The Value of Values

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ve likely picked up on the idea that living a meaningful life is, for me, where it’s at. Being connected to what is meaningful, what is most valuable to us, is what makes us feel good at a soul level. It is what makes life feel most vibrant. It’s often what makes pain worth tolerating.

My patients and I check in often about whether their choices are in line with their values. It is necessary to be deliberate about our choices if we want them to consistently be driven by what we find meaningful. If we are not being deliberate, the unattended brain is in charge. And the unattended brain defaults to choices that support feeling as little discomfort and pain as possible. I have yet to meet a person who identifies “feeling as little discomfort as possible” as a core value.

We have to take the wheel from our brain so that we can make consistent choices that help us feel more fulfilled. Think about your day yesterday. Take two minutes to remember all of the things you did and thought about from the time you woke up to the time you went to sleep. Right now. Stop reading and think about what you did yesterday. Of all those things, what did you do that was meaningful to you? What in your day felt fulfilling? What choices did you make that were aligned with your values?

If you are having trouble listing more than a few examples, you are in good company. Most of us don’t tend to actually think about making choices that support meaning and values throughout our busy days. But why not? Doing meaningful things feels good, right? At a deep, soul level? Feeling fulfilled is certainly a worthy goal, isn’t it? So why don’t we do it much, much more often?

Two reasons:
1) We are fuzzy about what is meaningful to us.
2) Once we clarify what we find meaningful, we don’t make the effort to prioritize it. We don’t think about it enough to have it influence the many small choices that come up every waking hour of every day.

If you haven’t recently thought about what you want to anchor your life around, I strongly urge you to. Take 10 minutes to identify a few of your values. If you don’t have 10 minutes now, schedule it. Think about how you want to be thought of by your friends. What is important to you in life? (Doing Hard Things offers additional suggestions for identifying your values). When I work with my patients on this, some of the frequent flyers are: Family, Love, Adventure, Authenticity, Appreciation, Social Justice, and Humor. A few others that show up: Knowledge, Spirituality, Creativity, Competence, Autonomy, Ecology, Growth, Honesty, and Self-control.

Once you have more clarity about what is meaningful and fulfills you, you are ready to live deliberately. This is where you keep your values, in big bright lights, in the front of your brain so that they influence even the small, quick choices you barely realize you are making. Our lives are jam-packed and fast-paced. We are faced with choices on a minute-by-minute basis: How to react to what that person just said to you; whether to accept your co-worker’s lunch invitation; where to rest your arm while sitting across from someone (Be the Change); whether to go to bed on time. If you don’t make efforts to stay focused on your values, you won’t notice the more subtle opportunities to choose meaning. We miss dozens of opportunities to feel good every day because we’re not paying attention.

There are many strategies for keeping values in mind. This post was inspired by my new favorite. I have recently started asking myself: how do I want to show up today? Each morning I think about my upcoming day, and I think about my values, and I ask myself what attitude I want to show up with.

I’m writing a post about this strategy because it has made a meaningful difference in my choices. Not every single possible choice, but some. Enough to make a shift in my experience of myself. For example, I’ve noticed that when I focus on showing up with gratitude, I have more patience. On these days, I am definitely able to choose “compassion” over “losing it” more often when my 2-year-old hits his tantrumming stride. When I focus on showing up with authenticity, I am often bolder than usual in my choices, and as a result I make more authentic connections. Some days I challenge myself to go with the flow – very much not my natural state. On those days, I find my thoughts and focus staying in the present more often (they like to hang out in the future if I’m not paying attention). More of my choices become based on “what is” instead of “what might be.”

This way of focusing on values has actually become a fun challenge for me, because the rewards are so immediate. If I am paying attention, I can feel it when I choose the option that promotes my values. It’s a powerful feeling, both expansive and grounding at the same time. It motivates me to keep the effort going and to look for more chances to choose meaning.

If you want to feel more connected to your values, carve out a few minutes every morning to ask yourself: How do I want to show up today? Think about what specific value you want to focus on for that day. Write it down. Make a plan for how you will remember to think about your value throughout the day. Write it in your schedule. Set your phone alarm to go off at random times with a reminder. Put up post-its.

Get excited about finding opportunities to make meaningful choices. They are opportunities to feel good! Small choices in support of meaning are at least as helpful as, and are a lot more prevalent than the more obvious choices (e.g., “What career should I choose?”) – so keep an eye out for them. Notice how it feels when you make these choices.

Notice how you feel when you stay more connected to your values. I’ve written about the importance of identifying meaning in past posts and I will write about it in future posts because it is really, really beneficial for life. By staying focused on what is meaningful to you, you are both connecting to yourself and validating yourself. That by itself is worth the price of admission. But wait, there’s more! By focusing on your values, you more often make choices that make you feel some sort of good. So if you happen to be looking for a way to feel better, this is quite a useful path. Wait, wait – there’s more! When you stay in touch with your values, they become your navigation system. They point to the right-for-you direction when you are faced with difficult decisions. Who couldn’t use more of that in their life? (And don’t tell your brain, but by focusing on values, you are also keeping it from focusing on less useful thoughts. Bonus!)

Hopefully I’ve made my point. Values are truly valuable. I recommend focusing on them for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, general uncertainty, and being human.