By Lori Eisner, PhD
“I’d like to lose 10 pounds.”
“I want to find a partner.”
“This year I will quit smoking.”
“I want to be a good mother.”
Human beings set goals all the time. What is much more difficult is achieving them. It can be hard to continue pursuing a goal when we feel stuck or like we are not making progress quickly enough. When this happens we have a few options: 1) we could give up the goal (“It wasn’t that important to me anyway”), 2) we can beat ourselves up for not being good enough (“If I only had more willpower, I would be able to lose weight or quit smoking”), 3) we could blame others (“All the men in my age group only want to date younger women”), or 4) we could consider taking a step back and think beyond the goal about our values and what is important to us. We often measure success in goals achieved, but consider an alternative definition of success: living according to your values – something you could do in any given moment.
When we think about HOW we want to live our life, we are focusing on values. Values are like a compass that keep us headed in a desired direction and are distinct from goals. Goals are the specific ways you intend to execute your values. A goal is something that we aim for and check off once we have accomplished it. Being responsible is a value. Owning a home is a goal. You can engage in responsible behavior each day that may lead to achieving your goal and continue to live that value even after you have achieved the goal.
Goals that flow from values are inherently more meaningful and more likely to be achieved than those picked at random or those selected because you think you should focus on them. Take the goal of losing weight. What is behind this goal? Is it because you value fitness or self-care or taking on challenges? Or is it because the magazines at the supermarket checkout counter make you feel bad? Understanding the value behind a goal allows you to make choices and engage in behaviors in any moment that are in line with what you have determined is important to YOU. When the goal lacks a value behind it, then the only measure of success becomes achievement.
So how do we start to figure out what we value? Picture your 80th birthday party and all the people who would be there. How do you want the people in attendance to speak about you – what would they say that you stand for, how would they describe what you mean to them or the role that you have played in their life. Would they describe you as an assertive, encouraging, and industrious boss? As an authentic, caring, and respectful friend? As a compassionate, loving, and supportive parent? As an adventurous, creative, and curious free spirit? Values focus on HOW you want to be as you move through the moments of your life, rather than on WHAT you want to achieve.
If you imagine that you are looking at your life through a lens of a camera, sometimes we can get overly “zoomed in” on our goals and whether or not we are achieving them. This can often lead us to feel guilty, ashamed, overwhelmed, hopeless or self-critical. Understanding and connecting to your values is like “zooming out” to see the whole picture – that we are more than our goals. Like a camera, we need to be able to zoom out and see the whole landscape (act in alignment with our broad values on a day to day basis) AND zoom in on the finer details of a single flower (continue to pursue and evaluate our goals) – there is beauty and power in both. And remember that at your 80th birthday celebration, those who surround you will probably not focus on that 10 pounds you never lost or that promotion you did not get, but they will toast to how friendly, fun, courageous and kind you were.
For more reading on values and goal setting, consider The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2007).