a *fresh* technique for working out your life values

This week in Sunday Life I find my sweet spot

klaus pichler a *fresh* technique for working out your life values
Photo by klaus pichler

It always surprises me when I come back as a “glass half full” type in aptitude tests because there are few people more down on positive thinking than me. I blame it on vision boards. Seriously, those silly craft projects geared at manifesting husbands and mansions really sullied the whole movement.

But there’s also this, and it’s something the psychology fraternity is coming around to: shape-shifting our thoughts – turning frowns upside down and all that jazz – takes too much energy. And seems pointless, in the wash of it all.

Recently in this magazine New York writer Sara Eckel wrote about her time in the single wilderness bombarded with those messages about sunnier-fying your outlook to attract the bloke. Eventually she found her bloke. Not because she shape-shifted, but because she simply met the right bloke, the one who loved her for her sometimes cloudy outlook.

Sure, it’s no fun dragging around a ball and chain. But nor is trying to turn said ball into a bunch of bouncy pink balloons.

What about simply mustering strength, picking up the damn ball and continuing forward, carrying it close to your chest?  Yes! Continuing forward!

Crudely, this is the gist of the “new wave”of behavioural therapy. Called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it goes beyond the positive psychology model and gets us to accept (rather than challenge) our emotions via mindfulness exercises, and to commit to life by identifying and following our values. Dozens of controlled studies show ACT to be more effective than other form of therapy for everything from eating disorders to schizophrenia.

I’ve been following the literature on the movement for a while. I like its “let’s just get on with it” vibe and the way it acknowledges that our brains are hardwired not to change and that finding a more realistic “it is what it is” path is more fruitful. Ironically, leaning towards what counts, rather than getting bogged down in challenging emotions, seems so much more, well, positive. Or let’s say, enriched. Don’t you reckon?

But how do you find your values? Abraham Maslow said, it’s part of the human condition to not know what we truly want. I know I struggle. I get into that “safe” rut of being steered by what’s expected of me. My commitments call me and my addiction to my busy-ness fuel my actions and my values get sidelined.

So this week I got me some ACT therapy. I’ve been meaning to for a while. Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris and author of The Happiness Trap talked me through techniques to drill down to what really steers my compass.

I liked his Sweet Spot exercise:

“Conjure a moment where life felt great, where you were in your sweet spot.” For me it was a random moment during a solo mountain bike trip in the Blue Mountains. Sweaty, my bike shorts sagging in the chamois gusset, I’d lain down in a hot patch of gravel overlooking a valley. I can’t think of a moment where I felt more enriched. Harris got me to reflect on what mattered and what personal qualities I possessed in that moment. I was up high, away from the busy-ness of the city; I had perspective and wasn’t “sucked in”. I was dusty and boldly being myself.  In an impassioned babble I outlined succinctly what my values were:

authenticity, boldness.

Another set of exercises exposed several more:

giving a shit and “being my message”.

It surprised me how clearly they emerged. It also surprised me how much better – and enriched – I felt afterwards and how effortlessly my values guided my decisions the rest of the week. Did blogging about throw cushions adhere to my values? Did haggling for a better price on my car take me to that sweet, un-sucked-in-by-it-all spot?  This connection with my values saw me bound out of bed in the morning, fired up to do and contribute stuff that counted.

And to my mind that is what does count: contributing and continuing forward. I come back to this so often: We only have 85 years or so on this planet; let’s get on with living it.

Happiness is a meaningful, “leaning forward”  life, not one bogged down with being bouncy.

I know I tend to spark debate when I say I’m not such a big fan of happiness…are you a fan? Or do value matters more? How do you get in touch with yours? I’d love to know. These ACT exercises were really quite effective…


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