Friday, 5 July 2013

Living by values

Values are broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes, which guide ethical action. Commonly held values are honesty, equality, justice and commitment. Value identification, value creation and values-based living are the basis for many religions, philosophies and psychological therapies. A good (though maybe somewhat morbid!) way to identify your personal values is to think about what you would like people to say at your funeral. Or alternatively what you'd like your family to say about you on your 80th birthday, or your partner to say on your golden wedding anniversary.

Values play an important role in good psychological health. In his blog Anger in the Age of Entitlement, Steven Stosny, Ph.D and psychotherapist states that "If you devalue more than you value, your life will be bad, no matter how many good things happen to you. If you value more than you value, your life will be good, regardless of how many bad things happen to you".
That is a very interesting concept, and it explains why:

  • Often the things we think will make us happy don't
  • Why some people who appear outwardly to have everything are not happy, and
  • Why some people who appear to have very little do seem to be happy.

Nelson Mandela is one good example of this. He experienced the death of his father as a child, was expelled from one university and dropped out of another for being a poor student, was imprisoned, experienced the death of two of his children, was not allowed to attend the funeral of his mother and one of his children, and was twice divorced. Despite these setbacks he continued to devote himself to his values of democracy and equality, achieved his goal of democracy in South Africa, and created an important legacy. It is likely that he was able to keep pursuing his goals despite his bad experiences because he was living by his values.

On the other hand, daily we hear about various celebrities, who despite their wealth, status and popularity have drug addictions, convictions for various offences and even on occasion attempt or complete suicide. While we do not know what happens in their personal lives, it is likely that they pursued fame and money thinking that it would make them happy, while ignoring or violating their deepest values. Certainly it is highly unlikely that anyone's deepest values include destroying their bodies and harming other people.

Anything involving the brain that is done repeatedly becomes habituated. Repeatedly pursuing a certain mindset creates neural pathways in the brain that become strengthened until that way of thinking is essentially automatic. If we continue to think about the ways we have been wronged for example, complain about other people and pursue revenge, then resentment will become our automatic way of thinking. If we actively choose to see setbacks as opportunities for growth and pursue compassionate understanding, then we are creating values based thinking, which is likely to lead to more happiness.

The upshot is that values-based living will lead to more happiness and better emotional health. In a practical sense, when something happens in our lives that makes us feel devalued, we are likely to recover more quickly and to have a better overall outcome if we strive to value rather than devalue. For instance, when going through a break up it is better to find ways to feel loved and to love others rather than to blame and demonise the other person.

Certainly easier said than done!

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