The new year is often a time where we reflect on the past and take time to set goals for the future. I grew up setting goals at the new year and still do, every year. There’s a sense of accomplishment and excitement that comes with predicting the successes and growth that one will obtain in the upcoming year. In this sense, goals are defined as the end-result of a person’s endeavor. However, at the beginning of this new year, I have found myself contemplating the importance of values. Harris describes values as “your hearts deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being.” Values are continuous and ever-present, while goals are accomplished and final. When I think of the difference between values and goals, I often imagine a journey to a destination, such as a hike. The end view on the peak is the goal -it’s a destination or end-result. I then think of values as the direction I am headed, or the trail that I am on. You can be heading East daily. East is not a destination but it is a metric that we use to consistently modify our path. Some examples of values are compassion, good work ethic, social relations, spirituality, physical health, learning and more. Goals might then be obtaining a service position, getting a promotion, making a new friend, finishing a spiritual book, competing in a triathlon, completing a class, etc.
Why do we set goals? Because we want that feeling of self-improvement, accomplishment and happiness. However, I’m sure none of us would argue that the real leg-work in accomplishing goals comes when we are day-in and day-out making consistent efforts towards said goals. It turns out, happiness and fulfillment comes from that same leg-work that most of us find not so exciting about the upcoming year. In other words, it is common for us, as humans, to want the prize without the effort; while all the while, it is the effort that actually provides those feelings of self-improvement, accomplishment and happiness (the feelings that we mistakenly think come from the end-result of attaining our goals).
There is a strong body of literature that supports this values approach. Research conducted by Whippman (2016) concluded that value-based living is closer to producing happiness as a by-product than “pursuing happiness” as a goal. In fact, she stated that those who pursue happiness as a goal are often less happy than those who focus on strengthening relationships day-to-day, working a consistent job and other “value-based” activities. “Value-based” is another term for behaviors that we perform daily that align with our underlying values (Hayes et. al.). In the case where you value strong relationships, the “value-based” behavior would look like daily activities that align with the value, such as checking in with a friend or family member to see how they are doing, making time to spend with a relative, sitting next to a family member to read, etc.
Becoming clear on what our values are is always a great idea. It provides a gentle reminder of what path or direction it is we want to go. It reminds us, so that in moments of decision making (example: what to do with free time, what to do when faced with a dilemma, etc.) we can make decisions that ultimately provide more long-term fulfillment and happiness. It is also the key to accomplishing goals, but more importantly it is the key to being content and fulfilled while doing so. At the beginning of this new year, I figure it’s as good a time as any to remind myself of my values.
How do you find, set and live by values? There a couple of guidelines that I’ve found useful listed below.
- Explore values. There are many values to choose from and find within yourself. Remember, “values are your hearts deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being (Harris)” Don’t feel limited or drawn to values that seem more “correct” or valued by others (see the “Defining Your Values” attachment, where it says “A Quick Look at Your Values –page 1”). When you’ve explored adequately, choose the 4-6 values you feel most aligned with or would like to incorporate into your life. Choosing this many does not limit your values, but provides a select few to focus on.
- Identify “value-based” behaviors. Once you’ve chosen 4-6 values, think about what behaviors would align with those values. For example, if one of your values is creativity, what are some ways you know to engage in creativity? This might be writing, art, playing instruments, taking a walk and finding images or meaning in your surroundings, etc.
- Openly/non-judgmentally think of things that get in the way of the behaviors just identified. This step, if done with the purpose of understanding yourself better, can help problem solve for future instances where you might not feel motivated and important values seem to take the “back seat” to less important values (example: creativity taking the “back seat” to fitness).
Making goals and not achieving them or acting in ways that we regret is never enjoyable. Through research, professional experience with clients and personal experience, I have learned that exploring and introducing a more value-based life is best done with honesty towards ourselves and a nonjudgmental exploration of what it is that we each truly value (Neff & Dahm). Readdressing and revisiting our values is not just a great idea at the New Year, but whenever we would like to improve and realign our life with what we truly want.
This article was written by Tess Collett, CSW and Ph.D. in Training. Tess has been working at CHATS since June 2016.
Fletcher, L., & Hayes, S. C. (2005). Relational Frame Theory, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and a functional analytic definition of mindfulness. Journal of Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Harris, R. (2010). The confidence gap: A guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt. Penguin Group Australia. Boston, Massachusetts.
Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A. & Lillis, J. (2005). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, process and outcomes. Behavior Research and Therapy 44, p 1-24.
Layous, K., Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). University of California, The How, Why, What, When, and Who of Happiness: Mechanisms Underlying the Success of Positive Activity Interventions
Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2012) Self-Compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. University of Texas at Austin, appear in in M. Robinson, B. Meier & B. Ostafin (Eds.) Mindfulness and Self-Regulation. New York: Springer
Suttie, J. (2016) Is the search for happiness making us anxious? Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_the_search_for_happiness_making_us_anxious
Whippman, R. (2016) America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. St. Martin’s Press New York