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Therapy

Choosing to Live According to Your Values

When you live by your values, you’re living your best you.

Key points

  • Values represent a direction and associated behaviors that have the potential to bring joy and fulfillment. There is no finish line.
  • The focus on values is at the core of a therapeutic intervention called acceptance and commitment therapy.
  • A classic ACT exercise for accessing values is to think about your future 80th birthday party (or your 90th or 100th, depending on your age).
Sixteen Miles Out/Unsplash
Sixteen Miles Out/Unsplash

Every year, millions of people around the world set New Year’s resolutions. Despite their best intentions, the vast majority of these people give up on their resolutions by the end of the first week of the year. Statistically, resolutions are bound to fail; only about 9 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually see them through. Of particular note to our community, the top-three resolutions people make are health-related, typically associated with exercise, eating, and weight. Argh.

You may or may not have thought about resolutions or goals for the year ahead, but, either way, consider giving some thought to an alternative to resolutions: values.

Put simply, values are statements about what matters most to you. Like a compass, values give you direction, reminding you of your hopes, your priorities, and the things in your life that move or inspire you.

When your life is driven by values, there is never a start or finish line. At any moment, you can act on your values or ignore them. What’s important is that you’re in total control. Although you can never guarantee that you’ll accomplish a goal or fulfill a resolution, you can make the choice to live according to your values each and every day.

The focus on values is at the core of a therapeutic intervention called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT is a well-studied, proven therapy developed by psychologist Stephen C. Hayes. In ACT, connecting with values is central to driving the therapy process. By establishing clarity around what you want from your life and how you want to live it each day, you gain the motive and motivation to face and overcome whatever challenges brought you to the therapy process.

Let’s Try It: Accessing Values

A classic ACT exercise for accessing values is to think about your future 80th birthday party (or your 90th or 100th, depending on your age!). Imagine that every person you love is there to celebrate with you, even those who don’t exist yet (like children or grandchildren or close friends who are yet to come into your life). As each person stands up to give a toast, what do you hope they say about you? How did you impact their lives? What role did you play for them? What will they say mattered most to you? The answers to these questions—or, if you aren’t able to fully answer them, your thoughts surrounding them—will be the start of living a life guided by and enriched by your values.

In this exercise, here are some of the things we hear people say:

  • “I want to know that I’ve had an impact on the important people in my life. That I was present, generous, loving…”
  • “I would want to hear that I was hardworking and passionate about [fill in the blank].”
  • “It would be amazing to hear that I was a good parent/partner/friend…someone who was loyal and trustworthy…there through good times and bad.”

The way this translates into values may be as follows:

  • “I’d like to be as fully present and attentive as I can be in the moment.”
  • “I want to show care and compassion to myself, to others, to nature, the environment, etc.”
  • “I want to contribute, help, or make a positive difference in the lives of others.”
  • “I want to focus on giving to others…to find ways to help others in need…to get outside of my own worries and challenges to consider and attend to other people.”
  • “As a parent/partner/friend, I want to listen and ‘show up’ consistently.”

Can you see how values are really a way of living? They represent a direction and associated behaviors that have the potential to bring joy and fulfillment. There is no end or finish line. You can always set goals that relate to your values, but you don’t have to. In fact, part of the beauty is that values can bring out the best in you regardless of whether anything gets checked off of the proverbial box. When you live by your values, you’re living your best you. And how can that not bring positivity to your life?

Where to Go From Here

Here is a great worksheet that can help you clarify your values since it offers a long list of some of the most common ones. The worksheet is presented by Act Mindfully, a rich resource for ACT education and materials, curated by another major leader in the ACT world, Russ Harris, Ph.D.

Here is another resource to help you flesh out your thinking. The worksheet outlines a number of different life domains and guides you in identifying specific values in each of these areas. There are also a whole bunch of value-focused exercises on the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) website.

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