Finding meaning, purpose and identity through values
Do you ever feel like you’re losing sight of yourself? Lacking a sense of purpose, intention, identity, even questioning the meaning of it all? You might set and achieve goals, but only feel brief satisfaction when you do. So you set another goal, then another, and another, experiencing short periods of satisfaction each time, but ultimately remaining deeply unsatisfied or discontent. What is going on here?
Goals v Values
Most of us have been raised and socialised to equate success with the achievement of goals – identifying WHAT we want (or being told what we should want), then going after it. In our modern life, we are rewarded for this approach – it can help us become financially secure and result in praise and acceptance from our families and peers. Do well at school and university! Get that dream job! Find a good partner! Create a family! Buy a house! Get a better job! Keep fit! Travel! Have many friends! Retire comfortably! These are all legitimate and common life goals. In fact they are so common, that we may start to question ourselves if we don’t want to pursue them. Our rational thinking brain will try and ascribe meaning to the pursuit of these goals, even if our emotional brain and gut instinct tells us otherwise.
While a purely goal-orientated approach to life can be highly motivating and drive productive behaviour, it does not guarantee us a rewarding or lastingly satisfying life. In order to achieve that, our chosen goals need to be clearly linked to how we want to live our lives. In other words, for the achievement of goals to bring lasting satisfaction, they have to be underpinned by a deeper sense of personal purpose and meaning – values.
How we want to live indicates our values. When we are in touch with our values we achieve a greater sense of integrity in our lives. In turn, we strengthen our identity and feel true to ourselves, rather than feeling shaped by the expectations and pressures of others or society in general.
Discovering your values
It sounds like it should be an easy question, “What are your values?”, but can be incredibly difficult to answer. To start, ask yourself the questions below, taking your time to contemplate the answers to ensure they ring true to you, not to what society expects of you (close your eyes while you contemplate and visualise your answers):
What sort of person do I want to be?
What do I want to stand for?
What is meaningful to me?
Here’s another exercise to try - imagine your own 90th birthday party – how would you like the guests to describe you and what you stand for? What would you like them to say about the kind of person you are? This will give you clues about your core values. Values describe the personal qualities with which we move through life. They are aspirational and never accomplished. Goals are the discreet achievements we aim for along the way. Values are the road, a never-ending highway, and goals are the tourist attractions we stop at on the way.
It can be challenging, even confronting, if we realise that our goals or achievements aren’t aligned with our values. This is why the achievement of some goals may not provide much satisfaction when we reach them. We’ve lost a sense of meaning and purpose.
“There is no yearning more important to human beings than to freely pick and pursue our life direction. A clear sense of self-directed meaning provides us with an essentially inexhaustible supply of motivation. But we can easily lose sight of what is actually meaningful to us, pursuing socially compliant goals and superficial gratifications instead. Every tick of the clock can mock us with the emptiness of such a life.” – Dr Steven C. Hayes, A Liberated Mind (p. 224).
Some examples that highlight the difference and the relationship between goals and values are below:
Exercise 3 times a week
Health and longevity
Read 20 books a year
Meditate 10mins a day
Donate 5% of income to charity
Fairness, equality, justice
Hug and spend time with family
Express care and love
Enrol in an art class
Try karaoke singing
For example, the goal of ‘enrol in an art class’ becomes more meaningful and rewarding when we consciously realise ‘because expressing my creativity is important to me’.
More recent approaches in wellbeing and mental health place less emphasis on the search for happiness (a temporary emotion, just like all other emotions), and much more on the idea of contentment, or value-based behaviour. Values clarification is just one of several principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach which focuses on enhancing psychological flexibility and learning specific skills to improve mental health and wellbeing.
In psychological therapy it is common to discuss and explore your personal values, remembering they also change and shift in priority over time (which is completely normal!). To read more about values and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), here are some recommended resources:
If you’re feeling a little lost in life, consider differentiating between your goals and values, then working on aligning them – this should help enhance your sense of identity and purpose. Discussing values with trusted friends and family is also a great way to improve our sense of connectedness with others.
B Psych (Hons), M Psych (Clin), MAPS
Lisa Abraham is a Clinical Psychologist at Clinical Therapy and also works in a diabetes outpatient service at a public hospital in Sydney. She has a special interest in health psychology - particularly the impact of chronic illness, body image issues and weight stigma on identity and psychological wellbeing.