Using Values to Guide Action

Using Values to Guide Action

This week’s post is a guest blog from UCSF Psychologist Dr. Christina Garrison-Diehn.

Today we want to focus on the importance of identifying our personal values and the potential impact of that exercise on our well-being.  If we have a clear picture of our personal values (meaning values that are important to us, not necessarily to others) they can serve as a guiding light for how we choose to behave or spend our time. This is important for a couple of reasons:

  1. Goal-setting: One of the best things we can do for our mental health is to actively take steps to work towards our goals. Our personal values and goals are related in that ideally our goals are informed by our values.  But they are different in that goals can be achieved, while values are ongoing. One way to think about it is that values are the direction we want to be heading, while goals are what we accomplish as we go. A value is like heading north and goals are the rivers and mountains we aim to cross as part of our journey.
  2. Living an intentional life: It is a common experience to find at one point or another that we have drifted away from the life we want to be living.  Maybe we are spending more time and energy at work than we want to, not attending to our physical health, or spending more hours online than we want.  Sometimes we get stuck in problematic patterns with partners or other loved ones and we are not being the partner/parent/child/friend that we want to be.  However, when we have a good sense of our values, it can help us make important behavior changes in these areas. It provides the opportunity for us to turn off autopilot and intentionally act in ways that are in line with our values.



How to Identify Your Personal Values

Start by setting aside some time to reflect and ask yourself questions like:  “What is important to me?” “What kind of person do I want to be?” “What gives my life meaning?”  If this process feels overwhelming, you can try an exercise commonly used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Imagine you are at your 100th birthday party and think about the things you would like your family and friends to say about you as they offer toasts and write in your birthday cards.  What you hope people say about you gives you good information about your personal values.

Once you have a clear picture of your personal values, you can translate them into your everyday life.  I recently had a client who valued physical health, but had gotten out of the habit of exercise after some years of medical issues.  He worked on trying to change the habit of turning on the television when he got home from work and instead put on his walking shoes and got some exercise for an hour. This was more in line with his value of physical health and goal of increasing exercise.  Even though it was difficult at times, he continued taking action–small, daily steps–that were guided by his personal value. He felt the physical health improvements, and because he was working on this goal he also felt improvements in his mood and quality of life.

We encourage you to give it a try. Take some time to focus on clarifying what your personal values are and see what you discover.