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The Most Powerful Word in Your Life

... and the question that helps you discover it!

All words are not created equal. Some, like the words “peace” or “love,” can turn on genes that will reduce physical and emotional stress [a], while others can cause the release of stress-provoking neurochemicals in the brain. But there is one word that has the power to bring deep meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment into your life, and if you meditate on it for just a few minutes each day, it can change the way you work and improve your relationship with others.

However, no one can tell you what that word is. You must discover it for yourself. But don’t go looking for it right now, because if you are not in a deep state of relaxed awareness, you’ll only come up with words that are based on old ideas. Those words will not have the power to create an “aha” experience, but in our research we stumbled across a question that would illuminate this special word.

Surprisingly, it’s a question people rarely ask. In fact, it’s so rare that if you did a Google search, you'll get less than a dozen results. In comparison, if you type in a question like “What makes me happy?” you'll get as many as 28 million hits.

We’d like you to try a little experiment, right now, but make sure you have a pen and a piece of paper handy. First, take thirty seconds to yawn, breathe deeply, and relax all of the muscles in your body: your face, your jaw, the muscles around your eyes, your neck, your shoulders, your arms, your back, and your legs. Now shake your hands and feet for a couple of seconds, and then stretch and yawn a couple more times. Notice how different you feel, and how it affects your thoughts.

Now close your eyes as you ask yourself this question: “What is my deepest personal value?” Keep your eyes closed for at least 60 seconds, and listen to the subtle inner voices that constantly flow in the background of your consciousness. Search for a word that captures the quality of your deepest personal value.

Sometimes, when you ask the question in a slightly different, putting emphasis on diiferent parts of the phrase, another word will come to you. So again, ask yourself: “What is my deepest personal value?” Write down any new word that comes to mind.

Now ask yourself one more time: “What is my deepest personal value?” Write down any additional words, then look at at your list. Circle the one that feels the truest for you at this moment, then close your eyes again and repeat the word yourself, silently and aloud. Notice how it feels to say it, and then compare it to the other words you wrote down. On different days, or when dealing with different situations, you may find that other key values come to mind. But if you seriously reflect on this question, you'll often find a word that you intuitively know has profound meaning to your life. Meditating on this word, on a regular basis, can actually transform the direction of your work and personal relationships.

Our research shows that this is one of the most important questions a person needs to address if they want to find deep satisfaction in life. That's why we assign this exercise to busy executives who are enrolled in the EMBA program at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. They must do it for ten days, spending a minute or two each morning. The result? Eighty percent of the students report a substantial decrease in stress throughout the entire day, thus enabling them to work more efficiently and productively.

According to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, “reflecting on personal values can keep neuroendocrine and psychological responses to stress at low levels [b].” This is truly amazing! By simply pondering and affirming your deepest personal value, you’ll improve the health of your brain. Related research shows that the repetition of positive affirmations can reduce your propensity to ruminate about failure and help you to be less reactive and defensive when someone confronts you with uncomfortable information [c].

Over the past two years — using Facebook and other social media forums — the exercise has been experimented with by people all over the world: students, therapists, religious practitioners, divorce attorneys, teachers, corporate executives, and kids. When couples talk about their inner values in therapy, communication flows better and conflicts are more easily resolved.

If you consciously adhere to your personal values when you speak to others, you will be perceived by the listener as being more empathetic. At Missouri State University, psychologists even found that when a personal values exercise was included in a treatment plan designed to help patients cope with chronic pain, their tolerance toward pain improved [d].

Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter — considered by many to be one of the most powerful women in the world — recently commented on the importance of directly addressing values in the boardroom: “In organizations that I call ‘supercorps’ — companies that are innovative, profitable, and responsible — widespread dialogue about the interpretation and application of values enhances accountability, collaboration, and initiative [e].”

Kanter’s research found that when people share and discuss their deepest values, it strengthens the motivation of the entire group. And when the employees’ personal values become integrated with the company’s policy, it helps guide the ethical choices of the corporation. By discussing business values openly, Kanter argues, it eliminates the need to impose impersonal and coercive rules. Interpersonal conflict decreases, cooperation grows, and everyone feels like they are part of the team.

Our suggestion: try posing the question — “What is your deepest personal value?” — to your family members and friends. Post the question on Facebook and see what the responses are. You'll find it easy to respect everyone's inner values, even when the person's religious or political affiliation is different from yours. So if you ever find yourself in an uncomfortable dialogue, ask this question and share your responses with each other. It will quickly turn a potential conflict into an intimate rewarding exchange. That’s how powerful a single word can be!

A complete description of the Inner Values exercise, and it’s applications in personal, educational, and work-related environments can be found in Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies for Building Trust, Reducing Conflict, and Increasing Intimacy (Newberg & Waldman, 2012, Hudson Street Press).


[a] Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response. Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, Joseph MG, Benson H, Libermann TA. PLoS One. 2008 Jul 2;3(7):e2576.

[b] Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Creswell JD, Welch WT, Taylor SE, Sherman DK, Gruenewald TL, Mann T. Psychol Sci. 2005 Nov;16(11):846-51.

[c] Do messages about health risks threaten the self? Increasing the acceptance of threatening health messages via self-affirmation. Sherman DK, Nelson LD, Steele CM. Personality Soc Psych Bulleton. 2000: 26, 1046–1058. The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation. Koole SL, Smeets, K, van Knippenberg A, Dijksterhuis A. J Personality Soc Psych. 1999: 77, 111–125.

[d] Personal values and pain tolerance: does a values intervention add to acceptance? Branstetter-Rost A, Cushing C, Douleh T. J Pain. 2009 Aug;10(8):887-92.

[e] Getting value from value. Kanter RM. Harv Bus Rev (blog). 2010 Jun 14.

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