By Deepak Santhiraj, MSW Licensed Clinical Social Worker
As we welcome 2019, many Americans will attempt to pursue various ambitions and achieve different goals as part of their new year’s resolutions. If we desire to pursue meaningful goals and form healthy habits around what will matter most, our decision making must start with a vital exercise: identifying core values.
Values “are the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” according to psychologists Barb Markway and Celia Ampel. In a dual manner of reflecting on their definition, values create inspiration around life’s ideals, but they also sustain and thrust us forward when habit-forming decisions become difficult.
To start with, we must first identify what our value system is overall. Dr. Steven Hayes, psychologist at the University of Nevada and the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests that we can uncover our values by naming our heroes. Whether they are celebrities or childhood inspirations, these heroes represent specific habit-forming ideals as beauty, compassion, bravery, justice, equity, etc. A values-driven life can provide knowledge of our core values. This will help us to reduce stress, communicate with more compassion, increase self-confidence, and cultivate our willpower.
How Society Determines Values
As seen with the popular pundits and social commentators of the day, one of the more powerful ways of how values are impressed upon us are through the societal definitions of success. Examples include physical appearance, popularity, wealth, elevated status, and winning. According to these everyday messengers, receiving more popularity, attaining more financial status, and obtaining a certain sphere of influence are symbols of how successful we will become. In contrast, our societal standards have made being unattractive, powerless, unpopular, and poor altogether intolerable and difficult to manage.
Ultimately, these cultural messengers create an impossible situation of having little opportunity for success and great chance for failure. In contrast, our values reconstruct our meaning for a life of happiness, success, and authentic purpose. Finding personal answers to values-based questions as these will foster this reconstruction of meaning: What were the values you were raised with? What values are you presently living in accordance with? Are they the same or different? Do your values bring you happiness?
Dr. Gregg Henriques of James Madison University highlights:
“Values are what we deem important and worthy in life. They inform how we spend our time and energy. We often inherit them from our families of origin, and then add, swap, and/or modify our values based on education and experience as we age. Often times, we walk through this world not really knowing what our values are, which can be problematic. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what makes us tick, then we’ll have a hard time trying to change pieces of ourselves (or authentically responding to others in a healthy manner). Awareness first, choice second.”
Within the field of psychology, one important body of thought that helps explain the apparent paradox of transformation in human behavior is self-determination theory, which is the life’s work of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, two professors at the University of Rochester. Deci and Ryan came up with the beginnings of their theory in the 1970s, when the field was mostly dominated by behaviorists who believed that people’s actions are governed solely by their motivation to fulfill basic biological needs and thus are highly responsive to straightforward rewards and punishments.
Deci and Ryan, by contrast, argued that we are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon called intrinsic motivation. They identified three key human needs:
- Our need for competence
- Our need for autonomy
- Our need for relatedness with meaningful personal connection
The researchers proposed that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel that those three needs are being satisfied. In more recent years, in response to the growing crisis of educating low-income children and bridging the achievement gap, a new idea (or perhaps a very old one) has arisen in the education world:
Researchers concerned with academic achievement gaps have begun to study, with increasing interest and enthusiasm, a set of personal qualities—often referred to as noncognitive skills, or character strengths—that include: resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit. These capacities generally are not captured by our ubiquitous standardized tests, but they seem to make a big difference in the overall success of children, especially low-income children. Currently, this body of research has guided various programming, curricula, and statewide efforts to establish a values-centered focus that has shifted from academic concerns to the development of these noncognitive skills in educating children. In reflection, values support the growth of intrinsic motivation through competence, autonomy, and connectedness as lifestyle outcomes.
By choosing values and defining our life ideals, we set ourselves on a path toward actualizing our noncognitive skill sets as outlined with grit, resilience, self-control, and conscientiousness.
It’s time for some tips. Here are practical things you can do to help establish self-knowledge and understand your values:
- Label, identify, and categorize your top values using various inventories. There is no right or wrong answer, but simply what you cherish and the ideals you want to pursue.
- Consider several people in your life that you look up to and highlight the values that they possess. Here are some basic steps. Step 1: Identify and write down people who are important role models that are connected to you. Step 2: Think of the values they embody. For example, your list might include: “my grandfather for his commitment, sacrifice, and unconditional love,” “my wife for her loyalty,” “my colleague for his problem-solving skills,” and “my friend for his faithfulness,” to name a few.
- Reflect on your personal values with a career counselor that can help you navigate your value system through the use of both informal and formal value-based inventories. The outcome of these assessments will direct you into a career path that will be most enjoyable and compatible with your core values.
- Use an online values inventory like this. The author reflects that clarifying your values can “serve as a blueprint for effective decision-making and optimal functioning.” Gain insight into your values by knowing your verbally constructed and desired life directions.
- Keep a daily journal of your key life decisions between home and work, and learn about yourself. As you live your life, be mindful of the choices you make. For several days, consciously put a label on the values behind your key decisions at work and at home. Pay particular attention to whether the values you chose above are reflected in your daily life. If not, what values are you expressing or living by as you go throughout the day? Are there patterns? What can you learn about what you want, what you are willing to give up, and what is non-negotiable in your life?
- Reflect on the bittersweet experiences of your life. Dr. Steven Hayes suggests that you learn about your values by thinking back to both the sweetest and most painful moments of your life. These moments could direct you to what you care about most. For instance, what were the peak experiences that might reveal key values? If you won an award for teaching, consider that leadership or motivating others might be significant values. What were the most painful experiences? If you know the pain of being excluded by others, you might realize that compassion is one of your primary values. Add more intentionality around both positive and negative experiences to provide constructive direction and consistent motivation for your goal achievement.
Values Matter. Character Matters.
When we live out of sync with what we truly value or what is important to us, we ultimately do not feel good about who we are and then struggle to create a fulfilling life. We engage in various acts that remind us of our purpose and remain instrumental to who we are as individuals. Ways of living, ideals, and the kind of friend, partner, employee, and child we are contribute to our personal value system. We choose to become value-driven in our choices and actions to create purpose around our life direction with awareness, intentionality, and wholehearted pursuit. Connecting with our internal core values can be intrinsically motivating and altogether meaningful. It provides the emotional resonance that we need to keep moving forward toward growth. Building more moments in which we connect to our values can add texture and highlight color to a life that desires direction and maintains longings. When we see that values are both qualities of verbs and adverbs that describe human behavior, we notice that our values remain inseparable from action. Values stimulate our lives to persevere in the midst of adversity and serve as an internal compass for a stable and meaningful life. Knowing our values and consciously living them accordingly will lead to a path that is rewarding and ultimately satisfying.
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- The Habit Blueprint: 15 Simple Steps to Transform Your Life by Patrick Edblad
- Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results (Volume 1) by Stephen Guise
- Discovering Your Authentic Core Values: A step-by-step guide by Marc Alan Schelske
- Changepower!: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success by Meg Selig