a values-congruent life can help make life richer, fuller, and more meaningful.
2. Why are Values Important?
Values are important because they show the direction we choose in life, in much the same way that a compass shows direction. We keep our values with us and consult them as needed just like when we are hiking we have our compass with us and look at it when we need to check our direction. Values are important but don’t worry we don’t have to spend 100% our time 100% focused on our values. We do consult our values when we need direction and guidance, especially when we are at a crossroads or managing challenging times. This means that when we are living by our values, we are living into a direction that’s part of the ongoing journey of life – so values are about the journey not the destination.
“Life is a journey, not a destination.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Living meaningfully is very much about how you navigate the journey with all the changes and challenges that life throws at us. If we can get clear on our values we can live a purposeful, meaningful life regardless of what happens because we are living according to our chosen life directions. The added bonus is that having choice is empowering.
3. Values and Tough Times
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Life if full of changes and challenges, ups and downs, and for some of us, adverse experiences.
When we are feeling pressured, stressed, anxious, depressed or if we’ve experienced a loss or trauma, we can become distressed and get caught up in unhelpful thinking patterns, even rumination, or attempts to avoid unpleasant feelings, thoughts, or situations. And sometimes this happens in unhealthy ways that don’t serve us like shopping too much, consistently avoiding, or relying on substances. In times like this we can lose touch with our values, but being connected to our values will guide us through.
Identify your values, keep them somewhere you can refer back to, and review them as needed.
Connecting to values in the journey of life provides choice, meaning and purpose. We cannot control the hand we are dealt in life, but we can sure decide what type of person we’d like to be as we play that hand, and decide how we want to play it.
“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction that you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
4. A Common Mistake: Values and Goals
Often in life we are encouraged to work towards goals to achieve things. e.g., to complete some studies, get a great job, buy a car, buy a house, be in a relationship, to achieve a sense of happiness and belonging. Goals are something you want to get, have, or complete. Goals are great and they can be markers to show we are on course, but values are more helpful to prioritize.
Values can help you set goals. Values are different from goals you achieve because they are about ongoing action – how you want to behave or act in an ongoing way, what type of person you would like to be in life’s journey and so you never fully “achieve” them. Think of it this way – if life is a roller coaster we all ride, then our values help us in how we ride the roller coaster….no matter what type of ride it is that we have. Our values might be seen in the qualities we exhibit on the ride (e.g., perseverance and grit, joy and gratitude, freedom, fun, courage), and these qualities are available to use at any point in the ride, the ups, the downs, the twists and turns.
This means that values allow flexibility and are empowering because they are always available to us as opposed to a goal we may not have achieved yet, and it’s a key difference between values and goals because goals aren’t always available. We can’t guarantee we will achieve certain goals especially with the unexpected twists and turns that can happen in life, but we always have the choice in any given moment to act on our values. In living a values based life we have the power to choose to face whatever life throws at us, the good, great, amazing and the stressful and challenging, on our own terms.
Let’s look at some examples to help get clear on this:
Goal: Achieve a certain weight – Value: Healthy eating or caring for your body
Goal: Get married – Value: Be a loving partner
Goal: Better job – Value: Hard work
Goal: Own a house – Value: Support your family
Goal: Give thoughtful presents – Value: Consideration in caring
Goal: Feel happy – Value: Kindness and friendliness to others
It’s definitely okay to want goals, and to work towards them. It’s also important to acknowledge that we can’t always control what happens in life. And so empowerment and choice come from focusing on what is within our control – connecting with our values. And of course, you can set goals later, once you know what your values are.
Here’s a fun clip with another great example
5. Understanding and Identifying Your Values
Some Key Points to Help Understand Values:
Values are Here and Now (Goals are Future): Because values are in the here and now you can choose to act on them anytime, in any given moment. The emphasis is on living in each moment by our values to achieve satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment rather than achieving a specific goal. In this sense you’ll never complete your values because they are not goals.
Remember goals are okay, even great, but if life isn’t working exactly as you’d like it to in order to achieve the goal and goals are you only focus, life can feel frustrating, stressful and unfulfilling. Living by you values on the other hand is always possible no matter what happens.
“Success is living by our values.” Russ Harris
Values Never Need to be Justified: Because values are statements about what’s meaningful to us and we are all unique human beings, we never need to justify ourselves. It’s like chocolate – some people prefer milk chocolate, some dark chocolate, some white chocolate; some prefer chocolate in the fridge and some in the cupboard - you get where I am going with this :) You don’t have to justify your chocolate preference and you don’t have to justify your values. Values are freely chosen and not the result of reasoning or outside pressures. That means that only you can choose your values.
