One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do
- Excerpt from The Journey by Mary Oliver (Oliver, 1986)
Our values are our beliefs about what are really important in our lives. They offer a framework or standards on how we evaluate things, set our priorities, make decisions, and take actions. Essentially, our values can serve as our compass, our guide on where to focus our thoughts, behaviour, energy, and which direction to take in our lives (England, 1967; Kluckholn, 1962; Rokeach, 1973).
Knowing our values helps us create meaning and experience a sense of purpose for our lives, goals, priorities, and the activities we engage in, which in turn, contributes to our happiness and well-being. That said, research indicate that our values change and shift over time depending on our circumstances and experiences (Bardi, Lee, et al., 2009; Maio, 2010). Therefore, it is important to continually check our values to make sure that they truly reflect our current realities and experiences and not those of the past.
Knowing our values can help promote our happiness and well-being
I recall some time ago when I was working as a professional for an organization I began to notice something wrong with my well-being. I felt like I was constantly struggling, swimming against the current. At first, my discomfort was just physical. I felt constantly tired. I felt tension, aches, and pains in different parts of my body. There were many nights when I could not sleep. There were also many mornings when I could not get up because my body would not move and my eyes would not open. I tried to take care of myself by doing physical activities regularly, eating well, changing my sleep habits, etc. I also sought out help, including medical attention. But my discomfort persisted and started affecting my mental and emotional well-being. Many times, my mind seemed foggy and my heart felt heavy. I was burning out. And, on the verge of a depression. Later on, I realized I was feeling the way I was feeling because I was not using my energy wisely. In fact, my activities at work were actually depleting my energy, contributing to my anxiety, and making me feel more physically unwell. Essentially, I was compromising my well-being because I was spending my time on work that no longer brought me true happiness and satisfaction.
Knowing our values can help create meaning and sense of purpose
I want to highlight that values and goals do not represent the same thing. Values reflect a journey, involving an ongoing process of reflection and engagement. They primarily serve as motivation for our behaviours and cannot be directly fulfilled. Goals, on the other hand, are specific aspirations or activities that can be accomplished. They are an end road or the destination.
Knowing our values can help reveal what is really important to us so that we can set our goals and priorities accordingly, instead of using our energy going after achieving goals that in the end does not lead to greater purpose and meaning or contribute to our true happiness and well-being (Wong & Fry, 1998). Also, when we live according to our values we can say that we are living a meaningful life, a life of integrity in which we can justify our actions and makes sense of our existence. We create meaning when we shift our attention to our purpose and reflect on the reasons for our choices and actions. We also create meaning when our actions are in alignment with our values—when we express who we want to be, what we aim for, and what really matters to us in life.
Going back to my own experience as an example. I overcame my general discomfort and took charge of my well-being at work because I had a mental awareness and a deep sense of my values. When my mind became too (ir)rational to support my well-being, my body brought me back to my reality. My body showed me and made me feel how I was betraying values. My rational mind knew that I had many choices available to me. So, I chose to exercise them before I could compromise my authenticity and well-being.
Knowing our values can help us make difficult decisions
We have different values in different life domains, and we express our values through a variety of behaviors (Maio, 2010). Our values also change over time and can be influenced by major life events, for example, death of a loved one (Bardi, Lee, et al., 2009). It is, therefore, important to regularly check in with ourselves and pay attention to our values. This way, we can make sure that our choices and decisions reflect our current realities and experiences and not those of the past.
In my case, although I had enjoyed what I was doing in my work or as a job my values had changed. The activities that initially had provided me a sense of purpose, meaning, and satisfaction no longer served me. I had a nagging feeling that I could be doing something different with how I was spending my days. I wanted to do something else, more meaningful and more satisfying to me. Although I found making the decision to resign from my employment and move on to something else quite difficult, knowing my values gave me the courage I needed to take the step and to commit to my new life adventure.
In our fast-paced world, we don’t always get the opportunity for a pause and self-reflection. So, it is up to us to carve out the time—to check out from the never-ending demands and all sorts of distractions that bombard us daily so that we can check in with ourselves. So that we can connect with what really matters to us, quiet and soothe our restless body, mind, and heart. So that we can energize our spirit and promote our own well-being and happiness.
To gain insight into the values that support and motivate your actions, you may want to ask yourself:
What is this specific action serving?
What do I consider to be important or meaningful about the goal(s) I am trying to achieve?
Additionally, if you want to gain deeper insight, you may want to pay attention to your physical body and notice the sensations you are feeling.
What parts of your body are speaking to you? What are they (the sensations you notice) communicating to you?
What are your values? What Really Matters To You? What do you live for?
What are your specific actions serving?
What are your motivations? What do you consider to be important or meaningful about the goal(s) you are trying to achieve? What are the underlying values supporting them?
Bardi, A., Lee, J. A., Hofmann-Towfigh, N., & Soutar, G. (2009). The structure of intraindividual value change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 913-929.
England, G. W. (1967). Personal value systems of American managers. Academy of Management Journal. 10(1): 53–68.
Kluckhohn, C. (1962). Values and value orientation in the theory of action. In: Parsons, T., Shills, E. (eds) Toward a General Theory of Action. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, pp. 391–436.
Oliver, M. (1986). Dream Work. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York, NY: Free Press.
Wong, P. T. P., & Fry, P. S. (1998). Handbook of personal meaning: Theory, research, and
application. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.