In this blog I talk about what we mean by values, strengths and goals and how these can optimally work together to promote flourishing.
Values are the things that really matter to us, our compass bearings for who we want to be in life and what we want to stand for. These vary between people and can change over time. Interestingly, as I see it, there is no value judgement about your values. Only you can decide what is truly important to you.
Clearly, our values may be heavily influenced by our environment, culture, upbringing, experiences, attachment and trauma history and social circles. However, ultimately we get to choose our priorities and the way in which we balance them. As I’ve written in previous blogs, many of us don’t stop to think about what our values are and this can lead to feeling rather rudderless and being buffeted by the vagaries of life.
Understanding our values can be both an anchor in a storm and the compass to find our way through it. This can help promote our wellbeing. If you don’t know what your values are, try thinking about what you would like everyone you know to say about you at your 80th birthday party. What resonates with you most? A wise mentor, an inspiring leader, the person who always made us laugh, an advocate for truth and justice, a creative talent, a loyal friend, the best hostess, the latest tech guru, the hardest worker?
While it would be lovely to be all things to all people, no one can do that, what are the things that you care about most? These are your values and they can usually be represented by one word such as compassion, humour, loyalty, justice etc. You can find values lists or cards online that can help you think about this. Sometimes values are also apparent in their opposites, found in the things that really irritate us in others. Try noticing this and see what it tells you.
Strengths are innate capacities, they are things that we do well, use frequently, feel natural to us and using them makes us feel energised rather than drained. For example, my strengths are largely around kindness and social connection. Therefore, spending time working with people listening to their challenges and trying to help them as part of my job as a coach or therapist leaves me feeling energised.
For many people that isn’t the case. However, creativity is not one of my stronger suits so a situation where I have to draw, paint or make something leaves me cold. We all have different sets of strengths, but these can be worked on and cultivated and are context-dependent. Strengths are like the best tools in our toolbox. We tend to use them because we know they work well and they feel familiar, they get the job done and we rarely end up cursing them for things going wrong.
As with tools, you need to match the right one to the job and not apply too much or too little pressure to it for effective results, for example using humour to comfort someone who is bereaved may be like picking up a spanner when you need a screwdriver. Again, people are often unfamiliar with their strengths. One way to try and help you understand your strengths is to carry out a strengths assessment. There are lots of different ways to categorise strengths but a free option can be found here https://www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths-via.
Clearly, as strengths are things we do well and enjoy using if we are able to find ways to incorporate them into our daily life, it will be good for our wellbeing, and the research bears this out.
Most people are familiar with the idea of goals. These are targets we want to achieve. Succeeding in completing goals makes us feel good and this is more likely to happen when goals are small, specific and strengths-congruent, measurable and meaningful, achievable and authentic, realistic and resourced, and time-bound and trackable (my inclusive definition of SMART goals).
Again, although it seems obvious, being able to succeed in our goals supports our wellbeing on many levels. You may feel that we all have to do some things and it’s hard to see how these “imposed” targets can be turned into SMART goals as I’ve described them, being intrinsically based. I suggest it might be worth the effort.
Values, Goals and Strengths working together
We function best when our values, strengths and goals work in harmony. This allows us to achieve a state of coherence between what we think, feel and believe and how we act in the world leading to a sense of authenticity that promotes psychological wellbeing.
This can work in a top-down way. Thus, we understand our values and develop specific goals in line with these high-level visions, which allow us to use our strengths as the tools to make the desired outcomes happen. For example, one of my top values is compassion. This relates well to my job and I have specific goals this week around this in terms of therapy sessions with clients, but also in speaking to a friend who is struggling, organising a charity donation and getting my COVID booster etc. My top strengths of kindness, love, forgiveness, perspective and fairness all work together to help me enact these goals and feel energised by working on them as well as good about achieving them.
That is all well and good, but we all have things we are required to do, so how do we manage that? We can’t expect life to be plain sailing all the time, but learning to reframe our unwanted hurdles in terms of our values and bring our strengths to bear on them, in a bottom-up approach, can help. I “have” to sort out my tax return this week. I don’t want to do this, I don’t enjoy doing it and I’ve been putting it off which is making me feel bad. Can I bring my values into the equation? Doing my tax return will ensure I have the resources to make the charity donation I want to because it supports my finances being organised. This will also allow me to buy my friend lunch and give her the time she needs.
Paying tax actually is very in line with my ideal of compassion as this gives the funding for social and community support services. Perspective and fairness help me allocate time to get this task done promoting the T in SMART goal. I can also use my strength of forgiveness to help me get over my self-criticism in putting this chore off, so I can free up this energy to direct to the task at hand. Looking at it this way, I’ve boosted the meaningful, authentic and strengths-congruent elements of the (SMART) goal of completing my tax return, shifting it to a more intrinsic target which research suggests means I’ll be more likely to do it and feel good about it.
I hope my simple example has given some insight into how thinking about values, strengths and goals might work together to support your wellbeing. I’m now off to carry out another task, emptying the bin, using my strength of kindness in the service of my value of compassion towards my family. This switch in thinking has actually made quite a difference to my attitude to this task over the past few years and the knock-on impact on my mood is good for everyone!
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