10 Signs You Know What Matters

Values are what bring distinction to your life. You don't find them, you choose them. And when you do, you're on the path to fulfillment.

By Steven C. Hayes Ph.D., published September 4, 2018 - last reviewed on September 12, 2018

K. Collins
K. Collins

From achievement and adventure to wisdom and wonder, not to mention kindness, innovation, and professionalism, values are those things you deem important in life. Expressions of what you care about, they profoundly inform what you pursue day to day, year to year. In so doing, they  fundamentally shape the trajectory of your whole life.

Values are an inexhaustible source of motivation—inexhaustible because they are qualities intrinsic to being and doing. They are visible only through their enactments. They're adverbs, or adjectives, or verbs: "I did something lovingly." Because they are chosen qualities of actions, they can never be fully achieved, only embraced and shown. Nevertheless, they give life direction, help us persist through difficulties. They nudge us, invite us, and draw us forward. They provide constant soft encouragement.

Whatever values you subscribe to, it's important to know that valuing is a uniquely human game.

They arise from our capability for symbolic expression. There's no domain, no age, no situation to which values do not contribute. You don't "find" them. You choose them. You have to do the work of exploring and looking and selecting and owning.

I'd argue that it is harder than ever for people, and especially young people, to know what they value. Modern technology has created a fire hose of information in the expansion of communication media. The gush of words and images we have unleashed on ourselves risks psychologically overwhelming us.

Amidst the noise, we look in the mirror and find a person who is too fat, too old, or, irony of ironies, too critical and judgmental. We are unable to put to rest our own insecurities, many generated by media constantly pulling us into self-defeating behaviors. We are unable to sit with the pain and distress that is a normal part of the human experience; instead, we are offered ever more ways to escape it. We are unable to reach through the mental entanglement of human judgment, losing flexible contact with others. Compassion, connection, community, and peace of mind disappear into the chatter.

We've always struggled with these matters. But never have we had such a toxic brew in which people are comparing themselves with others, judging others and themselves, and trying hard to avoid discomfort.

The same cognitive processes that feed comparison, judgment, and avoidance on the one hand can also enable us to create connection, community, and cooperation on the other. They can be used for good or for ill. We need to do better at creating modern minds for this modern world, so that we can more directly connect our behavior to what we deeply value.

That is especially true for our children and adolescents. Our nurturance is especially needed to help them choose what they care about beyond the evaluative judgmental mind and its yearnings. They get little help from our commercial culture; they have to find another way to relate to their own minds.

Here are ten ways to know you're focused on what's important.

K. Collins
K. Collins

1. You feel a sense of enough, rather than a need to measure whether you have more or less than others.

We have values because we are verbal, symbolic creatures who can imagine futures that have never been and think creatively about how to take a current situation and advance it. Language is an excellent tool to note and describe behavior, which allows us to gain increasing control over it. Language is also double-edged. The symbolic processes that enable us to hold values bump up against the impulse to measure and compare ourselves in ways that leave us never satisfied, never happy, never at peace.

As those uses of cognition gain ground, we become inordinately focused on achievement, money, power, and domination over others as the ultimate values: We pretend we'll live forever, are better than others. We wind up presenting a mask to the world, which prevents us from making genuine
connections with others.

Values get you to enough; they make this moment about something that you hold dear, and then the next moment, and the next. A person with values might look back and say, "I am committed to being loving. I'm never as loving as I need to be, but I'm on that journey."

Because what generates vitality and meaning is right up against what generates comparison and judgment, it's all too easy to slip from enough to more. The solution is to regard values as qualities of being and doing—not as labels worn as self-righteous armor. Actions are loving or kind or honest. When, in the continuing course of life, each moment is values-connected, the journey unfolds and then one's life is enough.

If asked, many people would say they go to work to provide for their families. This is important and true, but it is separate from the values that nudge them forward. Valuing money as a means to autonomy and sustenance is critical and presumably close to a human universal. Valuing money as a means to an end—wanting money to be able to contribute to others, for example—is one thing. It's another when money feeds comparison, judgment, and avoidance of the pain that comes with being human. If you use money in that pursuit, it doesn't matter how successful you are—you always want more. It's a thirst that can't be quenched.

