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Posted by on Sep 25, 2013 in Educate, Elevate, Inspiration, Resources | 0 comments

The Hardest Part of Happiness

The Hardest Part of Happiness

Anne Head Shot 2

courtesy Anne Riley, Author

When I wrote my book, Elusive Little Sucker – My Entirely Too Long and Totally Circuitous Search for Happiness, I boiled the secret of happiness down to five words:

Identify your values.  Live them.

I thought this was so clear.  I thought anyone could just pick up those five words, apply them to his or her own life and poof, happiness would not be far behind.  Sigh.  I was wrong about that.  Several people have written to me asking,  “Just how exactly do you do that? How do you identify your values?”

I got to thinking about that question.  Indeed, I think this is the hardest part of happiness.  To be happy, you must know who you are.  To know you are you must learn what you value.

Let’s start with a definition.  What is a value?  I am not even going to go to the dictionary for this one.  I like five word mantras but I can do this one in four:  A value is:

Something important to you

 Let’s break that down a little more.

Something:  that’s pretty broad.  Indeed values are broad.  They are found in all aspects of a person’s life.  Keep this in mind when we talk about maps later.

Important:  In the case of values, importance is defined by action.  If a value is important to you, you will act on it.  If it is not important, you will not act on it.  Words don’t count here.  It doesn’t count if you say something is important but then don’t act on it.

You:  In my opinion, this is the most important word in the definition.  You. Your values.  You have to live your values.  Not someone else’s values.  This was the word that tripped me up. This was the word that kept me from being happy for nearly fifty years.

When we are born, we are blank slates, unblemished by knowledge or opinions or values.  That condition lasts about 24 hours.  And then those people who created us and brought us home from the hospital, and who, by the way, love us dearly, start writing all over that blank slate with unfettered enthusiasm.  The parents are soon joined by others along the way.  Grandparents.  Friends.  Neighbors.  Teachers.  Later the slate really fills up when radio and television and the Internet get involved.

All the people we come in contact with plant values in our heads.  Most of them have our best interests at heart.  They love us.  They want the best for us.  They plant the ideas that they think we will need to succeed in life.  But what they teach us may not be right for us.  Oops.  This can be a problem.

This is exactly what happened to me.  I am the eleventh of twelve children.  I like to say I was born into a culture that was already established when I arrived.  It’s true! Everyone, except for one little sister, was older.  They seemed smarter, more capable and definitely more confident than I was. I was truly overwhelmed and more than a little intimidated. I decided early on that I would be far more successful if I listened to what everyone was telling me to do instead of telling myself what to do. As a result, I never developed that one essential skill a person needs to find happiness: the ability to establish one’s own values.

When things didn’t go well in my life, or I found I didn’t like the things I thought I was supposed to do, it did not occur to me to consider that the thing might be wrong for me. I decided instead that I was the problem.  My response to adversity was to double down and try harder.  Worse, when I tried to think about what it was I really wanted to do, I had no idea. I had rarely entertained the idea of doing something just because it appealed to me.  In fact, the few times I did venture into ‘I want to do something different land’ I would shoot down my own ideas as impractical or as daydreams I was conjuring up to avoid my responsibilities.

Do you see the problem?  I was missing the “you’ in my definition of values.  I guess you could say that I defined values as: ‘something important to everyone else.”  News flash.  This did not lead to happiness.

It took me a long time to realize that I was not living my values.  It’s hard to see something when you don’t know you’re looking for it. I thought the values of others were my values.  But after too many years, even I couldn’t deny the pattern.  I was dissatisfied with my life.  I was unsure of myself.  I was indecisive.  I constantly questioned my actions.  I tried to do the thing I thought I was supposed to do over and over and over, only to find I was unhappy with the outcome, over and over and over.

In a way, I am quite lucky. I have a very sweet husband, who bore my struggles very patiently.  One day he said to me, “You can’t know you’ve gotten someplace if you don’t know where you’re going.” And it just hit me.  Like a ton of bricks.  I had no idea where I was going in life because I had never decided where to go in life.  I was shocked.  I truly had no clue.   How had I gotten this far, nearly to age fifty, and not even asked the question:  “What do I want?” But once I asked that question, I could not stop thinking about it. What do I do, now I asked myself? After awhile, I came up with a solution.