Values Need to Be Prioritized: Because we have multiple values and they are all available to us in any moment, we will need to choose which values to prioritize in which moment. E.g., you may value caring, loyal, connected relationships but find that a friend is not treating you with care and respect. In a situation like this you may need to prioritize your values of self-care and fairness. You haven’t lost your other values, you’ve just prioritized the ones needed in this instance.
“Always take a stand for yourself, your values. You are defined by what you stand for.”
“We don't have control over other people's attachment to their ideas of how the world should be. But we do have control over living by our values, and if there's one thing we can measure, it's how closely you are living by your values and taking action towards the things that you decide make life meaningful and worthwhile.”
Values are Best Held Lightly: Values are incredibly helpful, but only if they don’t become restrictive and oppressive. Russ Harris explains this beautifully using a compass metaphor, “When you go on a journey, you don’t want to clutch the compass tightly every step of the way – you want to carry it in your backpack, knowing anytime you need it to steer a course or find your way, you can instantly pull it out and use it.”
Values are Freely Chosen: Values aren’t something that’s imposed on us, they are something we choose. Values are not something we have to do – we choose to act in accordance with our values because it matters to use. It’s a conscious choice, not a “have to”. As a family therapist I find that a lot of people have unconsciously accepted values that have been handed down through the generations. It can be helpful to take time out to consider what has been passed down, and which values we choose from our family legacy. We can also choose values that haven’t been a part of our family of origin.
6. Identifying Your Values
There are a number of different ways to identify your values. Here’s a selection for you to choose one that works for you.
Values List: Read the following list of values and circle your top 5. If you have trouble identifying just 5, make a shortlist first and then go from there. You may also have values that aren’t on this list that you’d like to add.
After choose your values use these questions from Harris, 2007 (p210) to reflect:
- Which of the above values are the most important to me?
- Which of them am I actively living by, right now?
- Which of them am I most neglecting?
- Which are the most important to start working on right away?
Speeches Activity: (From Harris, 2009: 201)
Imagine your eightieth birthday (or twenty-first or fiftieth or retirement party, and so on). Two or three people make speeches about what you stand for, what you mean to them, the role you played in their life. In the IDEAL world, where you have lived your life as the person you want to be, what would you hear them saying?
Happiness Trap Website Worksheet:
Values Reflection Questions:
What sort of person do you want to be? What strengths or qualities do you want to develop? What do you want to stand for?
If you put aside your stresses and worries, what would you start doing? What would you do more of? What would you do less of? What would you stop doing? What might this say about what matters to you?
If you weren’t struggling with the way you feel what would you channel your time and energy into?
If you weren’t avoiding your fears, how would you invest your time and energy?
When do you feel a sense of purpose, meaning, fulfillment, or energy? What situations are you in? Who are you with? What might this say about what matters to you?
Right now, at this point in life, what are you doing that fits well with your ideas about who you are as person? And how you want to be living your life? Is there anything you are doing that doesn’t fit? What might this say about what matters to you?
If you weren’t influenced by other people’s judgements and opinions what would you be doing?
What sort of relationships do you want to build?
Which important relationships in life are going well? How do you act in these relationships that helps them go well? What might this stay about what matters to you?
What sort of partner, mother/father, brother/sister, friend, colleague, employee, do you want to be?
7. Living Your Values
“Values and committed action involve the effective use of language to facilitate life-enhancing action. In other words, “Doing what matters””. Russ Harris
And so, values are not just about choosing how you’d like to journey through life, it is about organising your behaviour “such that it serves those ends in a consistent, holistic, and sustainable way” (Jenna Lejeune and Jason Luoma). This is important because research shows that knowing what’s personally important doesn’t improve lives, it’s acting in line with what’s important that improves lives.
“Through values we choose what would, for us personally, be a meaningful life and then, through the process of living out those values, we create meaning.”
Jenna Lejeune and Jason Luoma
It’s one thing to identify your values, it’s a bit trickier to live by them. Values congruent living is about transforming values into action, and not just one off actions, but “patterns of repeatedly returning to our values, no matter how many times we lose touch with them” Russ Harris.
If you’d like to make a change in life – here’s some great values questions that will also help with sustained behaviour change.
