It’s a hard thing to wake up and realise you have no idea what you value. Dangerous too, because if, like me, you find yourself battling low mood at times, losing sight of your values will mean that everything loses colour. The very fabric of every action starts to unwind. Why do anything? Who even are you? Why exist?
The slippery slope is a steep one. From a difficulty making decisions, to a lack of higher purpose, a difficulty finding motivation behind simple tasks, and finally, towards the very questioning of life itself. To live without clear values is to live in the fog.
But finding and holding on to values is also really hard. It’s common to lose sight of these at times, for them to grow and change with the years. Here’s how I navigate the need for an essential heart to my life, alongside the demand for psychological flexibility.
Determine What You Value
I think one of the most difficult places to be in is one in which nothing seems all that valuable. What do you actually want to do? Why? Why not? These are really tough questions.
Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap does a marvellous job of breaking down the troubles we have in determining our own values. There are so many possible excuses not to address this question — from “I don’t know what I want” to “I don’t want to think about it” to “I can’t be bothered right now” to “My values conflict with each other” and so on…
Remember that these blockages are driven by you; if you sit down and just draw a blank, it is worth reflecting on why that is. Are you really trying to determine your values, or are you just consumed by fear? Blockages are really interesting signs of where something you really value lies. I resisted the idea of writing as a career for ages, dithered through job after job, precisely because I was afraid of what committing to what I really wanted would be like. What if I failed?
I Never Wrote A Word. Now I Write Every Day.
Unleash creativity, write more, shake off the burdens of ‘greatness’…
So start with a ‘beginner’s mind’. Forget what’s possible, impossible, etc. Just think to yourself as honestly as possible: what if I could not fail, what would I do then? What if I wasn’t limited by money/time/resources/whatever? What would I do then? Start with this mindset.
In terms of actually determining your values, there are a lot of different ideas about how to go about this. There are hundreds of quizzes online, and all sorts of approaches. But they all ask you to sit down, get some quiet, and have pen and paper in hand. They all demand a moment of thoughtfulness, of no distraction and peace. Here are just a few ideas about what comes next:
- Think about what you loved as a child. What did you do? Or like doing? Do you still do those things? Why? Why not? Try to remember the things that originally made you smile.
- Make a note of some of the “peak” moments in your life so far. When you were happiest, or most satisfied. What was so good about them? Who were you with? What were you doing? Note down any observations at all about what made that experience so great.
- What about the last time you were really angry? What incited your anger? The opposite to the above, figuring out what really elevated your heart rate can also be a good place to start. Perhaps it was a certain kind of injustice that occurred that you’re spurred to do something about. Perhaps it’s just knowing what you definitely do not enjoy doing. All of this can help break things down and clarify the things you value.
- Take this list of words. Sit down with them printed out in front of you. Give yourself a set time period, and circle the ones that stand out. When you’re done, make a smaller list with just those circled words. Repeat the process until you have a handful that you feel the most strongly about. Interrogate the words: what do they mean to you? Why do those words stand out? What activities do they relate to?
- List out the different spheres of your life. Family, relationships, friends, work, money, spirituality, etc. What do you do for each of these spheres? If anything? Which ones matter more to you? Why? If you could do anything differently within each — imagining your ultimate scenario — what would be different about them? The sphere with the most ideas and the most changes you might propose, could be the sphere that stands out as the most important to you. Question this. Why is this sphere so important? How could you make things better in this area of your life? What does ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ look like?
These are a few ways to get you started. Try out a few exercises and see where your brain takes you.
Flesh Out Your Values — Make them Rich!
I have a notebook dedicated to this kind of thing — somewhere where I can add to the key words and ideas that are most valuable in my life. With this you can add other associated words, emotions, activities, images, all of which speak to and define your values better. Consider how these values play to your strengths and the things you already like to do or do well. It’s a good way to figure out more about what your value translates to in everyday life.
Whether it’s on paper, like mine, or electronic, or whatever, this is a live document that continues to grow and change with time. It can always be added to.