People vary on how dominant the comparisons more and less are in their mindset. In a recent study my colleagues and I conducted, we found that those who respond very strongly to more and less tend to be not as  satisfied with life and to experience more negative affect than those whose response is weaker. People who always want more are miserable because they will never get to enough.

2. You can readily name your heroes.

As our heroes, we choose the people who stand for something we admire, something we would like to stand for ourselves. As a result, one way of getting at your values is to ask yourself, "Who are my heroes?" Once you identify the people who really mean something to you, who move you deeply in some way, then you can spend time examining and identifying exactly what that something is. What do they stand for, in your eyes, in the qualities of their actions?

3. You can single out the sweetest moments of your life.

Think of the most rewarding moments of your life and pinpoint what makes them so. Sometimes values are domain-specific, sometimes more general. If, for example, you are looking at work values, think back to those moments in your career where you felt especially alive, especially vital, especially moved, especially connected to life—moments that were special in some way. Then unpack that experience. There will be something in that memory that connects you to the vital source of valuing. When confusion sets in, it can serve as a light to direct you to what you care about.

K. Collins
K. Collins

4. You can identify your greatest pain.

We hurt where we care. Pain has large lessons to teach us. If you look inside the pain and see why it hurts, you have a precise and powerful indicator of what you value.

You can flip that pain over as if it were a piece of paper and ask yourself, What would you have to not care about for that not to hurt? That is what you value. If you were betrayed in love and the experience stabbed you through the heart, that means you care about love. If you were lied to, and it deeply hurt you, you care about honesty. If somebody showed disloyalty to you in a way that shocked you, you can be certain that loyalty and commitment from others are important to you. If you're afraid of being with other people or afraid you may not be accepted by others—socially phobic or socially anxious—you value being included, being connected to others.

Sometimes people are not willing to feel. But I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have within a deep yearning to feel fully and openly, and to feel genuinely themselves. That yearning is invariably connected to past wounds, for which the mind's attempted solution is to try not to feel at all.

When you try to throw away painful parts of your history, you have to pretend that the other side of that experience—the values side—can be thrown away too. To throw out the pain of betrayal you have to forget that love matters.

5. You don't know the content, but you can identify the theme of the next chapter of your life narrative.

If you think about your life as a narrative, a story you are writing, what would you put in the next chapter if you wanted that chapter to stand for something?  It can be helpful to think of values as an extension of your narrative, because they create the theme, the meaningful through-lines of our stories. The elements of the story so far—the challenges you've overcome, the opportunities you've missed or reached out for, the poignancy of love and loss—exemplify life as a journey. You don't yet know the details of the next chapter of your life story—you might get a phone call in the next two minutes that completely changes the content—but you do know the themes, the underlying meaning, because they are the values you are choosing to live by.

6. It's what you would do if nobody were looking.

Think of how children play. They pretend that getting to that tree before you touch them is very important. There is as much life in those next moments of tag as they can possibly muster. They're running as hard as they can, laughing, not because it's important but because they're pretending it is—they are caring about a moment by their own choice, not because someone is going to applaud—which allows them to fully participate in that moment in a playful way.

Once you exit that playful space, the mind tells you, "This is important," so you wind up putting your choices through the filter of logic—which becomes the decision maker, and you get shoved aside by your mother's voice, a television commercial, or a wagging finger from somebody who played a role in your history.

Instead, it is more powerful to come at your values as a choice—between you and the person you sense yourself to be. It's not unlike what you knew to do as a kid.

In workshops that I conduct, I help participants find that playful space. I say things like, "What if nobody is keeping score, what if nobody is watching, what if you were to do something and nobody would ever know that you were the one who did that?"

If somebody says, "I just really want to help people," I'll respond, "OK, imagine that you helped someone and it was a total secret; nobody knew." We will actually imagine a situation in which it is possible to do something you care about and not be caught at it. That exercise strips out the possibility of a self-aggrandizing motive: "I'm so great—look, I'm living my values and everybody sees it."

