Looking for long-term success and happiness? Live according to your values, not your goals.

We live in a society where we are expected to achieve. The minute we enter school, we are praised for achieving targets set by others, based on what their standards are for “good enough”. We quickly learn that we get acknowledged, admired, noticed, and liked, when we do things that society rewards. This message is reinforced throughout our formal education, as well as in most other parts of our lives. We measure and compare ourselves to others based on outcomes, and subsequently rate our self-worth as good or bad depending on how we measure up. Who is the smartest? Who is the richest? Who is the most beautiful? Who is the thinnest? These standards become the guidelines we use to set our goals - in effect, just playing into a pattern of measuring up to outcomes to feel worthy and good about ourselves. The problem with an achievement-orientated outlook is that there is always the next best thing that seems just out of your reach.

Being outcomes-based can distract us from the process. If we are always focusing on the finish line, we forget to enjoy the view along the way.

There is another, more sustainable, more fulfilling way to live life, and that is to live according to your values, rather than your goals. To start, what are values? Values are standards and principles we believe are important to live our lives by. We may have different values in various areas of our lives. For instance, we may value loyalty and honesty in friendships, personal growth and freedom in our careers, and fun and spontaneity in our relationships. Each person’s values will be different and they may change depending on your phase of life. Values provide inherent meaning and are not easy to measure objectively - they are about how you derive meaning and purpose in your life. In contrast, goals are outcomes that are usually tangible, observable, measurable entities that we set out to achieve. However, goals don’t necessarily give our lives more meaning, and they are often conceptualised in an “either/or” way: either you achieve them, or you don’t. This quickly sets us up for failure and self-criticism. In comparison, being values-based means that you can evaluate your behaviour according to the degree to which it aligns with your values, providing more scope and flexibility to your life.

Think of it this way: imagine you are on a boat, setting sail on the journey of your life. Your values are your compass - they guide you, regardless of what is going on at any moment out at sea. Your goals might be the islands you visit along the way. You can live your life trying to aim for the islands, berating yourself when you miss some because the weather is bad, or you can choose to be guided by your compass, which can guide you no matter the weather, and can help you realign where you want to go. This leads to a more flexible life, as you are living according to a set of principles that can guide you and bring you meaning and purpose regardless of what happens in your life.

To use a more tangible example, let’s presume you have a goal to run a 10km race. The goal is clear, and you may have a plan to get there, but this doesn’t tell us why this is important to you. What are the values that underpin the goal? You will soon come to realise that the decisions you make and the goals you set are often not about the outcome, but about the values you embody. One person might want to run a 10km race because they value personal growth, and have never run a race before. Another person might want to run it because they value fitness, or health. Another might want to run it because they value friendship, and are doing it for the fun of running a race with friends. When you uncover your values, you suddenly discover your why, and the difference this can make to the experience of achieving your goals is immeasurable. Why is this?

First, focusing on acting in accordance with our values makes each moment meaningful and purposeful, and makes it 100 times easier to do the difficult things that require effort. Getting up at 5am to do your training run is that much easier when you are doing it because of what you value, rather than what you are trying to achieve.

Second, goals are easy to give up on in times of suffering or instability (for example, during a pandemic). Values can help give meaning to suffering and hardship, and can help us stay motivated to behave in a way that is consistent with who we believe ourselves to be. Ask yourself this: if my life is disrupted, am I more likely to give up on my values or my goals? Values are part of who we are, making it very unlikely that we will just give them up, whereas goals can change at a moment’s notice. If you’re focusing on your goal, it’s easy to stop pursuing it, but if you’re focusing on your values, it’s difficult to stop behaving in a way that is consistent with who you believe yourself to be.

Finally, taking values-based action helps decrease self-criticism, increase self-compassion, and enhance your resilience by strengthening your ability to adapt to the uncertainty of life. If your goal is to run three times this week, but something happens that makes you miss the last run, it’s easy to criticise yourself as not being dedicated or motivated enough, negatively affecting your mood and self-esteem. In contrast, if your value is health, and you have run twice this week and can get in a walk or yoga instead of the third run, you are more likely to recognise your achievements, feel happier, and treat yourself with kindness and compassion.

To start living a more values-based life, follow these three easy steps:

  1. Spend a few minutes learning what your top values are (for example, use the free surveys here and here)
  2. Pick 2-3 of your top values that you would like to focus on living by (focusing on more than 2-3 values can feel overwhelming). Write these down and put them somewhere you will see them every day (a helpful strategy is to write them on a sticky note and put it on your bathroom mirror - this means that you will automatically remind yourself of the values you want to focus on at the beginning and end of each day).
  3. Decide on 1-2 things you would like to do each day or each week that help you direct your life in a values-based way.
    1. For example, if your value is health, you could decide to do some form of exercise 3 days a week and to drink 2L of water per day
    2. For example, if your value is friendship, you could decide to prioritise seeing friends on the weekends
    3. For example, if your value is learning, you could decide to spend 30min each day reading about something you want to know more about, and could listen to podcasts/a book on the way to work/school rather than the radio or music.

 What are your values and how are you living by them? Let us know in the comments!

Written by: D. Goldstone (M.A. Clin. Psych.) & T. Olivier (M. Soc. Sci. Clin. Psych)

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