I made a map.  Of me.

To make the map, I pictured myself as a series of concentric circles.  In the center was my physical self.  In the next ring out was my emotional self.  The third ring was my relationship with my husband.  The fourth through ninth were my other relationships: with my nuclear family, my extended family, my friends, my colleagues, my community, and finally the rest of society in which I live.

The most important of these were the first two inner circles: my physical self and emotional self.  I knew that if I couldn’t get these two parts right, the rest of the circles would never be right either. All the outer rings, that is, my relationships, depended on how solid I, the inner rings, were.  A building with a flawed foundation can never stand.

For each circle, I made a list of at least three things that I valued. Now, there is no magic to the number three.  Let your life guide you.  If more than three things are important to you in a certain ring, by all means, write them down.  If you can only think of one, that’s okay too. But try to name at least one.

Under the first ring, I wrote things related to my physical well-being:  I value time over money.  I value good health.  I value an active lifestyle. Under the second ring, I wrote things related to my emotional well-being: I value integrity.  I value honesty.  I value kindness. Under the third ring, I wrote things related to my relationship with my husband:  This is my most important relationship.  I want my relationship to be built on trust. I want open communication with my husband. I continued until every ring had at least three values that were important to me.

Once I actually looked at this picture of the me I wanted to be, two things happened.  First, it was really easy to see where I was not living my values.  They practically jumped off the page at me.  Second, with such a clear contrast laid out before my very eyes, it was easy to formulate plans to change.  And I was so motivated to act. I wanted to be that person in the map.

All that was left to do was act.  And act I did. I tried things.  All kinds of things.  The only rule I had was that my actions had to line up with one or more items on my values map.  Once I acted, I could tell by how I felt whether the value was worth keeping. If I felt discomfort or dissatisfaction or frustration, it was often because it really wasn’t something I valued after all.  Off it came from the map. But if it did bring comfort or satisfaction or confidence, it stayed on the map.

A funny thing happened over time.  The more I learned about my values, and the more I lined my actions up with them, the happier I became.  The noise and frustration and dissatisfaction in my life started to disappear.  Everything I did seemed to resonate with a satisfying sense that I was doing something that was right for me.

Something even more amazing happened as I continued with this process.  It seemed like opportunities started coming my way.  I am not sure if I was just happier and therefore more approachable, or that I was bringing more enthusiasm to my actions and therefore accomplishing more. Either way, it was quite remarkable.  Opportunities I never thought possible started popping up all around me.

I am not a Pollyanna.  Though effective, this process was difficult at times and often time consuming.  Indeed, it took me nearly eighteen months to finish my values map.  Even then, I was not sure I could pull off the whole ‘living my values’ idea when I first set it in motion. After all, I had fifty years worth of failure going for me!

Though the process worked for me, I’ll be the first to admit it is not a panacea.  It doesn’t guarantee happiness.  But I believe it lays a solid groundwork by which you can find your way to a happy state.  Bad things happen in life. Things come along that knock us off track. Even then, if we can reach out and find our values, even in troubled times, and find a way to be true to them, we will be able to find happiness again.  This has happened to me just recently.  I can’t say I enjoyed being knocked off track, but I was surprised and gratified when I was able to right myself relatively easily.

For some of us unlucky souls, happiness does not come easily.  But it is truly possible to achieve.  Identifying one’s values is an important piece of the puzzle.

One important thing that I have learned in finding happiness is that I discovered I want every single person in the entire world to be happy too. I want every person to find their best qualities and live them.  I want every person to give to the world the greatest gift they can ever give: their unique, one-of-a-kind, precious self.  And the secret to finding that precious self is to find your values.  I’m in good company here.  Aristotle said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.” Indeed.

{Editor’s Note: Anne Riley, Author of Elusive Little Sucker,  is a Featured Contributor for Women Who RISE. You can read more of Anne’s work, and learn more about this tenacious author, on her website,}