How to choose your values and why it matters

There is compelling evidence that spending time thoughtfully choosing your values is a good idea (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).

Research suggests that spending even a few minutes considering your values has some significant benefits, including:

In this post, I want to give you some strategies for how to choose your values.

Steve Hayes (Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada and one of the founders of ACT) defines values as

 ‘…intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’

(Hayes & Smith, 2005)

So values are qualities. Words like: curiosity, kindness, courage, compassion, generosity.

Take a moment to think about this. What words would you want your friends to use when they describe you to someone who hasn’t met you? What qualities would the best version of you express so consistently, that this is how people describe you to others?

This is what I would want people to say about me:

‘Rachel is really kind and wise. She is incredibly non-judgemental. She loves to learn and is very curious about what makes people tick. She is easily moved to laughter or tears. She enjoys the simple things – a lovely cup of green tea; a beautiful flower; spending time with the people she loves.’

This is aspirational. It is who I want to be in my relationships with others. Some of the time I display those qualities but others I don’t. My intention, over time, is to be more and more like that person. And when I am not the person I want to be, I hope that I can notice those moments with curiosity (I wonder what is going on for me here?) and self-compassion (It is disappointing that you … but you are human, aren’t you?).

It is helpful to repeat this activity for different areas of life. You might consider how you want to show up at work. How you want to approach your own self-care and health. What qualities you would like to express in your relationships with your loved ones.

If you are struggling to think of the ‘right’ words. Russ Harris has a good list of suggested values in this free handout (go to page 23 & 24).

Spending time deeply considering what you value actually helps you to live those qualities more consistently, as it makes it clearer what you’re aiming for.

It may be that considering how you want show up, freaks you out. If it does… that is okay. Take a breath and don’t panic. You don’t need to nail this in one sitting. You can try different values on for size and adjust them. And remember, this is aspirational – you don’t have to be expressing these values currently. Just give yourself some time to consider – What do I choose? What qualities matter to me?

If you are feeling stuck, try taking the VIA Character Strengths test, designed by positive psychologists, Martin Seligman and Chris Petersen. That might give you some clues about which values give you a sense of flourishing.

If you would like some more suggestions for defining your values, these worksheets are really good:

Once you have chosen about 8-15 qualities that you feel describe the person you want to be, then you can use them as a compass to guide your behaviour.  Remembering that you don’t have to do this perfectly – you are human and you will have many, many moments when you don’t show up as the best version of yourself. Do be kind to yourself in those moments.

In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet, hold lightly stories about what’s possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?”

(Wilson & Dufrene, 2010


Association for Psychological Science. News Release July 22, 2008 Reflecting on values promotes love, acceptance

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Maste, A. (2006). Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science 1, 313(5791), 1307 – 1310. 

Cohen, G.L & Sherman, D.K. The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention Annual Review of Psychology 2014 65:1, 333-371

Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851.

Crocker, J., Niiya, Y., & Mischkowski, D. (2008). Why does writing about important values reduce defensiveness? Self-affirmation and the role of positive other-directed feelings. Psychological Science, 19(7), 740-747.

Hayes, S. C.,  & Smith, S. X. (2005). Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications

Nelson, S. K., Fuller, J. A. K., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Beyond self-protection: Self-affirmation benefits hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(8), 998-1011.

Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2010b) Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

5 thoughts on “How to choose your values and why it matters

  1. Hi Rachel
    Interesting piece on values. I find ACT’s pivot away from affect and towards values very useful and the contrast between goals and values in career coaching is very helpful. However I find the morally neutral stance of values problematic. As far as I am aware in the ACT literature no distinction is made between values that are self-aggrandising and those that are self- transcendent and yet this is a fundamental distinction in the values literature. Without this distinction the risk is that the model supports the preferences of the individual at the expense of the broader context be that social, organisational or environmental. Has ACT addressed this?

    1. Thanks Doug,
      An interesting question. My understanding of working with values from an ACT perspective is that you are trying to balance two things. Firstly, that values that are ‘freely chosen’ are more likely to lead to patterns of behaviour that intrinsically reinforcing – which is important, as often we avoid valued actions because the consequences are aversive in some way. However, ACT is also about helping people to live rich and meaningful lives – and, as you suggest, some values are more likely to lead to that than others. So values work also involves checking in – ‘if you lived that value for the next 5 years, where would that be likely to lead you? And is that what you want?’ My experience is that almost everyone cares about their relationships with others and wants to have a positive impact in some way.
      At a larger level of analysis – There is a growing body of work in CBS around Prosocial behaviour in groups – Paul Atkins, Steve Hayes and David Sloan Wilson have written a book on it.

  2. This is really helpful, thank you! In my experience working with leaders, there’s often so much clarity around external objectives, but then very little developed ability to bring that kind of specificity to their own inner landscape of values. I’m not surprised to learn that focusing on values even briefly can affect motivation, enjoyment and resilience – a little goes a long way in this world. I appreciate the shared resources, and the reminder to focus on what people are naturally moving toward, if they listen closely enough.

  3. Hi Rachel
    Thank you for your work. I have a big question, which is also addressed in the drama by German Author Bertolt Brecht “The Good Person of Szechwan”. Sometimes there are values which are opposed and it seems impossible to decide for one and because its ruining the other. Often my energy gets caught in a frenzy oscillating between values, which ends up in resignation, exhaustion and frustration. Lets say I would love to be compassionate and even egotistic in my creative field (painting), but my big values are caring, kindness, patience and loving. Values then collide and neither one forms a consistent path. I am torn: Who do you want to be? The strong painter or the loving friend? In Brechts Drama the main character divides himself in two personalities.
    Thank you for letting me post a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s