Keep Values Present and Visible
I mean this literally. If you aren’t constantly reminding yourself of what’s important and you have a tendency to forget, these things need to be as clear as possible. Imbedding value into your life takes time, and discipline. But make things easier for yourself — we all tend to have a variety of things we value, and they don’t all have to be as huge as ‘change the world’. Or ‘be the best’. They can be smaller, more accessible, more achievable. And the more present and aware we are of what we value, the easier it becomes to act in accordance with them.
Make a poster, write it somewhere you will see it everyday, have a reminder on your phone. Do what you have to do to make sure you know and remember what it is that’s important.
Give Yourself an Immediate Task
Once you’ve started to pick through the things that you believe are your values, it’s important to start doing something that feels like it feeds that value. Setting yourself a mixture of tasks is helpful, and these can be quite simple. If I decide I want to improve my eating habits, because good nutrition is a value, I could start by setting myself the task of making a healthy breakfast. Not a very onerous task really, and something I can quite easily do without too many other factors impeding my way. But also something that requires some effort. It requires an active decision from me to make the healthy breakfast, rather than grabbing a handful of cookies and cramming them in my face.
Find small versions of your values. Do what you can to start doing them, straight away.
Give Yourself Medium and Long Term Tasks
With a few easy steps out of the way, the next steps get a little more challenging. Small immediate steps are fantastic, but then we can lose momentum if things don’t seem to be accumulating anywhere. Here’s where the medium to long term comes into play. What are the bigger ways you can live your values? Dream a little, but figure out what you consider an achievable future vision for your life. What are the steps to get there? If you’re missing information, here’s your chance to set ‘find out more’ as a goal. If you’re in need of support, here’s your chance to say ‘look for a support group’ or ‘ask a friend for help’. Viewing this as an opportunity to succeed, rather than a test against which you’ll fail, really helps to set the agenda in the right direction.
Something Harris also mentions that I find both amusing and very valid here, is the idea of not setting yourself goals that a ‘dead person can do better than you’. What he means by this is that if you say, “I will stop being depressed” that’s not a great way to phrase a task or a goal. A dead person can definitely do that better than you can, because they’ll never feel depression again. It’s a macabre image, but effective — instead of saying what you will stop or not do, rephrase to something you as a living being can do best. E.g. “I will get up earlier to exercise, to help manage my depression.” You can do that much better than a dead person.
Find the long term ways your values could be realised more fully. Not everything can be done immediately, so chances are there will be things that you associate with your values that are not so straightforward.
Get Ready for Change
Just because something new crops up doesn’t mean your values are pointless or flimsy. Take heart from the fact that if you know where you stand right now, you can and will always find new information, experience new things, and understand the world differently with time — and that’s fine! We are amazing at adaptation, as humans. So anticipate that while these values are important and grounding, they will likely shift. That shouldn’t frighten you — you can always redo this process. You don’t need to announce your values as irrefutable truths, carved into stone. Be kind to yourself.
It is worth checking in on your values every so often. What’s working? What’s not working? Have any of the words or ideas shifted, or changed? Keeping this updated in your mind, spending time to sit down and collect your thoughts and feelings again, is important. This is a big part of why I keep a journal. Every so often, I write down a few more thoughts, a few more realisations. I let these unfold as and when.
How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health
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I try not to make this a contrived thing; they appear as they appear. But by keeping up this practice, I am giving myself an opportunity to express what’s happening with my values, without it being a huge scary life crisis. With time, the act of reflection and reassessment has become far less frightening. It doesn’t shake down everything I’ve ever valued. I’m not starting from scratch every day. Maybe I will have to at some point, but I trust that I will be more aware now about when that needs to be. Awareness is a practice.
Determining where value lies is not always obvious and straightforward. But developing the awareness that leads us there is absolutely something we can practice and improve upon. Doing the practical steps sets up the method to come more naturally with time. In the end, we all want to live a life that feels rich and meaningful. We can make this happen — the ability to live that life requires merely our commitment to it. Do you really want to be happy? Do you really want to find meaning? It takes work, and sometimes the truth is that we are indulging in misery — we are indulging in complaints, in fear and finding the easy way out by declaring all things too hard, or hopeless. It takes courage, it takes self-care, it takes determination. But we can each cultivate these things.
The question is really that: Do you want to live a life based on what you value?