Values

What are values?

Values describe how we want to behave now and always, and indicate how we want to treat ourselves, those near to us, and the world around us. They help us grow and develop, and create our present and our future. They inspire us, motivate us, and make our lives meaningful. Living by our values means consciously choosing to focus on what matters to us. When the going gets tough, choosing to behave according to our values motivate us and keeps us going.

Here is some key information about values (based on the work of Harris and Schwartz)

1: Values are global qualities that we desire and follow on an ongoing basis

Values describe how we want to behave on an ongoing basis. Values are our moral compass, our reasons for being, what we want to be remembered for, and what gets us out of bed in the morning. They are global qualities that permeate every aspects of our action. We want and choose to follow them, and do so on an ongoing basis.

2: Values are how we want to behave now and always; goals are what we aim for in the future

Goals are what we want to have, get or achieve in the future. Values are how we want to behave now, for the rest of your life, and every step of the way. Values are ongoing, and goals are something to tick off. Values describe how we want to act on the way to achieving our goal, whether we achieve the goal or not. People who focus only on goals and are constantly aiming to tick another box in the future may end up missing out on the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that living one’s values in the here and now brings.

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3: Values apply to self and others

Those values that guide our behaviour to others also guide how we treat ourselves.

4: Values often have to be prioritised

In may situations, competing interests will dictate that we cannot follow all our values all the time. Instead, we choose which values we follow in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that other values have disappeared, they are just not at the forefront at this moment. The relative importance of one value against another guides our actions.

5: Values are best held lightly

Values guide our behaviour. We don’t want to be obsessed with them, because otherwise they can become like oppressive and restrictive commandments. They are there as a guiding compass on a sea of possibilities, not a rigid railway line with only one direction. Values describe how we want to behave, not how we must behave.

6: Values are freely chosen

We don’t have to behave in this way, we simply choose to do so because following those values matters to us.

7: Values don’t need to be justified

Values are simply statements of how we wish to behave. It is often impossible to say why we have them, and there is no need to ever justify them in the same way that we don’t need to justify our favourite colour.

8: Values serve as standards and criteria

Values are the standards and criteria to help us select an evaluate our actions, events, ourselves, and the people around us.

What are your values?

Knowing what our own values are is a key step towards values-based living. By following our values, we are doing what matters to us, which is a powerful step towards being at our best. It also means that, no matter what, we have a choice of what we do next: instead of reacting in ways that are self-destructive, counter-productive and unhelpful, we choose to act in accordance with our values and move in a direction that matters to us; this helps us be resilient and protects against burnout. You may already know what your own values are, or perhaps you are yet to consciously discover them, or perhaps your circumstances and values have changed. Coaching is a powerful way to help you define your values, and also to explore how to use them as a power that motivates your actions, and how to create a life that is closely aligned to what matters to you.

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How to find out your values

There are many ways to find out what your values are.

Ask yourself: What are the most important things to me? How do I want to behave? What do I want to stand for? What do I want my legacy to be? When am I at my best? What really annoys me?

Ask your friends what they see as the main things that matter to you.

Numerous questionnaires are also available, such as Schwartz Portrait Values Questionnaire, and the VIA questionnaire which allows you to determine your character strengths.

You could also pick values from a list. A list of common values is shown below. Go through them, and sort them into three categories: matters a lot, matters a little, doesn’t matter. Then focus on just the ones in the matters a lot list: if you have more than 8, pick your top 5-8 values.

  • Acceptance: willing to accept others (and self) and situations as they are
  • Adventure: seeking and exploring new experiences
  • Assertiveness: standing up for your own rights/needs/wishes in a socially acceptable fashion
  • Authenticity: being your own, honest self
  • Caring: looking after others
  • Compassion: acting kindly towards others and yourself
  • Connection: paying full attention to others and the present moment, being connected with others
  • Contribution and generosity: giving, sharing, helping
  • Cooperation: collaborating with others
  • Courage: being brave, persisting despite fear or difficulty
  • Creativity: being innovative, original, thinking outside the box
  • Curiosity: being open-minded, exploring
  • Encouragement: encouraging and rewarding
  • Engagement: being fully engaged with what you are doing or with others
  • Fairness and justice: being fair and just
  • Fitness: looking after physical and mental health
  • Flexibility: adapting to change
  • Freedom and independence: being able to choose
  • Friendliness: being agreeable and friendly
  • Forgiveness: being forgiving to others / self
  • Fun / humour: engaging in fun activities, enjoying humour
  • Gratitude: being appreciative
  • Honesty: being truthful
  • Industry: being hardworking and dedicated
  • Kindness: being caring, nurturing, considerate
  • Love: being affectionate and loving
  • Order: being well organised 
  • Persistence / commitment: sticking at something despite difficulties
  • Respect/self-respect: to treat myself and others with care and consideration
  • Responsibility: being accountable
  • Safety and protection: ensuring safety of self and others
  • Skillfulness: continuously practicing and improve skills
  • Supportiveness: being helpful, available, supportive
  • Trust: being loyal, reliable, faithful

​There are lots of other values too, so you may have your own that is not on this list. There is also a degree of overlap between the different values.

