What’s important to you? It’s a simple question – but one with profound consequences for how you live your life. It’s a question that gets to the heart of your values: things that motivate you and guide your decisions. But what are values and why are they important?

21st October is World Values Day – an annual campaign to increase the awareness and practice of values around the world. So now is a great time to pause and think about these questions. They’re also questions that are central to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – a therapeutic approach that focuses on clarifying and acting on your values to improve your mental health.

What are values?

Values are often taken to mean moral ideas, attitudes to the world, or norms and behaviours that are considered ‘good’ in a particular group, community or organisation. They’re usually abstract nouns, like ‘authenticity’ or ‘respect’. They may also simply be valued interests, activities, preferences and dispositions.

It’s helpful to think of values as the things that are most important to you. They’re the things that motivate us and guide our decisions. We may have many values, and different ones in different areas of our lives – for example as individuals and members of families, groups and communities. These may also overlap – and they may change over time.

A few examples are:

  • Personal. Individual values may include empathy, honesty, kindness or generosity.
  • Relationships. Interpersonal values may include trust, friendship, loyalty or intimacy.
  • Work. Values in your working life may include professionalism, leadership or teamwork.
  • Society. Values related to wider society may include environmentalism, social justice or charity.

Why is it important to have values?

“If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?” – as the old song goes. Values help us create the future we want – because knowing what you want out of life is the first step to getting it.

But values do so much more. They help grow and develop as people. They motivate us, give us a reason to get up in the morning, and give our lives meaning. Values help us live with direction and purpose – like a guiding compass. Whatever is going on in our lives, our values can show us a path forward, and help us make better choices.

Values are also intimately linked to our sense of self, and they’re essential for our mental health. They create feelings of happiness, satisfaction and fulfilment, and help us develop healthy patterns of behaviour. They also connect us to other people – whether individuals, groups or communities – and help us develop meaningful relationships with them.

Living in line with our values has a direct impact on how we feel about ourselves. When we’re aligned with our values, we tend to be happier, more confident and more fulfilled. Research shows that just thinking about our values keeps our stress levels low, and helps us feel more content.

But when there’s a mismatch, we tend to be less happy and more stressed. For example, have you ever been in a situation where someone said or did something that you strongly disagreed with, but you didn’t speak out – and then you felt bad afterwards? When your behaviour doesn’t match your values, you may experience a drop in self-esteem, difficulty making decisions, anxiety, stress or depression.

Values definition and examples – how to clarify your priorities

Values are incredibly powerful. So if you don’t yet have clarity on what your values are, now is a good time to think about them. The first and most important step is to define your values. Defining your values is an important first step in ACT – and in moving towards living your best life. So how do you go about doing this?

Start off by reflecting on what’s really important to you, in different areas of your life – such as relationships, career and leisure. You can also find guides and lists of values to inspire you and choose from online. These include guides on the World Values Day website, for example.

Lists of values can be quite long – but are a useful starting point to generate ideas and see which resonate with you. Or just come up with your own list, based on what’s important to you in life, your goals, or what you enjoy doing. Reflect on which are most important to you, and pick your top five. Then define what each value means to you in a sentence or two. Here are just a few examples:

  • Honesty. I believe in being honest, truthful and sincere wherever possible, and I think it’s important to say what I really think.
  • Kindness. It’s important to me to be kind, compassionate and considerate. I’m generous with my time and resources to friends, family and charities, and I love helping other people.
  • Assertiveness. I respectfully stand up for my rights and communicate my needs.
  • Friendliness. I value being a good friend and time spent with companions.
  • Respect. It’s important to me to be respectful towards myself and others, and to be polite and considerate.
  • Self-development. I like to keep learning, developing, growing and improving in my knowledge, skills or life experience.

The next step is to take ‘committed action’ based on your values – even in the face of obstacles. This will help you develop patterns of behaviour that will get you closer to where you want to be in life. And you’ll also experience the mental health benefits of living your values.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – a values-based approach

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a therapeutic approach with values at its heart. It helps you put all of this into action, so you can live your best life – while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. ACT has been show to be effective for a range of difficulties, including anxiety, depression and even chronic pain. It helps you learn to accept what’s outside of your control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life, in line with your values.

The three principles of ACT are:

  • Accept what’s beyond your personal control and live in the present moment.
  • Choose valued behaviours mindfully, rather than allowing automatic responses.
  • Take action, rather than become stuck in painful experiences.

In ACT, a therapist works with you to clarify and define your values. You and your therapist will explore the main details of your life, and help you to clarify what is truly important and meaningful to you. They then use that knowledge to guide, inspire and motivate you to change your life for the better.

Your therapist will encourage you to take action, based on your values, to create a rich and meaningful life. They’ll also help you stay focused on developing resilience so you can live the life that you want, rather than be constrained by negative thoughts and feelings. Find out how you can get started with ACT with My Online Therapy, or learn more about this therapeutic approach by listening to the ACT modules in our Self-care courses.

ACT helps you focus on developing a life worth living – and clarifying your values is the starting point for that. So take some time to reflect on your values today, and what truly matters to you in life. Then go out and act on them.