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:
- Coping better with stress (we produce less cortisol in a stressful situation if we have thought about our values first) (Cresswell et al, 2005)
- Improved motivation for activities that relate to what we value (Cohen et al, 2006)
- Improved performance (including improved grades) (Cohen et al, 2006)
- Greater happiness and well being (Nelson et al, 2014)
- Reduced defensiveness (Crocker, 2008)
- Becoming more accepting of different points of view and new information (Crocker, 2008)
- Increased feelings of connection to others (APS, 2008)
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’
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?”
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