“When Your Values Are Clear to You, Making Decisions Becomes Easier.” — Roy Disney
Living in alignment with our values is one of the closest things we have to a psychological superpower.
Better still, it’s free, available to us at any moment, and doesn’t have any nasty side effects.
In this post, we’ll explore what value based living is, why it’s so powerful, and introduce four effective ways to uncover your own core values, so you can begin living in greater alignment with them in day to day life.
What is Value Based Living?
Value-based living involves basing your daily actions, behaviour and choices on deeply held values that have you consciously chosen.
Becoming conscious of your values allows you to act from a deeper, wiser part of your nature. In our modern, hyperconnected ‘always on’ society, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest fad or trend, be manipulated by clever marketers to want things we don’t need, or to adopt somebody else’s goals as our own.
People who are values-based can avoid these pitfalls because they have a strong inner compass that allows them to navigate the complexities of modern life. They can choose their career path more wisely, spend their time doing what energises them the most, and make their own unique and effective contribution to the world.
Values vs Goals
“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” — Alan Watts.
There are two ways to approach almost any situation in life: a values-based way, or a goal-driven way.
In his 2009 book: ACT made simple, Dr Russ Harris defines values as: ‘desired qualities of ongoing action’.
In other words, they are how we want to act and be in the world on an ongoing basis.
Values can usually be expressed as verbs and adverbs, such as: ‘giving gratefully’, ‘listening empathically’, and ‘living courageously’.
Goals, on the other hand, are a destination that you arrive at, at some point in the future.
There is a huge difference between living a values-based life and a goal orientated one.
To illustrate this, let’s compare two people who hike to the top of a mountain; one who takes a values-based approach, and the other who is goals-focused.
Before she starts, the values-based hiker knows that she values curiosity, adventure, nature, beautiful scenery, exploration and meaningful conversations. So as she ascends the mountain, she is curious about the plants and animals she meets along the way, and the history of the people who have lived there. She takes breaks to enjoy the incredible views of the valley below. She has meaningful conversations discussing the big questions in life with her fellow hikers. By the time she reaches the top, she has already had a meaningful, engaging and enriching experience, and has appreciated the journey up there.
The goals-focused hiker has a different experience. His aim is simply to get to the top as fast as physically possible. Everything he encounters along the way is seen as an obstacle to his goal. He doesn’t notice the views, the interesting plants and animals he encounters, and doesn’t take any time to converse with his fellow hikers.
All he can think about is reaching the top.
Because in his mind he thinks: ‘When I get there, then I’ll be satisfied.’
So the whole way up is a means to an end; struggle with a promise of satisfaction at the finish.
When he reaches his destination, he experiences a brief moment of achievement which soon fades, leaving him looking for another mountain to climb, so he can go through the same cycle again.
This example illustrates the benefits of becoming conscious of our values and using them to guide our actions in day to day life. When we know what our values are, and can act them out on a daily basis, the journey of life becomes rewarding in and of itself. We don’t need to postpone our satisfaction until we reach the top of the ‘mountain’ we’re climbing.
If you aren’t clear on your values however, it’s very easy to live in a constant state of pre-success failure; where you feel a continuous sense of lacking something, always thinking the grass will be greener on the other side.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of getting clear on your values, let’s look at four powerful ways to uncover them in your own life.
1.) Begin with the End in Mind
‘To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination.’ — Dr Steven Covey.
This exercise is adopted from Dr Steven Covey’s book: ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.
Before you begin, try and put yourself in a quiet environment and a relaxed state of mind.
Now, imagine that you are an invisible observer at your own funeral five years from today.
Your family, friends, work colleagues, and people from your community are in attendance. There is a deep sense of sadness and loss in the room about your passing.
The following six people have been invited to speak about you as a person
- A family member (e.g. Brother/sister/parent)
- Your spouse/partner
- Your son/daughter
- A close friend
- A work colleague
- Someone from a community organisation that you belong to
What would each person say about you? What were you like to be around? How did you act on a daily basis? How did you make others feel? What kind of impact did you have?
For each speaker, take a few minutes to jot down what they’d say about you, if they were talking about you at your best.
Beginning with the end in mind is a powerful way to get a ‘bird’s eye’ view of our lives, separate the forest from the trees, and get clarity on the values that are most important to us.
2.) Dissect a Peak Experience
“The emotional reaction in the peak experience has a special flavor of wonder, of awe, of reverence and surrender before the experience as before something great.” — Abraham Maslow
Often when we feel fully alive and at our best, it is a sign that we are living in alignment with deeply held values.
Therefore, an effective way to uncover your values, is to revisit a peak experience, dissect it, and see what values we were embodying at the time.
Like the previous exercise, you’ll get maximum benefit if you put yourself in a calm, relaxed state of mind before you begin.
To start, think back to a time when you had a ‘peak experience’ in life; when you felt really, fully alive.
Try and make it as specific as possible.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be when you were blissfully happy. It could be overcoming an obstacle on the way to achieving an important goal, helping a friend get through a difficult time, playing your favourite sport, working on a project you were passionate about, or going on an adventure.