K. Collins
K. Collins

7. Your decisions make you feel like getting up in the morning.

Approaching actions playfully, as a game, does not trivialize them; it vitalizes
them—all because you get to choose what is meaningful. Kids do that naturally; innocence is where vitality lies. Adults have to reclaim that experience of innocence.

When you do that, you've plugged into the power of life itself. How do you know what your core values are?  There's a major metric—vitality. Life itself feels as if it's there to be lived. You get up in the morning and you go, not because you're whipping yourself, but because there is an appetitive yearning.  

You're taking yet another step forward toward something you'll never quite reach. What matters is going in that direction.

8. You can, in only a few minutes, write about what matters. (And you should.)

There is a significant body of research demonstrating that writing about values boosts people's ability to succeed. Asking teenagers to write about what they deeply care about in the realm of education has a profound effect on their school performance over the next several years. Writing for just 20 minutes two or three times in middle school may alter their trajectory for years. In a study published in Science in 2006, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues at UCLA were able to narrow the black-white racial gap in achievement by nearly 40 percent as a result of three brief sessions of values writing. "The drive for self-integrity—seeing oneself as good, virtuous, and efficacious—is a fundamental human motivation," the report began.

Recently, my group replicated and extended this work, reporting in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. During college student orientation, we exposed psychology majors to a 10-minute online program that explained in simple terms what values are—chosen qualities of being and doing—and how they differ from current goals. We then assigned a brief writing exercise focused on educational values and watched what happened to grades over the next semester. The students' grades went up by about one fifth of a grade point, compared with goal-setting alone or doing nothing special.

Take 10 minutes and explore in writing what is of importance to you in a given area. Write about why it is important and what happens in your life when you forget it.

9. You have a strong desire to communicate your interests to others.

You want to share what you value with others, because that is simply the nature of the creature we are. The need to share what we hold dear may even be why we have the capacity to communicate in symbolic ways in the first place.

When I ask people what they deeply care about, as I regularly do, other people are always on the top of the list. People strongly care about love, connection, and belonging. They care about contributing to the well-being of others, lifting up people who are suffering, and being there for people they love.

Other strongly held values spring more indirectly from deeply social concerns. If you care about the future of the planet, part of that is caring about what our grandchildren will be seeing—whether there will still be elephants and other creatures as well as rivers for them to enjoy. Even values that appear to be more individualistic, such as the creation and appreciation of beauty, have a social motive: People want to share that beauty with others, to help others appreciate it. In my experience, 99 percent of all values are social in nature.

The process that allows us to care is profoundly social.

10. You use your mind as a tool to humanize rather than objectify yourself.

When we engage the capacity to choose and to embrace the values that inform our actions, we are humanizing ourselves, living in an intimate, committed, effective way, and moving toward the kind of life we want to produce. That process is not without difficulty, because it brings us close to the razor's edge, where we get caught up in our own thinking and risk turning our values into a pros-and-cons list by which we objectify ourselves and others. That is how someone ends up being a workaholic and creating misery in his or her family in the name of "being a good provider."

The mind is a problem-solving organ that allows us to deal with events in imagination before they are faced in reality. That amazing skill has, over the last 10,000 years, allowed us, a weak, slow, and poorly defended species, to take over the planet.

Some of the real-world difficulties a person faced centuries ago have been taken care of or at least diminished. We are living longer, even in the poorest countries; violence is down, despite how things appear on our screens. We have made human progress. But to keep the organ that produced such changes from turning on its owner, we need to stay focused on the kind of life we want to live—connected to the meaning and purpose we choose, instead of creating barriers to that.

In the end, choosing values is simple. But it takes a certain amount of psychological sophistication to rein in the problem-solving mind. It takes sophistication to maintain playful, chosen, conscious, human, values-based action amid the cacophony of voices coming at us from outside and from within—judging, blaming, shaming, and avoiding.

Values set the direction of our life path. If we wander into avoidance and self-aggrandizement, we're heading away from our own chosen meaning. The gap between the two can serve as an ever-present compass, letting us know we are straying from our gut purpose. Like a caring adult saying, "This way, dear" to a wandering child, our values can be our teacher, vitalizing our life journey when we most need a nudge.

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