Values Don't Make Your Life Better

For years I have been an advocate of articulating values as a logical first step when improving your life. I've written about it over and over and have used it as a starting point with most of my coaching clients. While it has always seemed to work decently well I've discovered I'm a little uneasy about using this method. The logic is that if you can articulate and describe what you truly care about, what I've been calling values, you can start doing things to make those more salient in your life. It's a simple enough idea that also seems logically sound. The problem, however, is that actually drilling down to your true values is not easy to do. There are multiple factors working against this kind of approach, including the fact that the whole idea of values is kind of fuzzy to begin with. I can say I value Family and you can say you value Family and the mental picture we're each drawing may be completely different. We both know what we mean and are happy with the description, but it's not the same thing.


Another major stumbling block when it comes to articulating values is the fact that there are powerful societal forces that say you should value certain things. I believe it was in Tim Brownson's book, How to Be Rich and Happy, that he described a situation where a husband and wife did a values articulation exercise at the same time. When Family didn't appear in the husband's top 3 values and it did in the Mrs' there was obviously a major point of contention. That may be a little bit of an unusual situation, but think for a moment about the things that society says you're supposed to value. Family is definitely one of those values that's supposed to be on everyone's short list. Other people feel significant pressure to include Faith/Religion, Freedom, Friends -- the list could go on. The point I'm trying to make is not that it's bad to value these things, but to merely ask how likely it is we are truly describing our values when we feel societal pressure to value certain things.

I think there is an underlying metaphor that we can examine between values and passion. I'm not sure I can go a day without hearing or reading the advice about "finding a passion." I used to be a purveyor of this piece of advice as well. Until I figured out it's basically pointless. The belief that everybody has a particular passion waiting for them somewhere in the world and it just needs to be uncovered like a treasure under a rock is not helpful. Therefore, the dominant activity when trying to uncover or find this passion seems to be flitting from activity to activity, from rock to rock, looking for that elusive passion that will fix all your ills. There's a driving force that if you don't like your situation then you just haven't found your passion yet. I've since decided that this line of thinking is mostly fallacious and that "finding" is the wrong verb to use when describing passion. Instead, we should talk about "developing" passion. The focus is on action and practice. I feel the same way about values. The traditional way of thinking about value places little emphasis on actual action, just like the quest for finding a specific passion. Values shouldn't be discovered but developed over time, like passion. Both of these constructs need a radical overhaul.


The underlying assumption that I think most people make (and I have, too, for a long time) is that our actions follow our values. That we act the way we do because of the things we value. This seems logically straightforward. However, what if the relationship between values and action is more bidirectional than believed? In fact, let's think about the directly opposite view. Instead of our values driving our actions, what if the way we act drives what we value? That we think we value Family not because we've decided that Family is very important to us but because doing nice things for your family makes you feel good (both in the short and long-term) and therefore you associate doing nice things for your family as the "value" Family. The driving force in this relationship is the action, not the value.

I think personal development should be a very tangible activity and the ephemeral nature of values has bothered me for some time. There has to be a better way to think about living a life that makes you happy. Today, I'd like to propose a new line of attack in personal development: Instead of trying to articulate your values, articulate the activities that make you feel both "good" and "bad" in the short and long-term; systematically cultivate and seek the activities that make you feel good while cutting out the activities that make you feel bad. With this new approach we can now focus on action, on practice, and on progress instead of sitting idly and searching our memories, feelings and "values" that describe the way we feel. In the end, you can have the most perfectly articulated values but what actually matters is what you do. Action is the greatest manifestation of value, so let's shift our attention to how we can create more of it in our lives.


As human beings we are hard wired to seek pleasurable experiences and sensations. Delicious food, clothes fresh from the dryer, sex -- all of these produce pleasurable sensations. Are these the types of things you should be seeking out under my new value-less paradigm? Not quite. While there's nothing wrong with pleasurable sensations themselves (provided they aren't harming you or anyone else in the long-term), we are searching for a more nuanced definition of "good." A helpful starting point when trying to articulate the types of activities and behavior that we're after is to think about a day where everything seemed to go "right" and you went to bed feeling satisfied and happy. For me, it probably means I worked hard and made progress on work that mattered to me, had some kind of physical activity, interacted with the people to whom I'm closest, meditated and challenged myself in some way. That is the type of day that makes me smile as my head hits my pillow, exhausted, at the end. While I was working hard on a difficult project or working out I probably didn't feel euphoric like I might be when eating a thick slab of chocolate cake. The immediate gratification wasn't there, but the long-term benefits I knew I was cultivating by not procrastinating and by keeping myself healthy far outweighed the momentary discomfort.

You may have an idea of similar activities that make you feel fulfilled and aligned when you do them. Some sort of physical activity and eating healthy are common activities that seem to find their way on to people's "good" lists frequently. What other activities make you feel this way? If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, there's something you can do to make this process easier. For the next few days you need to become more mindful of how different aspects of your daily activity make you feel. There are numerous times throughout most days where I find myself saying, "Man, why don't I do this more often?" That's a good sign that I've just found an activity that I should try to systematically build into my life in a more robust way. On the flip side, there's usually numerous points throughout most days where I find myself saying, "This sucks. I never want to do this again." Again, this is the sign of an activity that I should actively try to remove from my future experience. It's not easy to remember to be mindful but the more you practice it, the better you'll get at it. If it's easier for you, you could spend a few minutes at the end of the day identifying the times and activities where you felt really good and bad in the past 24 hours. Write those down and after a week or two you should have a good list to work from.

