COORDINATE ACTIONS WITH VALUES
In a recent post, we noted that coping with everyday life is like having conversations with life. As we said, every day you chat with life. A lot of these talks have to do with being happy. Sometimes you’re mad because you want to be happy, and life is not cooperating. So you shout out, “I’ve had it with you life; you stink!” Other times you’re on top of the world, happy (at least momentarily) and exclaim, “Life, you’re fantastic!” The problem is, even though these extreme reactions capture the moment, they’re lousy for having a conversation because they don’t last. So what’s missing?
As an analogy let’s consider a phenomenon from the world of perception. Imagine sitting in a dark room and in front of you are two small lights, maybe the size of a pea, and a couple of feet apart. The lights begin blinking in sequence: left light blinks on and off followed by the right light blinking on and off, then back to the left, etc. When asked what you see you say, “Two lights blinking on and off in sequence.”
Next, let’s begin shortening the time between the blinks until the time between the left blink and the right blink gets into milliseconds. At some point, your perception changes, and you say, “I don’t see two lights anymore. Now I see one light jumping back and forth.” Interesting. You are now perceiving a new property in your visual field: movement. Notice that neither light is moving, but when we structure the viewing conditions in a particular way, the experience of perceiving movement has emerged in your experience. No movement exists except in your perception; your reality has become dependent on an act of your mind.
“OK,” you ask, “what does all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo have to do with conversations with life?” Well, consider happiness. You can circle a future date on your calendar and write, “Will weigh 132lbs or less,” “Will be able to run a mile in less than 10 minutes,” or, “Will be smoking zero cigarettes.” You cannot, however, realistically circle a future date and write, “Will have achieved lasting happiness.” Wouldn’t that be nice? The fact is, like the movement in our perception example, happiness is something that must emerge, evolve, be created by you, specifically by structuring your environment in ways that will allow you to perform certain actions that bring you satisfaction, contentment, and intrinsic feelings of accomplishment.
“That sounds great,” you say, “but how do I go about restructuring things to make that satisfaction emerge?” The answer is actually pretty simple: You must coordinate your actions with your values. It’s amazing how easily you can overlook this basic truth about effective coping. Coping problems develop when you ignore your values and engage in actions that are inconsistent with those values. For instance, you put off investigating diets (an action) that may work for you even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value); you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value); you put off spending more time with your kids and spouse (an action), even though you say, “I value family” (your value); you put off signing up for a course at the local community college (an action), even though you say, “I want to become more educated” (your value).
Most resolutions –“I will do this,” or “I will do that” — fail because you do not connect your actions and your values. If you want good feelings to emerge from what you do, you must first identify those things that you really value, the things that are important to you, and then resolve to coordinate them with specific actions. Once you identify your values and choose appropriate constructive actions, those actions will tend to become a part of your routine; they will become automatic and it won’t take much effort to maintain them, making them more likely to result in the emergence of positive feelings.
Suppose you come into a lot of money, maybe through an inheritance, winning a personal injury suit, or hitting the lottery. You’re rolling in the dough and you’re happy. But as time goes by you realize you’re squandering the money on material things you don’t need. You’re still rich, but now you’re unhappy. You have no strategic plan for investing the money, or making it work for you to achieve some values-oriented results. So you do some soul searching. “What is really important to me in life? What sorts of values really define who I am?”
Suppose you discover that you genuinely want to reach out and help those less fortunate. You decide that a plan to put your money to work for the betterment of society would be a kind of self-actualization for you. You don’t want to toss money frivolously in others’ laps, but you want to structure a plan to make your money work for the welfare of others over the long run. So, with the help of a financial advisor you develop a foundation that for years and years will finance inner-city initiatives to improve the lives of kids who are willing to show a work ethic and improve their education and social conscience.
As time goes on you begin receiving letters from successful men and women who profited from your foundation. An observer might say to you, “When you read those letters you must really feel happy.” You reply, “Happy? I guess so, but I think I feel more satisfied, completed, contented, knowing that I have contributed in some way to the betterment of humanity.”
Here’s the really nice thing: When you coordinate your actions to your values, you will find you don’t have to be rich to have a positive effect on your world. When your values enter the picture, you time, your energy, your brawn, and your brain can express your humanity in magnificent ways. You feel worthwhile in many ways, and you don’t have to get hung up on an elusive search for happiness.