Remember there are no right or wrong ones, what matters is knowing what yours are and spending your life doing things that are aligned with your values.

Values-based living

Values describe how we want to behave now and always, what we want to be known for, and how we want to treat the world around us. They help us grow and develop, they inspire us, motivate us, and make our lives meaningful. Living by our values means consciously choosing to focus on what matters to us. When the going gets tough, choosing to behave according to our values motivate us and keeps us going.

In targets-based living, the focus is on targets and achievement. When we hit the target, we celebrate and move on, starting another long haul to another target. A classic example for me would be passing a big exam eg FRCS. I felt that I should be exuberant and celebrating, but really just felt tired and was glad it was all over. Target hit yes, but not much satisfaction. At neuro-chemical level people talk about dopamine: it is the neurotransmitter of desire and very powerful, but desire is NOT the same as happiness. Of course if we don’t hit the target, then the world ends of the only thing that means anything to you is the target. Furthermore, sometimes we don’t achieve the target because it is simply not in our control – a good example would be those trainees who had careers interrupted by Covid.

In values-based living, the focus is on behaving in a way that our values direct. You can start doing that right now. How you choose to behave is much more in your control than externally-determined targets. And no matter what happens, you always have a choice in how you behave.

The dichotomy in target vs values-based living is similar to fixed vs growth mindset.

What about happiness?

Values-based living means knowing what we want and consciously choosing what to do, but that doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. Many people think that they should feel happy all the time, but that isn’t the reality of life. Evolution gave us brains designed to spot danger so we don’t get eaten, brains that are constantly comparing us with others in our peer group to make sure we don’t get thrown out of the cave to a certain death, and brains that are constantly wanting more because who knows when there will next be apples in the tree. None of that has anything to do with happiness, it is to do with survival.

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The evolutionary consequences of our survival-focused brain means that our brain is always worrying, comparing and wanting. The brain is a problem solving tool, and good it is too at solving logical puzzles in our environment. However, when the same problem-solving approach is applied to our inner experiences, feelings and emotions, we hit a problem; our inner lives become a puzzle to be solved instead as something to be experienced, and the usual logic that applies to the outside world doesn’t exist when dealing with our psychology. So the “myth of happiness” is born: we expect that life should always be happy which it often is not, and the same problem-solving brain that is such an evolutionary advantage sometimes works against us when we try to use analysis and logic to deal with emotions. The human mind is not naturally positive and happy; rather, it is naturally negative, criticising, judging, and catastrophising because that is what gives evolutionary survival advantage. Western psychology and healthcare often tends to see the negative mind as pathological and suffering from “Prozac-deficiency”; Eastern philosophies and religions recognise the tendency towards negative and develop mindfulness practices (yoga, meditation) as a conduit to acceptance and values-based living.

“Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”

Soren Kierkegaard

Whilst we may have a mind that is always worrying, thankfully evolution has also given us a large pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to choose. It can’t control primitive emotions designed for survival, at least not successfully for any great length of time. But it can make a choice. Choosing to take actions that are in keeping with your values is then an incredibly powerful way to move us towards a rich and meaningful life, no matter what challenges we face.

What about goals?

Values describe how we want to behave and what is important to us on an ongoing basis. Goals are usually described in terms of what we want to have, get or achieve. However, there is a problem with goals. Striving for goal achievement can turn out to be toxic when goal achievement is the main measure of success. We can’t control the outcomes of many things in life, but we can control who we are and how we interact with the world on a daily basis. So for a rich and meaningful life, it is better to focus on how we act in keeping with what matters to us.

We are always told how important it is to have goals and SMART objectives, but there is a problem with goals. Goals usually describe what we want to have, get or achieve; these are outcome goals. They are useful when dealing with performance in the workplace and things that are entirely under our control. The problem is that there are many things that we have very little control over, and none of us can be certain what tomorrow will bring. When we use outcome goals as the main measure of success, we are also setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we don’t achieve them we become a failure, and if we do achieve them we often discover that it is just another box ticked and our lives are just the same despite any happiness that we anticipated. This is related to fixed mindset. Goals relating to how we will feel are in the same category – none of us can guarantee how we will feel, and trying to control our feelings is a recipe for disappointment.

A better way is to set process goals. This is then a goal relating to how we will act and behave. That is much more under our control, and more satisfying in the long term. Knowing what you stand for and how you want to act is a key part of values-based living, and a more reliable route to a rich and meaningful life. 

So goals are something to be careful with. In the right context they can be incredibly powerful if relating to things in our control that we will do, but if the focus is on what we will get or have then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Values-based living means knowing what you stand for, and choosing to behave in a way that is in keeping with that. No one can take that away from you. Values-based living is therefore an incredibly powerful way towards a life filled with the things that matter to you.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:

the last of the human freedoms –

to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor Frankl

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