Values versus Goals
Exploring Values versus Goals in Russ Harris’ Happiness Trap. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said: ‘The secret of man’s being is not only to live, but to have something to live for.’ Have you ever considered this or other questions such as: What’s life all about? What are you here for? What makes your life worth living?
It’s amazing how many of us have never deeply considered these questions. We go through life following the same routine, day after day. But in order to create a rich, full and meaningful life, we need to stop to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So it’s time now to ask yourself:
- Deep down inside, what is important to you?
- What do you want your life to be about?
- What sort of person do you want to be?
- What sort of relationships do you want to build?
- If you weren’t struggling with your feelings or avoiding your fears, what would you channel your time and energy into doing?
Don’t worry if you don’t have all these answers on the tip of your tongue.
We’ve already touched on values several times in this book. Values are:
- Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we want to relate to the world around us.
- Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life.
When you go through life guided by your values, not only do you gain a sense of vitality and joyfulness, but you also experience that life can be rich, full and meaningful, even when bad things happen. Take the case of my good friend Fred.
Fred had a business venture that went horribly wrong. As a result, he and his wife lost almost everything they owned, including their house. In dire financial straits, they decided to move from the city out to the country, so they could live somewhere decent with affordable rent. There Fred found a job at a local boarding school that catered to foreign school students, mainly teenagers from China and Korea.
Values versus Goals
This job was totally unrelated to Fred’s business experience. His duties involved maintaining order and security in the boarding house, ensuring that the kids did their homework and making sure they went to bed at the right time. He would also sleep in the boarding house overnight and prepare the children for school the next morning.
Many people in Fred’s shoes would have been deeply depressed. After all, he’d lost his business, his house and a huge amount of money, and now he was stuck in a low-paying job that kept him away from his wife five nights a week!
But Fred realised he had two choices: he could dwell on his losses, beat himself up and make himself miserable, or he could make the most of it.
Fortunately, he chose the latter.
Fred had always valued coaching, mentoring and supporting others and now he decided to bring these values into the workplace. So he began to teach the children useful skills, such as how to iron their clothes and cook simple meals. He also organised the school’s first-ever talent contest and helped the kids film a humorous documentary about student life. On top of this, he became the students’ unofficial counsellor. Many of them came to him for help and advice in dealing with their various troubles: relationship difficulties, family issues, problems with studies and so on. None of these things were part of Fred’s job description and he didn’t get any extra pay for doing them; he did them purely and simply because he valued giving and caring. And as a result, what could have been a mundane job became work that was meaningful and satisfying.
At the same time, Fred didn’t give up on his career. While he needed this job in the short term to pay the bills, he continued to look for work that he genuinely desired. He’d always been an excellent organiser and administrator, with a particular interest in theatrical and musical events, and this was the area he most wanted to work in. Eventually, after many months of applying for all sorts of work, Fred found a job as the organiser of a local arts festival. It was a job that fulfilled him, paid him well and allowed him to spend a lot more time with his wife.
Fred’s story serves as a great example of how we can live by our values even when life treats us harshly. It’s also a good example of how we can find fulfilment in any job—even if it’s one we don’t want—by bringing those values into the workplace. That way, even while we search or train for a better job, we can find satisfaction within the one we have.
Values Versus Goals
It’s important to recognise that values are not the same as goals. A value is a direction we desire to keep moving in; an ongoing process that never reaches an end. For example, the desire to be a loving and caring partner is a value. It’s ongoing for the rest of your life. The moment you stop being loving and caring, you are no longer living by that value.
A goal is a desired outcome that can be achieved or completed. For example, the desire to get married is a goal. Once achieved, it’s ‘done’ and can be crossed off the list. Once you’re married you’re married, no matter how loving and kind, or how hard-hearted and uncaring you are to your partner.
A value is like heading west. No matter how far you travel, there’s always farther west you can go.
