As children, we are often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question then gets asked constantly as we go through life, sometimes causing some immense stress and feelings of confusion and frustration when that question cannot be answered.
Questions that we neglect to ask are, “What KIND of person do you want to be? HOW do you want to behave?” Not being who we genuinely are, losing contact with our values, not behaving in ways that are important to us can also bring stress, pain, even suffering into our lives. Let me explain with some examples. When I was working with patients in a residential substance abuse facility, I worked with people who experienced significant traumas in their lives and struggled to get clean and maintain sobriety. While a big part of their treatment revolved around strategies to stay sober, obtain jobs, and housing, another significant piece that was often missing was helping clients figure out what kind of person they wanted to be – their identities and sense of self had been beaten down and disappeared over the years. Many didn’t even think twice about what kind of person they wanted to be and had difficulty identifying what was important to them.
When asked where they wanted to be in 5 years, the answer was usually “stay clean, have a job, and a home” and reunite with family if they had any. However, given that many of these patients struggled with maintaining their sobriety, it was apparent that these external reasons were not enough. It seemed as if they did not have a sense of purpose in life, an internal reason to stay sober. When I asked them what their values were, the kind of people they wanted to be, many struggled with this question. Some did not even know what values were!
So what are values? Values are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis. In the book entitled “Meanings of Life,” the authors explain how values can help create a sense of meaning and like a compass, guide you in a direction that will help you achieve your goals.
Some examples of values include:
Why are values important? Values give us direction and help us figure out what we want our lives to look like. Values give us motivation to go through (rather than avoid) difficult experiences in service of achieving our goals and living in line with what is important to us (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2006). Values work is an important aspect of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and research has shown it to be a vital component of positive therapeutic outcomes. (ACT is a therapeutic approach that focuses on acceptance – rather than explicitly changing – one’s experiences and committing to engaging in behaviors or feeling difficult emotions in order to achieve a meaningful, fulfilled life.) For example, in a study examining the role of values-based action and chronic pain, researchers found participants whose behaviors were more consistent with their values reported better physical functioning and emotional well-being (McCracken & Yang, 2006). Another study looking at the role of values and chronic pain found values clarification and a focus on values in treatment were related to greater pain tolerance, as the authors stated, “Without the clarification of values, one may lack motivation for moving on and engaging in behavior in the context of physical pain.” (Branstetter-Rost, Cushing, & Douleh, 2009, p. 891).
Along the same lines, research in Positive Psychology highlights the power of a value driven life. Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology movement, and colleagues write, “We must involve ourselves fully, and the pursuit of gratification requires us to draw on character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humor, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence” (Seligman, Parks, & Steen, 2004, p 1380). In this context, “character strengths” are analogous to values (i.e., ways of being). Seligman’s research has found that the those who know and use their character strengths on a regular basis tend to be not only happier, but more satisfied in their lives. The strengths or values of “zest, hope, gratitude, love and curiosity” are particularly correlated with greater well-being.
Values can be applied to various aspects of your life (e.g., with significant others, at work, recreationally). For example, a value for Joe* is humor. In his relationship with his family and friends, he is known as the “clown” and always tries to infuse humor into those relationships. He also tries to maintain some levity at work, keeping things light when the situations are appropriate. When he ran into some difficulties or barriers, he tried to poke some fun at the situations, which also helped him to cope with a hard situation in a healthy way.
Values don’t have to be fixed. As we change and grow over the years, some values may become more important and others may be less so. For example, Fun/Leisure may be a high priority value for someone who is in their twenties and single, but may change to Challenge when building relationships and careers. One of my favorite things to do with the residents was to talk about values and encourage them to figure out what was important to them. Many of the residents found this to be an extremely significant and eye-opening experience. It was helpful for them to connect their values to their goals. For example, being a “good” parent was a value to many. A goal related to that value could be maintaining steady work in order to provide for their family. As such, being a good parent was something that they focused on, rather than sobriety itself. Maintaining sobriety was just a byproduct of staying in line with their values. Values gave them a new perspective on their issues and even a sense of hope that this time treatment could be different. A case study looking at values clarification and substance use found positive results in terms of decreased drinking (near full sobriety) and improved sense of well-being in various areas of life such as work, home, and relationships (Heffner, Eifert, Parker, Hernandez, & Sperry, 2002).
So what kind of person of person do you want to be? Pick five values that are important to you right now. And then set a goal for the week that are consistent with those values. For example, if Challenge is a value, a goal for the week could be to do one thing that is scary or anxiety provoking. If Connection is a value, a goal could be to make X number of coffee dates with some friends or family. If Curiosity is a value, then maybe a goal would to be read X number of new articles (related to whatever your interest might be) for the week. Share your values and goals below!
Baumeister, R. (1992). Meanings of life. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Branstetter-Rost, A, Cushing, C., & Douleh, T. (2009). Personal Values and Pain Tolerance: Does a Values Intervention Add to Acceptance? The Journal of Pain, 10, 887-892.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
Heffner, M., Eifert, G.H., Parker, B.T., Hernandez, D.H., & Sperry, J.A. (2002). Valued Directions: Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of alcohol dependence. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 9, 23-236.
McCracken, L.M. & Yang, S.Y. (2006). The role of values in a contextual cognitive-behavioral approach to chronic pain. Pain, 123, 137-145.
Seligman, M.E., Parks, A.C., & Steen, T. (2004). A balanced psychology and a full life. Phil Trans R Soc Lond B, 359, 1379-1381.
About this Contributor: Ivy Hall is a licensed clinical psychologist working at the California Department of State Hospitals. She graduated from UC San Diego with a B.S. in Psychology received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology at Palo Alto University in 2013. She has extensive experience in treating individuals with substance abuse and dual diagnoses, anxiety, depression and mood disorders, chronic pain and illness, PTSD, and end-of-life issues. She has provided services to a variety of populations (Veterans, dually-diagnosed, Axis II, young adults and families, incarcerated persons), across multiple modalities (inpatient, residential, and outpatient) using a variety of treatment approaches (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)). She is passionate about incorporating diversity into her work and personal life. Outside of work, she loves to cook, run, workout, and root for the Giants, Niners, and Warriors!
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Clark Rector, M.A. said on August 21, 2014
My top 5 values are fun/leisure, fitness, generosity, connection, and gratitude.
Your article is helpful for me – thank you. Currently I work in the substance abuse field, and your ideas are a welcome reminder to address values to help a person discover (or re-discover) what they value. Surely this approach could help increase motivation and alleviate depression, especially if the person is ready to change an aspect of their life.
Ivy Hall, Ph.D. said on September 16, 2014
Thanks for reading Clark. I’ve found doing values-specific work has been incredibly helpful for clients, especially in motivating them to continue on their path of recovery.
Kim Pratt, LCSW said on September 15, 2014
Nice post, Ivy. Reflecting on values can be so helpful with sense of purpose and clarity about what’s important, like you discussed. Lately, I’ve been focusing on these: connection, gratitude and acceptance. So far, so good!
Ivy Hall, Ph.D. said on September 16, 2014
Those are some great values- ones that really cut across different life domains (e.g., personal, work, play, etc).