Using Values to Make Choices
What do you want your life to be about? That is the question we are focusing on when we talk about values. As defined by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, otherwise known as ACT, values are the desired qualities of ongoing action (Harris, 2009). Values are what makes life meaningful and our values can motivate and help us make choices.
Values, as I mean here, are not “goals”, instead they are guiding principles. For example, you may say you value getting an education but in this context, getting an education is considered a goal because it is achievable. Instead, the value at play for wanting to get an education may be curiosity, self-development, skillfulness, or something else. As you can see, curiosity is not a tangible goal, it is a concept or a way of being.
To know how to make decisions based on our values, we first have to know what our values are. Ask yourself, “What do I hope someone will say about me and how I lived my life by the time I turn 80?” This question is adapted from the 80th birthday exercise in Dr. Russ Harris’ book, The Happiness Trap.
There are no right or wrong answers to this question so go with your gut.
After you have thought of what you would most want someone to say about you, reflect on your answer. As you do this I want you to think about what values are behind what you hope someone will say. For example, maybe you hope someone would say, “I always had fun around (your name)! They were always making me laugh and up for an adventure”, in that case, we can see that being adventurous and having fun is important to you. Another example could be, “(your name) was always there when I needed them, they were a shoulder to cry on and I always knew they would give me honest feedback”. In this example, I would say that honesty, authenticity, dependability, and caring for others are important to you.
As you consider your answer, try and identify five or six values that feel the most important and authentic to you.
So now you may have an idea of your values, but how does that help with anything?
There are many ways in which knowing your values can help you. The main way being how your values can guide your decisions. Most decisions are not black and white. We encounter all sorts of gray areas each day and are left with “What do I do?”. In those circumstances, it is good to know our values because when we know what really matters to us, it can help us find clarity in the gray area. Here are a few examples:
Unsure if you should tell a friend that you are not comfortable with the jokes they make about other people? What is most important to you and would telling them be in line with your values or the opposite, would not telling them be opposing your values? If your values are honesty and openness, then telling them would be in line with your values. If you value maintaining close friendships, telling them would be in line with your values because that closeness relies on authenticity; however you do not tell them how you feel, you may even begin avoiding your friend because you do not want to have to hear the mean jokes which would move you further away from your value of friendship.
Perhaps your job is not understanding of work/life balance and you want to go to your child’s soccer game, but know that you may get a comment the next day if you do not work extra hours that evening and maybe an even more disrupting consequence. If you do not go to your child’s soccer game, you will likely avoid a comment from your boss or coworkers and in turn experience less short-term anxiety. However, if being a present parent is one of your values, the choice to work late to avoid commentary or backlash is moving you away from what really matters to you. By knowing what is most important to you, you can understand why you are willing to cope with the uncomfortable consequences. Dealing with comments and backlash is worth being able to see your child play soccer and for your child to remember how their mom/dad was there for their games as a kid. You can use your value of being a present parent as a guiding principle.
It doesn’t make choices easy, but it helps you know why you are choosing to experience discomfort because you are choosing what is meaningful to you. Oftentimes, even if something is very difficult to do, but it is in line with our values, we will feel fulfilled after making the choice.
There are lots of ways that knowing your values can help you make life more meaningful. With each choice you make, ask yourself, is this in line with my values or not. Each choice we make influences the kind of life we live. To help yourself feel more purposeful in life and to feel more satisfied with your day to day, consider what your values are and how you can use them.
Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.