When Aaron Tippin sang “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything” he was tapping into the heart of a values based life. In the first article in our Values series, I shared what a life of “falling for anything” felt like from a personal perspective. This next article taps into the science behind living a values-based life.
Values are our blueprint for living. They are the guiding beliefs or principles that direct our choices and behaviour. Acting as an internal compass, values show us which direction to head and remind us when we are off course. Knowing and living our personal values helps us strive toward our goals, manage challenges, tolerate discomfort and give our life purpose and meaning.
You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.
As we grow up we observe the values of others – family, friends, school, society – and consciously or not we decide which ones to accept as our own and which ones are less important to us.
For example you may prioritise freedom and adventure over your family’s values of tradition and loyalty. The values we endorse then guide how we think and behave each day.
Understanding what you stand for in life is a powerful motivating force and behaviour changeagent.
Dealing with discomfort
Imagine holding your arm in freezing cold water – within a minute the pain kicks in.
In pain tolerance studies, participants were asked to immerse their arm in freezing water to see how long they could hold it there. They found people who took part in a values clarification session prior were able to tolerate greater pain compared to a control group.
In therapy, a socially phobic client is more likely to overcome their fear and enter into a social situation, despite feeling uncomfortable, particularly if it serves a core value. Values are what give a parent with a fear of public speaking the courage to make a speech at their child’s birthday, graduation or wedding.
Across multiple studies researchers have demonstrated that thinking about one’s core values increases tolerance for pain, improves coping with stress and reduces rumination following failure.
Not only do we tolerate discomfort better but living a values-congruent life – when your behaviour or actions match your prioritised values – leads to greater sense of autonomy, competence and connection.
When you act in ways that do not match your core values you often feel discomfort. Similarly, if you find yourself in a community or workplace that does not align with your important values, it can cause friction and dissatisfaction.
Knowing which values matter most to you helps you make small daily decisions as well as bigger life choices, and leads to better decision making. Values help you decide to do your homework, pursue a friendship, or accept a job offer.
What do you stand for?
Defining your values is a subjective process that requires self-reflection and exploration.
Your own definition and interpretation of a value is what gives them power, and helps you decide how to act in ways that best reflect them.
Often people skip the process of active recognition and ranking of their own personal values and just accept those that were prioritised and ingrained in them by parents, peers or society.
Sometimes we simply fail to realise that our values have changed in priority over time.
While our values remain relatively constant in adulthood, moments of life transition, such as leaving home, becoming a parent, retirement, divorce, trauma or illness, can prompt a shift in values or our values priority.
Living according to a values set that is outdated or doesn’t belong to you is ultimately dissatisfying and sometimes distressing. So, it is worth checking in with yourself and reflecting on whose values you are living – yours or someone else’s?
As long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values, and follow my own moral compass, then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.
There are many values we could endorse in life, so prioritising the ones that are most important to you is key. While it is tempting to embrace all values, this simply means we prioritise none.
To shift your values from implicit to explicit, from the sensed to the known, starts with having a values vocabulary.
Creating your values vocabulary
If you want to identify your values, you first need a language to describe them. Maybe start by thinking about a person in your life that you admire. A family member, friend or someone famous. What do you think the guiding beliefs for living their life are? Love, patience, ambition, loyalty or creativity?
We look to people’s choices and actions to determine what they stand for.
The people we admire can give us clues to the values we aspire to in our own life, as much as those we find uncomfortable or disconcerting often reflect values we do not prioritise.
Think about the core values you associate with the former US first lady Michelle Obama or the singer songwriter Archie Roach or crocodile hunter Steve Irwin?
Each of us, famous or not, have our own values thumb print, made up of a unique collection of personally prioritised values that are reflected in our actions.
Once you have a values vocabulary it becomes easier to spot values-based behaviours in yourself, and identify values-action incongruence – when your stated values are not matched by your actions.
Every moment, everyday we have the opportunity to course correct – to step toward our values, rather than away from them.
What are your prioritised values at this stage of your life?
Once you have clarified your values, you need to live them.
Have you ever known the values-based action you want to take but it feels too effortful at that moment? Perhaps you have made excuses such as ‘I can’t be bothered; it’s cold out there; I will do it tomorrow.’?
The concept of feeling bad, but still doing good is reflected in one of the world’s most successful marketing campaigns – Nike’s ‘Just Do It’.
The team behind this campaign know that at times humans struggle with thoughts and feelings that steer them away from their core values. They use ‘Just Do It’ as a values-based call to action.
They ask you to unhook from distracting thoughts and feelings and stay committed to your values and goals. With practice we can all learn to turn down the distracting mental and emotional noise.
One tested approach to help you turn your values into action is values affirmation – speaking or writing about what matters to you.
In randomised controlled studies when researchers asked students to write about their values and then monitored their behaviour over time, the student’s grades improved and they were motivated to take on morestudy.
Intentionally thinking, writing and talking about your values makes it more likely you will follow up with values-matched behaviour.
Maybe you know someone with a tattoo that embodies their core values? A piece of jewellery, photo, mantra, story or song, can serve the same purpose, a reminder of what matters most and how we want to live.
Whether you are feeling lost, looking for motivation or trying to make an important life choice, connecting and listening to your core values can help you find your way.
Your values are always here, the moment to live them is always now.
*The Mind Room values card deck helps you explore your important life domains and values. Developed by psychologists and based on research, practice and user experience. Designed for fit minds and flourishing lives.
We are pressing pause on our public workshops for 2023 and will be back with more in 2024 (love it when we rhyme).
We can do workshops on demand, so get in touch if you have a community or organisation that would appreciate a little Mind Room workshop magic in their life.