Define Your Values in a Way That Makes a Difference

I just finished reading Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil. This book is filled with practical insights. And, I still disagree with Weil’s tendency to equate happiness with pleasant feelings. There’s a more practical and powerful definition—acting in alignment with your values, moment by moment.

As the body of literature on Constructive Living reminds us, feelings are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. Our constant attempts to influence them—even in the  sophisticated ways that Weil suggests—can frustrate us.

I prefer the perspective of Steven Hayes, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and his colleagues. They offer a rich and useful conversation about happiness as acting in alignment with values.

It starts from the fact that behaviors, on the whole, are far more controllable than feelings. This means that you can start acting on your values right now, in the midst of your current circumstances—now matter how miserable you feel.

The trick is define values in a way that promotes action. You might begin with a list of lofty ideals, such as compassion, integrity, and wisdom. The problem is that these notions are too abstract to guide your very next action.

You can solve this problem with a short list of your most important domains of activity. Here’s one from Peter Bregman’s wonderful book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done:

  • Serve current clients.
  • Attract future clients.
  • Write about my ideas.
  • Be present with family and friends.
  • Have fun and take care of myself.

Notice that each item on Bregman’s list starts with an active verb. That makes it  easier to think of a physical, visible action you can take right now to act in alignment with your values. For example, “take care of myself” can translate to taking a 15-minute walk. “Write about my ideas” can mean starting a 300-word blog post.

For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet from psychotherapist Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living.

And contemplate these words from Steven Hayes, from his book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life:

We believe that right now at this very moment, you have all the tools you need to make meaningful and inspiring life choices for yourself….the actual ability to live in the service of what you value. That doesn’t mean that circumstances will necessarily allow you to achieve all of your goals; this is not a guarantee about outcome. And it doesn’t mean that you have all the skills you need to accomplish your stated goals. But it does mean that you have what you need to choose a direction.