Visualise the memory as clearly as possible in your mind’s eye.
What can you see? What can you hear? Is there anything that you can taste or smell? Where are you? Are you with others?
Take a few minutes to write down the memory in as much detail as possible.
Once you’ve got your memory down on paper, the next step is to ask yourself:
What about this experience was important to you?
In other words, what were the underlying core values that you were living in alignment with during the experience?
For example, if you were overcoming an obstacle, was it learning and growing beyond previous capabilities? Were you realising more of your potential? Or if you were with other people, was it that you were connecting deeply and expressing yourself fully? Perhaps you were being generous?
Other illuminating questions you can ask about your memory are:
How did you feel during the experience?
What else about this experience was important?
The next step is to read over what you’ve written, and circle the words or ideas that get repeated, or ones that ‘jump out at you’ from the page.
Which of these words make an emotional impact and energise you when you read them?
The body doesn’t lie…
The words and phrases that cause the strongest emotional resonance within us, are usually tied to our most important values. Therefore, as you read over your memory, become an interested observer in how certain words and phrases make you feel, as this can provide critical insights into what exactly about the experience stirred you so greatly.
As you do this, feel free to edit the words if you feel that different variations resonate more deeply with you. For example, in your memory you might have written about feeling ‘open hearted’ towards another person, but perhaps you prefer the word ‘compassionate’ instead.
The final step is to make a list of the values you have excavated from the experience. Then, once you’ve got your list, identify if you are able to group your values under any ‘umbrella’ terms. For instance, if you have values for learning, mastery, exploring, and creativity, then perhaps these could be grouped under the umbrella term: ‘growth’. Or if you have values for meaningful conversations, friendship, and shared experiences, then these could be grouped under ‘connection’.
When completed, you should now have a list of core values that can act as a GPS for guiding daily actions and behaviour, making difficult decisions, and navigating the complexities of modern life.
3.) Notice What You Admire in Others
“Real heroes are all around us and uncelebrated.” — Peter Capaldi
There are some people that we naturally look up to and feel inspired by.
These individuals lift us up by their mere presence. We feel energised in their company. It might be a parent, a teacher, someone you follow on youtube, a teammate, or someone who works at your company.
We usually admire these people because they embody (and regularly act out) our own deeply held values. Therefore, another effective way to uncover your own values, is to figure out what it is (specifically) about these individuals that inspires us.
The first step is to make a list of five to ten individuals that you admire most.
Then, once you’ve got your list, write down approximately five to seven qualities or characteristics that you admire most about each person.
What is it about them, specifically, that you are drawn to?
Is it their courage? Their generosity? Their calmness? Their sense of adventure? Their loyalty?
Please note: the qualities do not have to be exclusive to one person.
For instance, if you notice that you admire the first person on your list for their generosity and the third person for this trait too, then jot it down twice.
You should now have a list of characteristics that you admire most in other people.
The final step is to go through your list and identify if there are any patterns.
Which of the qualities resonate most deeply with you? Have you mentioned anything more than once?
If a value appears in multiple places, it’s a clue that this is deeply important to you, and should be made a priority in your day to day life.
4.) Notice What Causes a Strong Negative Emotional Reaction in You
Image Credit: https://icons8.com/
“Other people teach us who we are.” — Alan Watts
Another, less obvious approach to uncover your values comes from Existential Coach Yannick Jacob.
To help his coaching clients better understand their values, Yannick recommends to notice what most annoys them about other people. In other words, what do other people do that causes a strong negative emotional reaction in you?
For example, let’s say that a friend has agreed to help you out with an important project you are working on. But at the last minute, they pull out, and tell you that they’ve got another commitment they need to focus on instead. If this causes a strong emotional reaction in you, it’s a clue that keeping your word is an important value for you.
Or perhaps you’re out with a group of friends, and one friend is talking a lot about themselves, and not giving other people a chance to speak. If this really annoys you, it’s a clue that you might value inclusion.
Or, if it really bugs you that someone takes a long time to respond to a text or email, it’s a sign that you value responsiveness.
“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough we must do.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Becoming clear on your values is one of the most important things you can do to increase your self awareness and develop greater emotional intelligence.
It can help you make difficult decisions, set goals that will intrinsically motivate you, and set up your life in a way that you enjoy the process of living, rather than constantly postponing your happiness until you get to the top of the ‘mountain’ you’re climbing.
The exercises identified in this post, including; beginning with the end in mind, dissecting a peak experience, noticing what you admire in others, and noticing what causes a strong, negative emotional reaction in you, are four powerful ways to uncover your own values.
That said, simply knowing what our values are is not enough.
To benefit from these exercises, we have to embody our values and act them out on a day to day basis, so that they become part of who we are.
Want to get the world’s most interesting psychology lectures emailed to your inbox?
The Weekend University hosts a monthly psychology conference, which features talks from world-leading psychologists, authors and university professors who share practical insights to help you realise more of your potential.