Values-based living

Values describe how we want to behave now and always, what we want to be known for, and how we want to treat the world around us. They help us grow and develop, they inspire us, motivate us, and make our lives meaningful. Living by our values means consciously choosing to focus on what matters to us. When the going gets tough, choosing to behave according to our values motivate us and keeps us going.

In targets-based living, the focus is on targets and achievement. When we hit the target, we celebrate and move on, starting another long haul to another target. A classic example for me would be passing a big exam eg FRCS. I felt that I should be exuberant and celebrating, but really just felt tired and was glad it was all over. Target hit yes, but not much satisfaction. At neuro-chemical level people talk about dopamine: it is the neurotransmitter of desire and very powerful, but desire is NOT the same as happiness. Of course if we don't hit the target, then the world ends of the only thing that means anything to you is the target. Furthermore, sometimes we don't achieve the target because it is simply not in our control - a good example would be those trainees who had careers interrupted by Covid.

In values-based living, the focus is on behaving in a way that our values direct. You can start doing that right now. How you choose to behave is much more in your control than externally-determined targets. And no matter what happens, you always have a choice in how you behave.

The dichotomy in target vs values-based living is similar to fixed vs growth mindset.


Values-based living means knowing what we want and consciously choosing what to do, but that doesn't necessarily bring happiness. Many people think that they should feel happy all the time, but that isn't the reality of life. Evolution gave us brains designed to spot danger so we don't get eaten, brains that are constantly comparing us with others in our peer group to make sure we don't get thrown out of the cave to a certain death, and brains that are constantly wanting more because who knows when there will next be apples in the tree. None of that has anything to do with happiness, it is to do with survival.

Image by Daoudi Aissa
Image by Riccardo Annandale

The evolutionary consequences of our survival-focused brain means that our brain is always worrying, comparing and wanting. The brain is a problem solving tool, and good it is too at solving logical puzzles in our environment. However, when the same problem-solving approach is applied to our inner experiences, feelings and emotions, we hit a problem; our inner lives become a puzzle to be solved instead as something to be experienced, and the usual logic that applies to the outside world doesn't exist when dealing with our psychology. So the "myth of happiness" is born: we expect that life should always be happy which it often is not, and the same problem-solving brain that is such an evolutionary advantage sometimes works against us when we try to use analysis and logic to deal with emotions. The human mind is not naturally positive and happy; rather, it is naturally negative, criticising, judging, and catastrophising because that is what gives evolutionary survival advantage. Western psychology and healthcare often tends to see the negative mind as pathological and suffering from "Prozac-deficiency"; Eastern philosophies and religions recognise the tendency towards negative and develop mindfulness practices (yoga, meditation) as a conduit to acceptance and values-based living.

“Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”

Soren Kierkegaard


Whilst we may have a mind that is always worrying, thankfully evolution has also given us a large pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to choose. It can't control primitive emotions designed for survival, at least not successfully for any great length of time. But it can make a choice. Choosing to take actions that are in keeping with your values is then an incredibly powerful way to move us towards a rich and meaningful life, no matter what challenges we face.

What about goals?

Values describe how we want to behave and what is important to us on an ongoing basis. Goals are usually described in terms of what we want to have, get or achieve. However, there is a problem with goals as explained here. Striving for goal achievement can turn out to be toxic when goal achievement is the main measure of success. We can’t control the outcomes of many things in life, but we can control who we are and how we interact with the world on a daily basis. So for a rich and meaningful life, it is better to focus on how we act in keeping with what matters to us.

Values-based living means knowing what you stand for, and choosing to behave in a way that is in keeping with that. No one can take that away from you. Values-based living is therefore an incredibly powerful way towards a life filled with the things that matter to you.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:

the last of the human freedoms –

to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor Frankl