As a society, we put so much emphasis on happiness. It is often how we judge whether we are living the life we want to live. As a therapist, I have many clients who come to me asking what they can do to live a “happy” life, as though happiness is the golden ticket that will solve all their problems. But what is happiness? Happiness is a fleeting emotional state of pleasure. In other words, it is a feeling that comes and goes from moment to moment. However, what makes us happy is not always what makes life meaningful and satisfying. In fact, what makes our lives most meaningful usually does not make us feel good in the moment.
If happiness does not make life more meaningful, then what does? The essence of living a meaningful life is living in line with our personal values. This takes actively participating in the present moment instead of letting life pass us by. Unfortunately, there are many barriers that prevent us from doing this, including the tendency to get preoccupied with our thoughts or ruminate about the past or future. Here are five tips that can help you act in accordance with your values and ultimately live a more meaningful life.
1. Understand Your Core Values
Before we can start living in line with our values, we first need to know what our values are. This may seem simple, but in reality, it can be quite challenging. Values are instilled in us from a very young age by our parents, friends, teachers, and society. Identifying our values involves rediscovering what we believe is most important to us, which can require us to ask ourselves some tough questions and make choices between competing ideals. In defining our values, we also have to be careful not to conflate “values” and “goals.” Values are desired qualities, such as kindness, honesty, and spirituality, that dictate how we want to behave on an ongoing basis. They are not something that can be achieved or accomplished, like goals.
There are many different ways to identify our values. A good starting point is to look at the list of some common values below for inspiration*. You’ll start to notice that some resonate with you more than others. These are the ones that should be prioritized. Once we have identified our core values, we can use them to guide our daily actions and make decisions, big and small. That way, we make sure we are living the life we want to live.
*This list is not intended to be exhaustive.
2. Stop Avoiding Difficult Emotions
We all experience anxiety, fear, pain, sadness, and other undesirable emotions. When we are confronted with these emotions, often our first instinct is to avoid them. Although this may give us short-term relief, in the long run it actually exacerbates the emotions and stops us from doing things that are important to us. For example, suppose you value intimacy but avoid being affectionate or sharing your feelings in a relationship out of fear of shame and rejection. In trying to escape these emotions, you have stopped yourself from being the friend or partner you want to be, which will leave you feeling even worse down the line.
Instead of avoiding our emotions, the solution is to practice emotional flexibility. Emotional flexibility is the ability to handle negative emotions without letting them control our actions. Put another way, it is the ability to act based on your values even in the face of difficult emotions.
A prerequisite to emotional flexibility is understanding what emotions are and what role they play in our lives. Emotions are more than just feelings; they provide insight into what is important to us. For instance, if you experience guilt, it may tell you that you did something that went against your values. With that understanding, the next time you experience guilt or any other difficult emotion, take a moment, sit with it, and allow yourself to make room for it with curiosity rather than judgment. This will give you the chance to respond the way you want to respond (based on your values) rather than reacting to your emotions. Although this may be hard to do at first, with practice it will get easier, as you will become more emotionally flexible.
3. Accept Others Unconditionally
Human beings like to control as many things as we can, including other people! However, trying to control others, especially those we care most about, can be frustrating and disappointing. As hard as we may try, we cannot force others to act the way we want them to. This is why unconditional acceptance of others is needed. Unconditional acceptance of others means accepting people for who they are: their personalities, opinions, decisions, and behaviors.
To understand this concept, think about the people in your life who you care about the most. Think about why you care about them and what makes your relationship with them so special. Now, think about things that you wish were different about them. If you dwell on these things and expect them to change, it will cause a strain on the relationship and negatively impact your overall wellbeing. If you choose to have these people in your life, you have to accept them for who they are and not who you want them to be. You don’t have to like or approve of everything about them. You just need to let go of your expectations and desire to change them. Not only will this foster deeper human connections, but it will also alleviate unnecessary stress and enable you to devote your attention to the present moment. All these things are crucial to living a meaningful life.
4. Learn Self-Acceptance
As important as it is to unconditionally accept others, it is just as important to unconditionally accept ourselves. It is really easy to get fixated on who we wish we were and what we don’t have. We all have our strengths and weakness. Self-acceptance is about accepting who we are as a whole, as imperfect human beings. It does not mean that you have to like the situation you are in or that you cannot want something more. Through self-acceptance, you can better focus your attention on what is important in the here and now and work on building the life you want.
5. Try Mindfulness Meditation
Research shows that mindfulness meditation can be one of the most powerful exercises to increase life satisfaction. You can do mindfulness meditation anytime and anywhere, and it only takes a few minutes. Mindfulness meditation is not about clearing the mind; it is about teaching yourself to pay attention to what you are experiencing in the moment, whether that may be your thoughts, feelings, images, memories, or physical sensations. It is also about allowing yourself to be open, curious, and nonjudgmental about these experiences. Doing mindfulness meditation on a regular basis can help us become more present and engaged in our everyday lives, even when negative thoughts and difficult emotions come up. Below is a link to an effective mindfulness meditation exercise you can try.