Most people come to therapy to address something in their life that isn’t going well, such as depression, anxiety, or a relationship problem. Psychotherapy is mainly focused on resolving problems or overcoming a psychological issue that is getting in the way of your functioning and enjoyment of life. But, the elimination of a problem doesn’t always result in happiness. To have happiness, it’s vital to not only achieve mental health, but also to attain and enjoy values.
Philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand defined a value as “that which one acts to gain or to keep.” This quote contains several points—that a value is a positive and something you want, and to attain it and hold onto it you must take action.
The most important thing about choosing values is to choose ones that are a value to you. Implicitly this is obvious, because if you weren’t getting anything from it, you couldn’t really consider it a value. Nevertheless, it’s very common for people to choose and pursue things that aren’t a value to them, or that even may be detrimental to their health and happiness. For example, some choose a career to please their parents, be socially acceptable, or for the prestige, rather than choosing one they are personally turned on by. This is a huge mistake because they’ll spend a huge amount of time over the course of their lives doing something they don’t enjoy or may even hate.
A career that’s a value to you is one that’s exciting, interesting, fun, challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. If you’re bored by it or dread going to work each morning, it’s not a value to you (other than maybe financially). The same goes for a friend. A friend who’s a value is someone you enjoy being with, whom you respect and share interests with, and who’s interested in you and supportive. This doesn’t mean you always see eye-to-eye, but when you disagree, you respect each other and are able to cordially resolve the issue.
Choosing and pursuing values is not easy. It seems easy because all you have to do is pursue things that you love. But, figuring out what you love, and having the commitment to go after it, is challenging, especially in a culture that teaches you from a young age to always put others first. With values, you have to think of only what will make you happy and fulfilled, and not pursue things just to please others.
When I work on values with clients in therapy, I separate values into six different categories, which helps them organize and think about them more easily. The categories are: career (which includes education), romantic love, social (friends and family), health (physical and mental), hobbies/leisure, and children. Even these categories are optional and your personal choice—there are no obligations with values other than they should make you happy, and you are responsible for their achievement.
Here are three guidelines for choosing and pursuing values:
1. A value is something that enhances, supports, improves, and/or furthers your life in some way for the short and long-term. The idea of long-term is key here because most of us will live 70-80 years, so we have to plan long-range and not just live for the moment in a reckless way. Thus, shooting heroin, stealing, being sexually promiscuous, driving too fast, etc., may bring short-term pleasure or loot, but ultimately, these types of activities can be self-destructive to your life, and thus, not a value to you. Your life is your ultimate value, without which no other values are possible.
2. Choosing and pursuing values doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve them, or even hold onto them once you have them. There may be a college you want to get into, or a job you really want, or a man or woman you really want to date, and you may work extremely hard to attain this value, but there’s no guarantee you will. Sometimes you’ll go after a value and not get it. This is life. The good news is that if you fail to achieve a value you really wanted, you can always pursue another one. You may fail ten times, but succeed the eleventh time. Some values are easy to achieve, such as enjoying a meal at your favorite restaurant, while others are much more difficult to attain, such as becoming a successful artist. But, the more values you pursue, the more chances you have of achieving them and getting what you want, or at least close to it.
3. Values are evolving. Sometimes, what was once a value to you is not a value any longer. This can be true of a career, relationship, hobby, etc. This is why it’s important to do what I call a “values inventory” occasionally to make sure you’re still satisfied with what you have. You might have loved your career for several years, but now you don’t get as much pleasure from it. This might mean you need to revitalize it and take a different approach or work somewhere else. Or, it may mean you’re a different person now with different interests, and you might want to pursue a new career that will be fresh and exciting and add some spice to your life.
Choosing, pursuing, and enjoying values are what make life exciting, challenging, and rewarding. The only way to guarantee you won’t be happy is to not pursue values, or to pursue non-values. No matter where you’re starting from, you can always improve or enhance your values, and thus, your enjoyment of life.