Strategies and tools Values

What Do We Mean by “Values” (and why are they so important for our mental and physical health)?

[Photo by noitacifier]
[Photo by noitacifier]

Very often when working with clients, we get onto the question of their values.

These discussions are not necessarily about values in terms of “principles or standards of behaviour” – although they might include these. Rather, values, we could say give us a lens through which to discover or reaffirm what it is that really matters for us in our lives. It helps to have a clear sense of what really matters for us, as this can give us a kind of value-driven compass with which to live our lives in (hopefully) a richer and more fulfilling way.

Perhaps the best definition of what we means by values is the one given by Kelly G. Wilson below:

“Values are freely chosen ways you understand your place in the world; they are patterns of behaviour that evolve over time based on your actions, and you feel satisfaction mainly by doing these actions for their own sake, not for any outside incentive or rewards.”

Kelly goes on to explain each of these different facets.

Values Are Freely Chosen

[Photo by Sabik Akand]
[Photo by Sabik Akand]

This is probably the biggest way that our understanding of values differs from most of the common uses of the word. These are not anyone else’s values. They are yours and yours alone. I wouldn’t tell you what to value, and I would encourage you not let anyone else tell you either. You get to pick. While there are many preselected sets of values you might choose to subscribe to, for the purposes of our work together, you need to decide for yourself what they will be. If you adopt someone else’s idea of what is valuable and it doesn’t line up with what you really feel is important to you, you’ll just find yourself struggling with another set of stories that don’t work in your life.

Understand that the fact that you get to pick your values doesn’t mean that you will always be a perfect example of them. If only. You may choose to value your relationship with your children very highly. Does this mean you’ll always be the perfect parent? Not at all. Of course there will be times when you do things, even intentionally, that won’t square up with your idea of what it means to be a good parent. Your basic choice to make this area of your life a priority is what constitutes your value (and we’ll have more to say about pursuing your values in the next chapter on commitment).

Values Describe Your Understanding of Your Place in the World

[Photo by Cecilie Sønsteby]
[Photo by Cecilie Sønsteby]

This aspect of values might be a little harder to wrap your brain around. Think here of Viktor Frankl and his decision to remain behind to take care of his patients in the concentration camp even when he had an opportunity to escape.

If you didn’t know the details of his story—if you thought, for example, that he was just a guy in a terrible place who had a chance to escape and didn’t take it—it would be hard to make sense out of his decision.

Knowing how Frankl understood his place in the world—what it meant for him to be a doctor, a friend, and a fellow human being—explains and dignifies his choice. When we’re talking about values, we’re going to mean those ways in which you’ve decided to relate yourself to the role you will play in the world—as a member of a community or family, as a learner, as an artist, and so forth.

Values Are Patterns of Behaviour

Values from this perspective are not individual acts. Buying your wife a bunch of flowers does not make you a good husband. A pattern of acts that show consideration, thoughtfulness, and kindness is more like what we mean by values. Giving a bunch of flowers on Mothers’ Day or “just because” might be part of the pattern. It is the pattern that will cause, at the end of your days, someone to stand graveside and say, “he was a loving husband, and I will miss him so.”

Values Develop Over Time, Based on Your Actions

[Photo by eivindmork]
[Photo by eivindmork]

If you choose to value being a good husband, that value is unlikely to be static. Take someone for example, has been with his wife for more than thirty years. Being a good husband at year one does not look exactly the same as being a good husband at year thirty-one. Our most profoundly held values ask us to grow and change our patterns of living even though the central value remains constant.

This is another one of the ways in which our understanding of values differs from the everyday use of the word. Some understandings of the word might be written down into some kind of code. But our understanding of values evolves over time as the result of many, many actions you might take in the service of patterns of living you care about.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, in the sense we mean, you don’t really “clarify” or “discover” what it is that you value. Rather, you construct it over time as you engage in a pattern of actions that, eventually, start to look like a value. There are certainly lots of snake-oil salesmen out there who have plans and systems in place to help you “clarify” your values. Take this kind of thing with a grain of salt. Once you decide what you want your life to be about, only your efforts over time can really work out for you what this actually means. And the meaning and pattern will grow and change over time.

Values Are Intrinsically Rewarding

[Photo by Wonderwebby]
[Photo by Wonderwebby]

Here’s your lesson in behaviorism for the day:

There is a very basic idea in behavioral science that organisms (that is, people and animals) will work to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Pleasurable things are known asreinforcers; painful things are known as punishers. You get off the couch and go to the cookie jar, reach in, and pull out a snickerdoodle. Mmmm. Your behavior is reinforced. You walk to the stove, turn it on, and stick your hand in the fire. Ouch! You’re punished for your behaviour. From this point, you’re more likely to go get a cookie and less likely to stick your hand in the fire.

For nonhumans, reinforcers all relate to pretty basic things like food, sex, shelter, and social contact. But because of our story-telling brains, humans can get reinforcement for all sorts of places. If you doubt this, try giving a chicken an “employee of the month” award or tell a horse that it’s not going to get into heaven if it keeps wandering out of the paddock.

One of the basic qualities of a value in the sense we mean it is that it creates its own reinforcement. As we understand it, the act of being a good Mum becomes its own reward, if that’s something you value. Likewise, being environmentally responsible, being kind to animals, and learning to make beautiful music on the trombone can all be intrinsically rewarding, if they are things you value. If you only practice the trombone for hours each day because of the salary you get from the local symphony, yet otherwise detest the whole endeavor, you probably don’t value trombone-playing all that highly.

You may find yourself in a place where nothing feels valuable. Please, please, please ease yourself into the stream of life. It is in that stream of activity, engaged in with awareness and flexibility, that you will find things to love. There are only so many things to love that you can find hiding under your bed. And moving around in the world can be hard, but we think, if you practice the things we describe in this book, you will be glad you came out and joined us in this varied and extraordinary world.

What Do You Want Your Life to Be About?

5619838221_5559e9ab8d_bThis may seem like a hard question or it may seem like an easy one. Either way, it is a question worth lingering over. You can think about this question for yourself now, but it can also be a really worthwhile exercise to do with someone else, like a therapist or a friend.

Are you ready to take the plunge?

If you’d like to do the exercise by yourself, here are some instructions to do so.

If you’d like to do it with me, please do get in touch.