Happiness is not a destination, but rather a journey that is aligned with values that matter to us. Getting our values right is the key to a happy lifestyle. Getting them wrong leaves us hanging in frustration, procrastination and unhappiness.
Let’s be honest – we are all looking for a little bit more happiness in our lives. Searching for ‘the one simple answer’ seems like to look for the needle in the haystack – a web search for the word “happiness” brings tens of thousands of results. So I don’t want to pretend I have it all figured out. However, on the search for my own place in life, I got hugely inspired by some amazing writers out there and want to share a concept that is likely to at least bring you a step closer.
The misconception of considering solved problems as happiness
We tend to consider happiness as an achievement or a state in which we eliminate all our problems. “If I get that job, I can finally stop worrying about money and be happy” or “If I just knew what I want in life, I could start pursuing that and be happy”.
These thoughts are true, but only to an extent. Yes, getting that job will resolve some problems, perhaps the financial concerns, however it is likely to also bring a whole bunch of new concerns with it. Examples could be to have less time to spend with the family, the colleague who earns more despite having the same job level or a long commute that results in a less engaged social life. The point here is that with every problem solved comes a big bag of new problems. This leads me to conclude that problem solving is an ongoing process and an inherent part of our existence.
If problems are only replaced with new problems, it seems crucial to choose the right ones that matter to us and we actually enjoy dealing with. Despite how easy or difficult they are, they need to be meaningful and in line with what we believe to be important.
So instead of solving immediate problems that seem logical to resolve, we are better off investing in choosing our problems carefully in order to get a taste of feeling settled or fulfilled or at home – a feeling that, for me, translates into happiness.
Let me apply this to an example of my own life.
I was often unhappy in most of my jobs. I blamed it on the corporate environment and the politics that come with it. The logical solution seemed to move to a smaller company that wasn’t so corporate. Solving the first problem created new ones – the small company suddenly required much longer working hours and had hardly any processes in place – and so I was still unhappy. Moving to a mid-sized company with good processes in place seemed to make sense. I hadn’t realised though that it required me to commute during rush hour on the London underground – I tend to be claustrophobic. The cycle continued for the vast majority of my working life.
Thanks to amazing people out there, I was able to step away and reflect on what is actually important to me. I learned what I want to focus my energy on. Long story short, I decided to leave the whole profession behind me and rather deal with the struggles of an entrepreneur, which seem a lot more aligned to my personal values.
Feeling “fulfilled” starts with the awareness about our values
During my training as a coach, I learned that values are who we are, opposed to who we want to be or think we should be. The word ‘values’ didn’t mean much to me at first, but now it seems like one of the most important new insights I learned about. So what does it mean?
The development of our values starts early on and is influenced through our upbringing, people around us, the environment we grow up in, and so on. They develop through experiences and learning and are formed and reformed throughout our lives.
Values are our subconscious principles or pillars or cornerstones that we hold to be of worth. Or using a simpler analogy that I read in an article in the huffingtonpost, think of values as roots that keep us grounded in what’s important. The strength of the values determines the strength of the trunk, branches, and leaves. And they are so incredibly important because they determine our level of satisfaction with the decisions we make. Living by the right values gives us direction and purpose. Everything we do, we measure against our values, usually unconsciously. And this explains why it is so easy to de-rail, because we are not aware and conscious enough about what guides us to fulfilling actions.
Some classic examples of why we get disconnected from our values:
- We live by the ‘correct’ or ‘should’ values. We experience expectations and pressure in almost every aspect of our existence. Going against them takes guts. So it’s much easier to adapt and act the way we are supposed to, to avoid uncomfortable judgment from others.
- We don’t know what our values are, so we live by the opportunities that present themselves. This example is probably most true to the brief story from my own life earlier. It seemed like a not-to-be-missed opportunity to join one of the world leading organisations after university. If I had known my values better at that point, I may have doubted my suitability.
- We moved on to new values, but still live by the old ones. As explained earlier, our principles start taking shape in the early childhood through our upbringing. We therefore automatically adapt what’s important to our parents or guardians. And so we’re living by the values we were taught and possibly no longer believe in.
There are a lot more reasons why we tend to disconnect from our values. In fact, not many people actually manage to fully honour their values and it often takes a proper crisis to re-evaluate what’s truly important – perhaps the reasons you read this far?
Actions and decisions in line with our values lead to happiness
Identifying our values may take some time and is an ongoing journey. It’s more important to follow a compass than getting it 100% right. So grab a coffee, pen and paper and allow yourself to embark on this journey. After all, this is what brings us “home”.
Here is an exercise that may help you get started.
Identifying values through a peak moment
Think of a situation where life couldn’t get any better and everything just felt aligned. Questions that may help you remember the moment might be:
What were you doing?
Who was around you?
What other factors contributed to that feeling of happiness?
An example from my experience is when I volunteered as a drummer at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. People from innumerable cultures and backgrounds surrounded me. Factors that made this situation so memorable included the dedication to the project, the constant fresh air, and switching off from everything else.
- What values can be recognised from that peak experience? Brainstorm and test some words (remember, brainstorming is about quantity).
In my example, I could come up with values community, collaboration, creativity, expression, playfulness, and adventure.
- Which of the words you came up with do you feel are most important to you?
I will go with community for now.
- What is your own interpretation of that word? Narrowing down what it really means to you personally is important, as this defines how close you will get to the core.
Community for me means to have relationships with others. It gives me a sense of belongingness and connectedness. We share common interests, communicate and act side by side.
- What other values might you identify from that example?
In order to come up with a good list, you will need to do this exercise a few times and think about different situations in life. Alternatively, you can also take an example that felt completely wrong for you and look into what values were not honoured. Once you have a good list in place, rank the top 10 in order of priority
Check in with yourself to what extent you believe you honour your values – or not
Decide which ones need more attention and go and test what you came up with. That’s probably the most fun bit – either because you fully nailed it and came up with some excellent values that now get the attention they deserve or because you get to practice being wrong.
Instead of just doing actions that proof you were right, why not choose actions that would hurt you rather than help you. For example, if you shortlist ‘Creativity’ as your value, spend a month consciously not being creative (no writing, no painting, no entertaining – whatever creativity means to you – none of that). This gives you a good case to make a point that the opposite it true for you.
A list of example values worth to consider
Assuming that we are always at choice, we also choose what we hold to be important to us. So when choosing our values, we need to check that they are realistic and are in our hands, i.e. not relying on external factors.
Standing up for oneself
We can also extend the word into a chain of several words that helps us describe the exact value. For example: Honesty / truth / transparency. And get creative. Words may not do justice to the value we’re choosing but perhaps an image does. One of my values is ‘A coffee in my hand – a smile on my face’ – trust me, there is a lot more to it than just the delicious coffee flavour!
Most of these values aren’t necessarily the easiest ones to live by. Truth, for example, is a value that requires constant self-management and probably pain every now and then. Another example is vulnerability, a value that most of us shy away from, as we grow up to come across as perfect. However, perfectionism disconnects us from others and gives us a ‘mask’ that looks pretty, but doesn’t align with our true selves. I’m simplifying here, but you get the point.
Pain, struggle, uncertainty, being unsuccessful, failing – all can lead to the greatest moments in our lives. The important measure is that those emotions come from actions that truly matter to us.
In a nutshell
The quote by Mahatma Ghandi beautifully summarises it all:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”
A thank you note to Mark Manson, the author of ‘The subtle art of not giving a f*ck‘ and Anne Loehr and her article ‘How to live with purpose, identity your values and improve your leadership‘ for giving me the inspiration for the blog.
Call to action: Please share this with someone who might get value out of it.