The Power of Writing About Your Values

A simple exercise to rediscover your purpose and find meaning

What do you genuinely care about? It’s a deceptively simple question, but one we often neglect answering for ourselves. As a result, we tend to focus our efforts and energies on tasks that don’t truly align with what we want out of life. We act according to our short-term needs (while maybe even sabotaging our long-term goals), or we follow other people’s expectations, not really questioning whether they are in our own best interest. We might focus on what we “should” be doing, going from chore to chore, making us feel like we’re trapped in an endlessly-looping hamster wheel.

Living by our values provides an alternative. Rather than mindlessly trying to live up to other people’s standards, values work asks us to take responsibility for our own life journey. When we choose what’s important in life, we create a deeply personal metric for success. 

Do we care about putting love into the world? About appreciating and protecting nature?  About creating beauty? The best of our cultural, familial, and wisdom traditions can guide us, but ultimately the truly heartfelt choices are ours to make “naked and in the wind.” 

By making such choices, we are not only more likely to engage life with motivation and follow through, but also to bring more attention, care, and energy to the journeys that uplift us. Values help us build socially positive emotions, like gratitude and appreciation, and the feeling that we are making a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. And a simple exercise has shown to be particularly effective in distilling what those values might be.

Research has shown that writing about your values has a significant impact on your actions as well as on your mental well-being; more than just simply picking values from a list, or stating them in a few words. By writing about them, you are less likely to react defensively, or to let values become formulaic. You are more likely to become more receptive to information that suggests how you can make effective changes in your life. 

If that sounds preachy, please remove any sense of “should” from it. You don’t need a wagging finger from me any more than you need one from anyone else, including you. I’m advocating values work because science, the best of our cultural traditions, and our own life experiences show that when values choices are made from the whole of us, and from a psychologically open and aware posture, our lives improve. It’s just the way we are wired.

A Simple Exercise To Discover Your Purpose and Meaning

In a moment, I will ask you to write about your values. Before I do, however, please take a sheet of paper and write down the following life areas:

  • Intimate Relationships
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Community
  • Environment
  • Work
  • Education
  • Recreation
  • Spirituality
  • Physical Well-Being

Next, I want you to rate each of those life areas on a scale of 1 (= not important) to 10 (= highly important). Keep in mind, this is not about how important they might be to others, but how important they are to you personally right now. There are no right or wrong answers here; only you decide.

Did you do it? Great! Then rate each of these areas on a scale of 1 to 10 once again, but this time in terms of how consistent your actions with your values have been in each of the areas. For instance, a “3” in Physical Well-Being might indicate that you eat a lot of junkfood and rarely exercise, whereas an “8” in Family might show that you put in a lot of effort for your children.

After you rated each of the areas a second time, take a look at your answers. Particularly interesting are the areas with a high importance (a score between 8 and 10) and relatively low consistency scores (6 or less). These are clear problem areas, and I suggest doing your initial values work with any one of them.

So here comes your actual task: Take another sheet of paper, choose a life domain, and then write for ten minutes about your deepest values in this area. Really do it – ten minutes is not very long! As you do so, please consider the following questions:

  • What do you care about in this area? 
  • What do you want to do in this area that intrinsically reflects your caring? 
  • When in your life has this value been important?
  • Who are the heroes in your life to manifest such values and what do they mean to you?
  • What have you seen in your life when others pursue this value, or not?
  • When have you violated this value and has that been costly?
  • What might you do to manifest this value more in your life? 

Try to focus your writing on the qualities of your life as you want to live it – qualities you hold as being of intrinsic importance to what you do. 

If it starts to feel like you are writing a wish list about what you want from life or others, redirect your writing by describing the qualities of actions you want to manifest. If you cannot think of anything else, just continue writing whatever shows up in your head (even if you write the same thing over and over again), until something new shows up.

Don’t continue reading until you’ve written for at least ten minutes. Trust me on this. Just do it.

Okay, now read what you wrote and see if you can distill out a few examples of what you want to do in your chosen area. I’m talking about actual behavior. Can you name at least three actions that would bring you in closer alignment with what you care about in this life area? 

Next, look for mentions of the qualities you want to manifest in your actions and see if you can note those qualities. You might want to do things lovingly, carefully, creatively, curiously, compassionately, respectfully, openly, joyously, industriously, healthfully, adventurously, thoughtfully, justly, supportively, learnedly, peacefully, humorously, simply, honestly, spiritually, fairly, charitably, traditionally, dependably, and so on and so forth.

As you read what you’ve written, write down the qualities that most stand out for you. It might just be one, or it might be several. If multiple qualities show up, see if you can capture their core in three or four words. These are verbal sign posts for values choices, and you want to make a note of them.

Values only really matter when you embody them and allow them to guide your actions. How do you want to show up during an upcoming family event? At a work presentation? During your children’s school play? Or while you’re walking your dog? Humbly allow values to be your guide. Living by what you truly care about won’t always be easy, but in combination with learning how to be more open and aware, a values-based life will bring you more fulfillment, meaning, and a deeper sense that you are living a life well lived.

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