A goal is like a mountain or river you wish to cross on your westward journey. Once you’ve gone over it, it’s a ‘done deal’.
If you want a better job, that’s a goal. Once you’ve got it: goal achieved. But if you want to apply yourself fully at work, to be attentive to detail, supportive to your colleagues and engaged in what you’re doing, those are values.
Why Are Values So Important?
Auschwitz was the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. We can scarcely begin to imagine what took place there: the horrific abuse and
torture, the extremes of human degradation, the countless deaths through disease, violence, starvation and the infamous mass gas chambers. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived years of unspeakable horror in Auschwitz and other camps, which he described in gruesome detail in his awe-inspiring book Man’s Search for Meaning.
One of the most fascinating revelations in this book is that, contrary to what you would expect, the people who survived longest in the death camps were often not the physically fittest and strongest, but rather, those who were most connected with a purpose in life. If prisoners could connect with something they valued, such as a loving relationship with their children or an important book they wished to write, that connection gave them something to live for; something that made it worthwhile to endure all that suffering. Those who could not connect with a deeper value soon lost the will to live—and thus, their lives.
Frankl’s own sense of purpose came from several sources. For example, he deeply valued his loving relationship with his wife and was determined to survive so he could one day see her again. Many a time during strenuous work shifts in the snow, with his feet in agony from frostbite and his body racked with pain from brutal beatings, he would conjure up a mental image of his wife and think about how much he loved her. That sense of connection was enough to keep him going.
Another of Frankl’s values lay in helping others and so, throughout his time in the camps, he consistently helped other prisoners to cope with their suffering. He listened compassionately to their woes, gave them words of kindness and inspiration and tended to the sick and the dying. Most importantly, he helped people to connect with their own deepest values so they could find a sense of meaning, of purpose. This would then quite literally give them the strength to survive. As the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
Values Make Life Worth Living
Life involves hard work. All meaningful projects require effort, whether you’re raising kids, renovating your house, learning kung fu or starting your own business. These things are challenging. Unfortunately, all too often, when faced with a challenge we think, ‘It’s too hard’ and we give up or avoid it. That’s where our values come in.
Connecting with our values gives us a sense that our hard work is worth the effort. For instance, if we value connecting with nature, this makes it worth the effort to organise a trip to the countryside. If we value being a loving parent, it’s worth taking the time to play with our kids. If we value our health, we’re willing to exercise on a regular basis despite the inconvenience and exertion. In this way, values act as motivators. We may not feel like exercising, but valuing our health can give us the will to ‘just do it!’.
The same principle applies to life in general. Many of my clients ask questions like, ‘What’s the point of life?’, ‘Is this all there is?’, ‘Why don’t I feel excited about anything?’ Others say things like, ‘Maybe the world would be better off without me’, ‘I have nothing to offer’, ‘Sometimes I wish I could go to bed and never wake up again.’
Such thoughts are commonplace not just among the 10 per cent of adults who suffer from depression at any given time, but also among the rest of the population. Values provide a powerful antidote: a way to give your life purpose, meaning and passion.
Imagine You’re 80 Years Old
Here’s a simple exercise to get you started on clarifying your values. Please take a few minutes to write out or think about your answers. (You’ll get more out of it if you write!)
Imagine that you’re 80 years old and you’re looking back on your life as it is today. Then finish the following sentences:
- I spent too much time worrying about…
- I spent too little time doing things such as…
- If I could go back in time, I would…
How did it go? For many people this simple exercise is quite an eye-opener. It often points to a big difference between what we value doing and what we are actually doing. In The Happiness Trap you can read more and explore your values in more detail. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this oft-quoted extract from Man’s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one’s own way.
Russ Harris explains that the way most of us go about trying to find happiness ends up making us miserable, driving the epidemics of stress, anxiety, and depression. This empowering book presents the insights and techniques of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) a revolutionary new psychotherapy based on cutting-edge research in behavioral psychology. Highly recommended.