At the beginning of each calendar year, many of us set lofty goals, with the hope and expectation that with such achievements we’ll be happier. For instance, we vow to lose that extra 20 pounds, go to the gym more often, find a more rewarding job (or find a job, period), and improve our financial situation.
While setting goals can help us determine where and how to focus our energy and time, why is it that so many of us struggle to make headway?
Could it be that before we set goals, we would benefit from spending some time determining our values?
Consider that goals generally have an endpoint. We get the house in the Hamptons. We meet the fantastic guy (or girl). We diet our way down to size 6. And then what?
What generally happens is that although we probably feel quite exuberant immediately after accomplishing our goal, our happiness doesn’t last. We humans are a peculiar lot. We tend to have a specific happiness set point, due to genetic, circumstantial, and habitual factors.
According to one research study (Brickman et al), when recent major lottery winners were compared to control subjects and accident victims who were paralyzed, the lottery winners were no happier than the other individuals. In fact, the lottery winners found less enjoyment in everyday activities than the other subjects.
The good news is that while we can’t change our genes, and we’re not usually 100% in charge of our circumstances, we can change our attitudes and habits (which is our best shot of raising our happiness set point). Clarifying our values can be one way we increase our levels of well-being and fulfillment, because:
- Values are choices we make as to where we want to put our energy in our life, what qualities we want to embody, and how we want to behave on a day-to-day basis. Nobody forces values on us – we are in charge.
- Values help to determine our goals. Let’s say that being a good friend and neighbor is one of our top values. We can then set goals and more specific action steps such as “check in with my closest friends at least weekly and ask how they’re doing”, “speak candidly with my best friend”, or “pick up groceries for my elderly neighbor”. Values drive goals, which can be broken down into specific action steps.
- We don’t have to wait to live in line with our values. If our goal is to run a marathon, that’s great – but what about the journey? When it’s 4:45 a.m. and we’re jogging on a darkened street, we may feel cold, tired, and achy, none of which is much fun. If we haven’t attached values (like tenacity, discipline, good health) to our goals, we may feel miserable much of the time on the way to achieving our goal. However, if we’re clear on and remember our values, the present (and possibly unpleasant) moment can feel more meaningful, because our actions are congruent with our values.
- We can live in line with our values no matter what happens. If we are bound and determined to reach a certain landmark, such as earning a certain amount of money per year, something completely out of our control may occur, such as our company filing for bankruptcy and our losing our job. Our goal may not be achievable (at least not in the immediate future). However, if we value creativity, helpfulness, and productivity, we can live these values, no matter what our income (or if we even have a job). Living in concert with our values may make it more likely that we’ll be rewarded monetarily down the line, but whether or not this is the case, we have control over how we behave – and why.
- We can live in line with our values regardless of other people’s behavior. Despite a demanding boss, ungrateful child, loud neighbor, or concerning political climate, we are in charge of our own conduct and attitudes. Although we cannot control other people, we can choose our responses.
- It’s never too late to live in line with our values. Even if we’ve acted in ways that we regret, we can get back on the wagon. Just as we never “achieve” a value, we never “lose” a value. We may have gotten out of practice, and it may take effort, but we can recommit ourselves to honesty, courage, patience, or self-control, for instance. We choose what values we want to live in accordance with every day – every moment, in fact.
I once worked for a boss who required that his employees embody the following values:
The acronym (HIPPAA) was easy to remember, and knowing our department’s stated values was a guiding light when it came to making decisions within the workplace.
You might try sitting down with a pad of paper, pen, and your thoughts for an hour or so, and contemplate what you would like to stand for. Ask yourself:
- What are my best qualities and strengths?
- What additional qualities would I like to cultivate?
- How and where would I like to apply these new qualities and values?
- How would my life be different if I consistently lived these values?
- What’s one thing I can do in the next 24 hours to exemplify one of the values I’ve chosen?
And remember, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu). The key is to keep walking, and to pick yourself up and return to the path if you falter.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 36(8): 917.927.