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Values, Rather Than Goals, Help Us Live a Rich and Meaningful Life

13/04/2015 15:54 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), suggests that the word happiness has two different meanings.

One of them is 'feeling good'. We feel good when we feel a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification. Say we have finally been given that long longed-for promotion or we've just been on a great first date with someone amazing. In those moments, we feel a great sense of pleasure. They are life's 'happy moments'. And because these moments feel so good, we naturally want more of them.

Society reinforces this tendency to strive for a constant state of happiness: Hollywood and fairy tales lead us to believe that happy endings are the ultimate goal, and advertisements tell us that if we only buy this specific product it will make us feel good. Our society drives us so much towards happiness, that when we spot someone in a state of unhappiness it makes us shrug - maybe not if it's a loved one, but most definitely if it's a stranger. For example, if we see an adult sobbing on a train, our nervous system immediately tenses up; we potentially feel shame, look away and most often don't know what to do.

True Happiness

Luckily, there's a second meaning to happiness which encompasses more than just 'feeling good' - after all, we not only experience pleasurable emotions such as Love, Joy and Curiosity, but also unpleasant ones such as Fear, Anger, Shock, Disgust, Sadness and Guilt. Russ Harris believes that true happiness does not come from wanting to feel good all the time, but from 'living a rich and meaningful life' which is directed by our values. Wilson & Murrell define these as 'your heart's deepest desires for the sort of person you want to be, and the things you want to do in your time on this planet'. Examples of values are 'being caring', 'independence', 'creativity' and 'mindfulness'.

Unlike goals, values can't be completed or ticked off a list. They are a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never reaches an end. A good example of a value is 'being loving and caring' as opposed to the goal of 'getting married'. You can have the intention to be loving and caring every day for the rest of your life, but once you're married you are married. Goal achieved. You may even end up being married and at the same time being hard-hearted and uncaring. Of course that doesn't mean we shouldn't ever set goals for ourselves. But rather than seeing their achievement as our ultimate aim in life, we should look upon them as lucky by-products that may or may not happen while living a life according to our deepest values.

Getting Better at Feeling

ACT is a good abbreviation because it stands for committing to take action towards creating a rich and meaningful life, guided by our deepest values while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. Because when we head towards what really matters to us, we will not only experience feelings like Love, Joy and Curiosity, but along this path we will also experience the more unpleasant feelings of the spectrum of human emotion. ACT, as a mindfulness-based approach, teaches us how to mindfully explore those feelings, open up to them and accept them as a natural part of life instead of having to constantly push them away. In that sense, ACT is not about simply 'feeling better'. It's about opening up to life in all its shades, thus 'getting better at feeling' so that we can follow our hearts truest values and live a rich and meaningful life.