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How To Live a Meaningful Life (Hint: It's About Values)

If goals are points on a map, values are the North Star that guides you and gives your life meaning. Learn the values that drive you, and make a plan to act on them, using these four steps.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #296
The Quick And Dirty
  • Values are things that matter to us in the grand scheme of life.
  • Values are different from goals. They offer lifelong guidance, and can never be checked off a list.
  • Knowing your values makes you resilient to change and open to opportunity.
  • Values give your life meaning and purpose, which is fulfilling for much longer than the temporary satisfaction of chasing goals. 

I recently heard from Amy, a former client of mine checking in to let me know she's doing great. I remember Amy well. She's an intelligent, hard-working, social, all-around go-getter. When she came to therapy, her life looked perfect on paper. But she always felt dissatisfied, like the pieces of her life just didn’t quite add up to a whole that made her happy. She felt restless at her high-paying job, couldn’t stay in love with her serially monogamous partners, and felt disconnected from her family even though she was frequently in touch with them.

I remember asking her, “Amy, what are your values? What is your life all about?”

She started listing goals. She wanted to get a Master’s degree. She wanted to move her career into sustainability technology. She wanted to be married within a couple of years. She planned to have two kids. She wanted to lose five more pounds.

At some point, I gently interrupted her. “Amy, these are goals. Items on a checklist. My question was about your overarching values, your life’s meaning.”

She was baffled. “What’s the difference?”

Amongst my clients—whether they came to me for help with managing anxiety, healing after loss, or even just sleeping better—this difference between values and goals almost always comes up as an important turning point. For Amy, it was life-changing.

What is the difference between goals and values?

Imagine you’re sailing a boat on the sea. The islands you see on the horizon, the ones you are working hard to get to, are your life’s goals and milestones. Perhaps graduating from college is an island you aim for, or reading all of Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps starting your own business, having kids, or buying a house are others. Amy had many of these islands behind her, conquered. She also always had plenty on the horizon, driving her to work ever harder.

What if we zoom out, and instead of blindly island-hopping, look up to find the North Star?

Each time she planted her flag on an island, it was temporarily satisfying. That promotion at work was exciting! But once she had basked in that initial sense of accomplishment, she would look up and realize she was still lost, still unsure where to find lasting happiness. She always thought the solution was to start going toward the next island because if only she could get there, she’d finally be satisfied, right?

What if we zoom out, and instead of blindly island-hopping, look up to find the North Star? Your North Star. Something you believe in to offer a greater direction for your life. Some people value social cohesion, some value knowledge, or creative productivity, or service to others, or connection to nature, or any number of things that provide a philosophy and guide the things they do. Your North Star represents your life’s values.

Notice that none of these examples of values can be crossed off a checklist. There is no single task you can do or a single achievement you can reach that forever crosses creativity off your list. Just like the North Star, creativity is something you aim towards, not something you conquer and leave behind.

Why is it important to know your values?

Having a North Star means that even if you occasionally get caught in a storm, you’ll soon find yourself pointed in the right direction. Having values means that disappointments, regrets, conflicts, losses, and surprises in your life don't take away your life’s greater meaning and purpose.

Just because you broke up with your long-term partner doesn’t take away your value of cultivating emotional intimacy. It hurts for now, but you know this value will guide you towards choices that ultimately lead you to a satisfying, emotionally intimate relationship. But if you were only focused on the goal of getting married by 30, then this breakup would leave you with not only the loss of a partner but of your sense of self. Having values makes you resilient to change.

Opportunity doesn’t just favor the well-prepared; it favors those who know, on a grander scale, what they’re looking for.

Your values also give you keener eyes for meaningful opportunities. If you rely on your checklist of goals to guide your career, like Amy was doing, you may become so focused on a particular ladder of job titles that, halfway through your thirties, you'll find yourself the Vice President of Something at a company you don’t like, in an industry you don’t believe in. But if you're guided by your values of personal growth and environmental responsibility, you may meander on a zig-zagging path of gigs until you find yourself fulfilled by a career with a job title that, once upon a time, you didn’t even know existed. Opportunity doesn’t just favor the well-prepared; it favors those who know, on a grander scale, what they’re looking for.

Being guided by values, as opposed to goals, allows you to look back on your life with a sense of fulfillment and pride. You would be able to tell a story of who you were, and what you were about. Think of a compelling biography you've read. Was it a list of tasks accomplished, or a story of someone exploring something they believed in?

How do I figure out what my values are?

Knowing your values is easier said than done. Many of us have never even given thought to our values, much less made a systematic effort to define them.

