Set a True Course

Health and happiness come from connecting with our deepest values

Our health and happiness really do depend on connecting with our deepest values, says Dr Peter Dingle PhD

There is no doubt that we have certain real needs, such as health, nutrition, water, security and people. Once we have met these basic needs we have a choice to focus on our wants in life or more on our values. Unfortunately, we are so busy in our lives we don't often get time to identify our core values. What is really important to us? We spend so much of our time responding to external demands we can lose touch with our values and a sense of reality.

Our values are what drive us and give us direction in all our actions and thus enable us to make our actions consistent and focused. Discovering our values gives us the ultimate direction and decision-making process and can become a compelling driving force. Our values guide us in defining the most important things in our lives. They are the reasons we do what we do. Values enable you to become the person you want to be.

Discovering and following our values gives us the ease to make decisions, dissipates stress and gives us direction in life and motivation. Immense energy can come from our connection with our deepest values. The opposite is also true. The biggest drain in our lives is investing energy in pressing matters that are not based on our values.

Values save us time and energy. If we act consistently with our values, 99% of our decisions are made for us and our minds do not need to stress about whether we should take action or not. If it is consistent with our values, we take that action.

We don't require an internal debate on every decision and we don't have the debate each night whether what we did was right or wrong, or if maybe we could have done it better. As our minds can focus only on one thing at a time, it saves them flitting back and forward between various options and possible actions - getting caught up in the "monkey mind". Our values give us our major direction in life.

Stress dissipates when we identify our values and follow our passion. When we are consistent with our values we are healthy and well. It is when we are not consistent with our values that our health seems to turn against us.

Our values give us a strong sense of purpose, which buffers us from the storms of life. They are like the roots of a tree, keeping us steady and grounded even in stormy weather. But they are hidden beneath the ground so that we don't see them, and sometimes we forget about them when everything appears to be happening above ground.

Our values become a major motivating factor and sustain us. Not knowing what our values are is like driving to an unknown destination without a road map. In the extensive research on goals, self-concordant goals, the ones chosen for personal reasons, achieved the greatest outcomes.

Research on centenarians shows that positive values are consistent with living longer and enjoying life more. They are not saints, just people who live by their values.

Societal values

There are many examples of personal values influencing the life and work of people, as well as, on the other side, societal values influencing how people live. The best example is people who go into the caring and nurturing professions, particularly nursing, teaching and social work. These are all stressful jobs and these people often could be earning more money in business. So why do they do it? In most cases it aligns with their values. They are giving and caring. There is little doubt of the value of these careers, particularly if our family or we are in need of their caring. Our work and life should be consistent with our core values and bring us happiness.

Many politicians and business leaders have talked about values, but I don't believe many of them have actually thought about them. There is a lot of emphasis on values in business although all too often these values are easily lost. At a leadership conference I attended some years ago, four of the six speakers were Australian. After five years, each of those Australians had been taken to court and was in jail or had received a deferred sentence. That is not leadership.

To exacerbate this, the media presents a distorted view of what our real values are, based on what the owners want, what the people who pay for the ads want, and occasionally what the readers and viewers need. Working closely with the media, I am frequently told what we can or cannot do, or some of my criticisms are edited out, for no other reason than they were not consistent with the values of the paper. In a recent land contamination issue, the local state paper stopped writing articles on the topic because the articles were considered "anti-development". Then there is the use of ridiculous and emotive words and expressions like the "war on terrorism" to attempt to justify political motives.

The more governments and the media create a perception of fear and insecurity, the more we are willing to compromise our core value of true happiness. We become willing to put our core values that sustain us on hold - for a day until the night comes, for a week until the weekend, a year for a few weeks' holiday, or even a lifetime for a few years at the end doing what we want to do. Fear and insecurity, whether real or perceived, take away our personal control. The more we fear something, the more power we give to it and the less power we have. Most phobias restrict people from doing things, as does a simple fear of going out for a walk at night. We often base our security on something external. Safety comes from inside. How do we create safety that cannot be lost?

Finding our values

The research on ageing and Maslow's famous research on the hierarchy of needs highlight the drive for self actualisation and self realization - that is, finding one's creative and spiritual side. On average, as people age they become more spiritual, worldly, generous and interested in helping others while pursuing more creative endeavours. This is a departure from the very self centred, materialistic ego view.

Our values should revolve around benefiting ourselves while benefiting others and the world. They should concentrate on things that sustain and nurture. This means assessing our work and asking if this is really helping humankind. As a general rule, I would say, for example, the creation of weapons, tobacco and even junk food is not based on positive values. Each of these kills millions of people around the world every year.

We need to identify and define our values then find ways to reconnect with our values. Once we do this, we need to revisit our values on a daily basis. Ask the question at the end of each day: "Was my behaviour consistent with my values today?" Become accountable to yourself for your actions.

"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life." ~ Albert Einstein

Deciding what is important in your life

A couple of simple questions that will help you understand and focus on this more fully are:

What do you want to be remembered for?

Who are the people you most deeply respect and why?

As individuals, health is the most important thing we have. Think about that for a moment. If you get sick or incapacitated you will do almost anything to get better (I've even heard people with a flu say they were willing to do anything to get better). People who are seriously ill will spend every cent they have to get well. Some cancer sufferers spend tens of thousands of dollars over weeks to have special cancer treatments. They are willing to sell their assets and go into debt, to do anything, if only they can get their health back. A friend of mine went in for a routine investigation but had her bowel punctured in the process and she developed serious internal infections, particularly of the respiratory system. She nearly died and remembers her words, "I will give everything just to be able to breathe." It's a pity that many of us leave concerns about our health until our body is screaming at us for attention.

Our relationships with family and friends must surely be next on our list. Yes, we need to survive and earn a living and we argue that we need to look after our families by providing extra material comfort, ignoring the fact that we are their mentors for life and living.

More possessions and gadgets are not a substitute for a too-busy family member or parent. Your family is important to you. Most relationships that break up do so because not enough time and energy was spent working on the relationship. How many times have I heard it said, "I didn't see it coming"? Only because they were so busy with being busy.

Once you have reorganised your priorities, you will realise that the consumerism and status most of us are encouraged to pursue is rather empty by comparison, and that all the time and energy spent thinking or worrying about it is wasted time and energy.

Dr Peter Dingle PhD is an associate professor and researcher who has researched nutritional toxicology for the past 10 or more years. He is not a medical doctor. After completing his honours in environmental toxicology in 1988, he went on to complete his PhD in the same field in 1994. The information he presents is based on the research he and his students carry out at Murdoch University where he is Associate Professor in Health and the Environment.