One of the things that leads to life satisfaction is living in line with our values – doing things that we believe are good and valuable things to do.
So how might we do that more?
I’m still slowly making my way through Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology, and I’m up to the chapter on Values, where he summarizes some of his own research on the circumstances in which our beliefs are most likely to be reflected in our actions. For today’s post, I want to go through some of these and suggest how we can cultivate those circumstances in order to live more authentically and congruently.
1. Acquire your values for yourself
It’s not a huge surprise that Peterson found values we acquire through direct experience are more consistent with our behaviour than ones we got second-hand, as it were – from our parents, the religion we were raised in or our culture in general.
Second-hand values, by the nature of how we got them, can often stay in our heads rather than getting all the way out into our lives. Values we acquired for ourselves, though, inherently came out of our life circumstances rather than an abstract system of philosophy, so they’re already connected to what we do.
I’m going to give a paradoxical-sounding piece of advice here. If you have values that you know are more in your head than in your heart, that came from your upbringing, go out and try to act on them. You’ll learn something that way about what it’s like to live those values, and whether they’re congruent with who you are.
If they are congruent, you’ll have taken a step towards living out your professed beliefs. And if they’re not, you’ll discover more about what your actual values are.
To give you an example, when I was a young man I converted to evangelical Christianity through the encouragement of my two closest friends. A number of years later, one of those friends, who had, in the meantime, left his faith, told me and our other friend that he was gay.
Now, we’d known him for more than half our lives at this point, and cared about him very much. We weren’t going to reject him as a person, no matter what our pastors said about homosexuality. For me, that conversation was a step on a path to quite a different kind of faith more congruent with my experience of real people, whereas for our other friend it was a trigger for him to realise that the faith he’d been raised in and the person that he was were too far apart to stay together any more.
(I didn’t say it was a safe, easy thing to do.)
2. Incorporate your values into your image of yourself
We live out values that help to define our self-image. If it’s very important to you that you’re a kind person, it’s much more likely that you’ll act kindly than if you just think kindness is important for people in general.
One good way to work this is to take a test that clarifies what your most important values are (such as Douglas Wagoner’s values test), and then make some statements, aloud, about the top few results. “Being a _______ person is important to me” is a good format for these statements.
You could write the statements out, too, and put them up where you can see them.
3. Be self-aware about your values and behaviour
Reflecting on your values before acting “primes” you to act consistently with those values. If you don’t think about what you’re doing, you’re likely to act, instead, out of expected social scripts.
The exercise above should help with this, too.
4. Place yourself in circumstances where you’re expected to act out the value
Peterson notes that if there’s a strong norm about the particular behaviour you’re contemplating, that norm will exert more influence on your behaviour than your value will. For example, if you have a value of helping people but there’s a strong norm in your culture about not stepping forward or “interfering” in the affairs of a stranger, you may hesitate to come to the aid of someone you don’t know.
To me, this says that you need to find an environment filled with people who share your values, where the norms are to live out those values. As long as you live in an environment where the dominant norms prevent you behaving in ways that reflect your values, you will be incongruent and, therefore, internally conflicted and unhappy. Particularly if you’re self-aware.
5. Be specific about your values
If your values are very abstract, they’re less likely to connect to specific behaviours. This is fairly obvious. Peterson’s example is that having a general value about beauty is less likely to make you recycle than if your value is more specifically about recycling.
If you’ve been through Wagoner’s test, you’ll have whittled down more specific values to a general one that is most important to you. For example, on the first page of his test I had a clump of values about intelligence, wisdom, insightfulness, perceptiveness, clearheadedness, reason and the like, which I later boiled down to one or two words.
If you’ve done that, turn around and reverse the process. What does a value of wisdom mean to you? It’s a lot easier to imagine acting perceptively or acting insightfully than it is to imagine acting wisely, simply because the words are more specific.
How to live out your values
Living in accordance with your values is very freeing, though also courageous. It will mean going against what people around you are doing some of the time, against your own desires some of the time, and certainly against the desires and expectations of other people some of the time.
Being aware of your values, making them your own, making them part of your identity, being specific about them and looking for contexts which encourage you to act on them will help you to live congruently and with integrity.
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