The great thing about values is that they're evergreen. They're also flexible, changing with you as you get older and wiser and more self-aware.

But it’s never too late. The great thing about values is that they're evergreen. They're also flexible, changing with you as you get older and wiser and more self-aware. This means you can and should revisit your values at any age. And it means “no pressure!”

Defining your values isn't a riddle with only one right answer—there are many answers, and you get to decide what they are. Here's how to get started.

Step 1: Do a values card sort

It’s often easiest to start when you have some inspiration. I love the Values Card Sort exercise. It’s a deck of 100 printable cards, each with a value on it such as simplicity, pleasure, nurturance, integrity, freedom, fitness, wealth, contribution, patriotism and many that I never would have thought of as a value if I hadn’t played with this exercise. You can also add your own if a value you have doesn't appear on the list.

The exercise is to shuffle the cards, and then go through the deck. For each value, you place it under the category of either “Not important to me,” “Somewhat important to me,” “Important to me,” “Very important to me,” or “Most important to me.” Remember, there are no wrong answers. Be honest and take your time. 

Step 2: Make sure what you’ve identified really are values, not goals or obligations

It’s easy to revert to making goals or to-do lists—that's what we're all taught to do to make progress in our lives. So make sure any values you've brainstormed are really values. Here are some quick checks:

  • Values are usually single words (or occasionally a two-word phrase). Values are, by nature, more abstract and vague. If your “value” is a whole phrase or includes specific details (like "Donate X number of dollars to charity"), then it is a goal, not a value.
  • Values cannot be reached as a milestone. If an item could conceivably be marked with “mission accomplished” (like "Run a marathon"), then it’s a goal, not a value.
  • Values come from within. Your upbringing and culture shape your values, but ultimately, your values are your own. Look at each value in your “Very important” and “Most important” piles and ask yourself where it comes from. Does it pluck a chord deep within, or is it more something you feel you should have as a value?

Step 3: Rate each value’s importance versus your current alignment with it

Once you have a handful of solid values identified, rate the importance of each on a scale from one to ten, with one being the least important and ten being the most important. It’s okay for all of them to be high on the scale—after all, you’ve already whittled them down from a list of 100 or more. But try to be very thoughtful and honest with your ratings.

The moment of truth—and the beginning of growth—is when you compare the importance and alignment ratings side by side.

Then, set everything aside for a day or two and come back to your list of values with fresh eyes. Without looking at your ratings of how important they are, now you will rate yourself on how well aligned you are with each value on the same scale. For example, if you value curiosity, but you know you haven’t read any new books, looked into new hobbies, or explored anything new for a while, rate yourself modestly. But if you’ve been getting your hands on everything related to space exploration because you’ve been curious about it, rate yourself highly.

The moment of truth—and the beginning of growth—is when you compare the importance and alignment ratings side by side. Look for big discrepancies in both directions. Perhaps you value friendship at a ten, but your alignment rating is a five because you’ve been too busy to keep in touch. This is a value you want to work on.

It’s also possible that you’re working harder than you should on a value. If you rated academic achievement at a six but you’ve been studying at a ten to the detriment of other activities, then it’s time to relax and decrease your effort on this value.

Step 4: Set some value-driven goals

Congratulations! You have now identified your most important values and taken an honest self-assessment of how well you're aligned with them. Now what?

For most people, there are at least some values to which they're not aligned. If you feel like you’re doing great on every value, but you still feel generally disgruntled with life, I recommend repeating this exercise after a few days’ break. You may be missing something.

If you know where you’re not aligned, it’s time to start adjusting your tiller.

If you do know where you’re not aligned, it’s time to start adjusting your tiller. This is where goals re-enter the picture. Take just one value to start with, and set one or two small, concrete goals that would point you closer to True North. For example, if you value spirituality but feel disconnected from it, perhaps make a goal of protecting two hours on Sunday mornings for reflection, reading, and spiritual discussion.

Be patient with yourself

You don’t have to turn your boat around to True North immediately. After all, the ocean is wide, and you have a whole lifetime to explore and pursue your values. Allow your values to change over time, too—some values come to the forefront in different seasons of your life, and some take a backseat. That’s okay!

Defining her values is something my client, Amy, is still working on. She made major progress after doing the Values Card Sort. She realized that she had not been feeding the relationship values she held dearly, and that she'd been sacrificing the value of aesthetic pleasure for the sake of accruing achievements.

She’s feeling much more connected with herself now that she’s using her values as a basis for gauging success.  And she's finally starting to think of her life as a coherent story rather than a user’s manual.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.