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What Really Matters?

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By Karen Kingsley, Ph.D.

Karen Kingsley, Ph.D.

What is truly important to you? If you give yourself a few moments to imagine looking back on your life from an advanced age, what do you want to see your life as having been about?

The question can sometimes feel too big and broad to answer, yet investing the time and effort to clarify your values as an ongoing practice can not only protect you from being disappointed in your future answer to that ultimate question, but can also help you to maximize your experience of meaning and fulfillment here and now.  Values are the qualities that are meaningful and important to you in a way that is basic to who you are. For example, being competent and effective or having an exciting life might be high values for you and not so much for your best friend or partner. Values are not the same as goals. Goals are specifiable and achievable. When you complete them they can, in a sense, be checked off your list. Values are directional; you don’t reach the end of a value, although values may change over time. If you value freedom and adventure, your goal might be to plan a trek to an exotic location. The value guided your goal choice, but your love of adventure doesn’t go away after you have taken that trip. It’s also not necessary that you only express your values through large, ambitious goals.  You can pursue values in large and small ways any time you choose. If learning and developing new skills is important to you, you can ask yourself, “What can I do today that falls into that category?”  Maybe this is the day you finally look for a YouTube video on how to repair your bike or cook something new. If being connected to others is important to you, you might deliberately take an extra couple of minutes to greet and engage with a neighbor or colleague. The act feels more meaningful because you are organizing it out of your conscious values.

Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundgren have devised a very useful and interesting exercise to help you begin an exploration of your own values. They list ten domains of life: Intimate Relationships, Parenting, Family Relationships, Social Relationships, Work, Leisure, Citizenship (Community), Personal Growth, Health, and Spirituality. Breaking the big life question into segments like this really helps to make it less overwhelming.  Consider each of these domains and write a few words for each that express what you ideally want your life to be about in that area. If there is an area that is truly irrelevant to you, you can skip it, or, if there is another area that is important to you that is not contained in one of these domains, add it to the list. When you have completed your narrative, rate each area on how important it is to you on a 0 to 10 scale. This is not a rank ordering. Everything can be an 8, if that feels most accurate to you. Then go through the list again, and indicate on a 0 to 10 scale how closely you feel you are living your values in this area currently. Here it is very important that you not use this information to beat yourself up because you are “not doing a good job living up to your values.” The intention is for this to be a helpful, supportive tool – a compass to help you steer and direct your choices, and maybe change course if you need to.

Russ Harris has also adapted this exercise and has a free downloadable form that you can use to do the process. It is available on his website under free resources from ACT Made Simple. He calls it, very appropriately, The Life Compass.

Enjoy the process!

About the Author...

Dr. Karen Kingsley is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Ashburn and Sterling, Virginia.

Last Update: 8/23/2015

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