If you’d like to dive deeper into values based living for different domains of life, the Bullseye Activity is a great way to start.
This activity asks you to map where you are in terms of values based living in different life domains. After you complete the worksheet, ask yourself if you are happy with how you are living, and if so, what you are doing that you would like to keep doing. If you would like to move more towards values based living in any domain a great ideas is to use scaling. Give yourself a number our of 10 for the aspect of life (10 being fully living in a values based way), and then think about one practical, tangible step you could take to move just one number up the scale e.g., if you rated yourself as a 4, what is one small step you can take to move up to a 5. Revisit this activity to consolidate your movement towards values based living, and to keep taking more small achievable steps in the direction of you values.
And remember, kids learn a lot from watching the important people in their lives – so values based living in action is powerful for them to see. Perhaps even more powerful than talking with them or letting them over hear you talking about values.
It’s also important to keep in mind that deciding to focus on living a values based life can be harder than you think. “Connecting with our values can be uncomfortable – because sometimes when we connect with our values we realise that we’ve [actually] been neglecting them” (Russ Harris). If this happen for your, practice self-compassion – we all lose connection with our values at times, and it is important to be gentle with ourselves as we connect with values.
Sometimes we need a little help to decrease our reactivity and increase our psychological flexibility in order to engage in values based living, especially when life has involved significant challenges, losses and trauma. If you are finding it hard to live by the values you choose you might like to reach out to find a Counsellor, Mental Health Professional or Family Therapist.
8. Where Do Values Come From, and Where do They Go?
Have you ever thought about where your values come from? Or what values you’d like to pass on to future generations? If can be interesting and very helpful to think about where our values come from. Like a lot of aspects of life, they are often a part of our family of origin legacy and our backpack of life – the accumulation of everything and every person we’ve experienced and how this has shaped us. In our individual, parenting and family values we can unconsciously either repeat what we experienced or do the direct opposite!
Find out more about the backpack of life in this animation I created
Here’s some questions to help you reflect on where your values might have come from:
What values have been handed down through the generations of your family?
Do you know any family stories that explain these values?
Which of these values matter to you?
What personal and family values have you unconsciously taken on? Is this okay with you or not?
What personal and family values would you like to keep? Adapt? Set aside?
What values do other important people in your life have? Do any of these fit for you?
What values would you like to pass on to your children and future generations?
For some ideas about how to build values in your family watch this YouTube clip “Building Family Values in Little Moments “Noticing””. Watch this video to find out an easy, practical way to build family values in your children and teens.
9. Write About Your Values
Did you know that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied? Writing about values has both short and long term benefits.
Short Term: makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud and strong; makes people feel more loving, connected and empathic towards others; increases pain tolerance; enhances self-control; reduces rumination following stressful experiences.
Long Term: boosts academic success; improves mental health; helps with weight loss, quitting smoking and problem drinking.
Even writing about your values once for ten minutes can have benefits from months to years. The reason it’s so powerful to write about your values is that it transforms how a person thinks about and copes with stressful experiences by helping to find meaning.
Connecting with your values can be especially helpful in stressful times and when dealing with adversity. You can connect with values wither by looking at values you’ve written down or writing about your values. Connecting to a physical reminder of your most important value (e.g., putting it on a keychain or engraved in a bracelet, using a post-it note or a photo on your phone) also has demonstrated benefits.
Choosing your values and connecting to your values is a powerful way to take charge of your experiences, whatever they are.
I hope this blog has helped you reflect, develop some clarity about your values and live life more intentionally in the everyday, and in challenging time.
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
First Photo - Vecteezy Pro
Journaling Photo - hannah-olinger-8eSrC43qdro-unsplash
Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living. Exisle Publishing: Wollombi NSW.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications Inc: Oakland CA.
Harris, R. (2011). The Reality Slap: How to Find Fulfilment When Life Hurts. Exisle Publishing Limited: London.
LeJeune, J. & Luoma, J. (2019). Values in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Heling Clients Explore Values, Increase Psychological Flexibility and Live a More Meaningful Life. New Harbinger Publications Inc: Oakland CA.
McGonical, K. (2016). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at it. Penguin Random House LLC: New York.
Ray, R. (2019). The Art of Self Kindness. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited: Sydney.
Smith, E.E. (2017). The Power of Meaning: The True Route to Happiness. Rider: London.
White, L. (2021). Helping Families Thrive Cards: Cards to Nurture Families with Growth.