Another route you can take for identifying the activities and actions that you'd like to build into your life is to look at people you admire and identify what seems to be making them feel good. The problem with the approach I described in the previous paragraph is that you're limited to the scope of activities in which you already partake. That's no good. Obviously there are a myriad of possibilities that exist beyond your current realm of experience. Looking to people you admire can give you ideas of activities for inclusion on your own list. Obviously, you can't just adopt other people's approaches without testing them for yourself. It's possible that something your friend finds fulfilling and "good" is quite the opposite for you. It's up for you to give it a try and make that decision for yourself, though.


The obvious trap that must be avoided is lapsing into a hedonistic focus when it comes to identifying the activities that make you feel good. Hedonism is a school of thought that argues pleasure is the only intrinsic good. A hedonist does everything they can to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. There are lots of possibilities of things you can do that will make you feel good in the moment such as eating four chocolate chip cookies or not working on a difficult project. In the short run, both of these choices may maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. How does my new approach to personal development sans values differ from pure hedonism?

The key term that I fail to use in my definition of good while hedonists latch onto with authority is "pleasure." A hedonist's primary focus is purely on pleasure. Pleasure is characterized by good emotions and sensations without too much concern about long term ramifications. In my approach to personal development, you're searching for activities that go beyond pure pleasure and tap into more long lasting sensations of "good." That's not to say that some of the activities you identify as positive components of your life aren't also hedonistically oriented. However, it's unlikely that the full roster of your good activities will all be hedonistically relevant. For example, lifting weights or running is something I've identified as an activity that makes me feel good. In the short term, when I'm actually sweating and breathing hard, I rarely feel like that final rep or final half mile is adding a lot of pleasure to my life. If I were a hedonist, it's unlikely that I'd partake in activities like that, even though I know they are good for me in the long run. While it may be difficult in the moment, I know the importance of staying physically fit and I know how good I feel after a strong workout. When seeking out the activities that you want to cultivate more mindfully in your own life, try to identify whether you're looking for immediate gratification or long term happiness. The more you can build your life around doing things that will benefit you in the long term and not just the short, the better off you'll be.


The whole point of this entire shift in ideology is to place the focus squarely on concrete actions that have improved your life in the past or you have a strong suspicion may improve your life in the future. At the same time, you're systematically removing actual events and actions that have been detrimental in the past. The net result of this addition and subtraction should be a noticeably happier life that coincides more directly with what you actually care about. One caveat before moving forward is that this approach requires a decent amount of mindfulness to pull off successfully. Essentially, you need to be able to step back from your immediate experience often enough to notice what your emotions are when you partake in different activities. This serves as the backbone of this system and without it your lists are going to be flimsy and meaningless.

To begin, take a week where all you do is go on living your normal life while carrying a small notebook and a pen with you throughout the day. Your only job is to pay attention to what is making you feel good or bad as you go about your business and to write it in your notebook. This is going to feel weird at first, I know. There's no reason you need to stop doing whatever your'e doing to whip out your notebook and make a note, but try to just pay attention to how you're feeling when you do different things and make a note of it as often as possible. At this stage of the game, you're just trying to get a rough idea of the activities you want to cultivate and those you want to rip out by the roots.

After you've done this for awhile you should have two lists; one full of activities and events that make you feel good about yourself and one full of activities and events that make you feel bad about yourself. Now, take a few moments to look at your lists and add any other activities that you may not have experienced in the past week but you know they are something that's super positive or very negative for you. Helpful questions at this point include, "What makes me feel good whenever I do it?", "What should I do more of?", "If I had the time/money/energy, what would I do more of?", and "Lots of people seem to enjoy running/working out/eating a paleo diet/eating a vegetarian diet/volunteering/whatever -- should I try that?" As you can imagine, do the same thing with the negative components as well. You want to flesh out these lists as much as possible so they are salient and exciting.

The obvious next step is to begin making space in your life to incorporate some of the activities from your good list as much as possible. Depending on the content of your list, that will obviously look differently for different people and activities. The key is to make yourself commit to a handful of these activities as explicitly as possible. Put them on a to-do list, break them into smaller tasks, leave yourself notes around the house reminding yourself to do them -- whatever it takes to build more of these events into your life. In order to make this a sustainable change, however, you should try focusing on only a small subset of these activities at first. You're only going to set yourself up for failure and disappointment if you try to cram the entirety of your list into every day, or even every week. Some of the activities on your list are probably habits that wouldn't hurt to instill into your daily life, but some of the other ones are probably done no more frequently than weekly or monthly. I like to actually set some time aside at the beginning of the week to actually look at my lists and decide which positive activities I'm going to try to do over the next several days and which activities I'm going to actively try to remove.

Looking at and working with your good list is obviously a little bit more fun than thinking about all the things you do that you hate. However, I've found that removing bad habits and activities from my life is almost more rewarding than filling my days with activities that make me feel good. Take a look at your schedule or routine and identify where you can remove items that are on your negative list. For many people, possibilities include waking up too late to feel calm and collected in the morning, eating tons of fast food, spending money on stuff you don't need (or really want) and other hobbies or activities that bring little or negative value to your life. Again, just like with the positive list, you can't do everything at once, especially if you're dealing with habits. Pick one that you'd like to eradicate and focus on it exclusively until you've changed or removed it to your satisfaction. This isn't a race -- take your time and do it right.


I've covered a lot of ground in this article to essentially make a simple point; the more you do things that make you feel good and the less you do that makes you feel bad the better you'll feel about yourself. For a long time I advocated that the best way to figure out how to live a more meaningful and positive life was to take a long and hard look at your values. I've always had trouble with that approach because it's hard to wrap your mind around values separate from the influence of society at large. Instead, rooting your decisions in what you'll do to improve your life should be based on experience. Nobody except you knows what makes you feel good. Nobody except you knows what makes you feel bad. If you can mindfully identify which activities produce which emotions within you, you can systematically build your life around those activities (or around removing those activities).