The Importance of Values When Pursuing Goals

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A fascinating experiment conducted at Utah State University looked at the impact that aligning with our values has on our ability to withstand pain and discomfort.1

Participants were split into two groups, the control group and the values group. Both groups had to submerge their arm in ice water between 0 and 2 degrees Celsius (32F to 35.6F) and hold it there as long as they could. This is known as the cold pressor task: often used in intervention experiments as an ethical way of inflicting pain and discomfort, to see which interventions reduce subjective pain and emotional distress. (the cold pressor task has a maximum of 5 minutes due to medical/ethical reasons)

Both the control group and the values group had to submerge their arm to establish a baseline, and both groups lasted about a minute and a half.

After they removed their arm the control group had to read neutral material consisting of information relating to the wonders of the world. Then, 30 minutes after the initial test they had to submerge their arm again to see how long they would last, and what their level of pain and distress was.

The values group also had 30 minutes between tests. However, they had to imagine their own funeral, and write down what a loved one would say about them had they lived their ideal life - to clarify what their values were. Then, they wrote down in detail what their values were in each of the different areas of life: health, relationships, career, and a range of others, as well as what was important to them in each of these areas.

The last step was to choose the top value, the thing that was most important to them, and go through a visualization exercise that linked their top value with their ability to withstand the discomfort of the ice water.

The visualization exercise involved imagining hiking up a mountain, where their most important value was at the top. On the path to the top they were to imagine an ice cold river that prevented them from reaching their value. In the experiment they were instructed to imagine crossing the river and continuing on up the mountain.

After the 30 minutes the values group submerged their arm to see how long they could handle the ice water, and rate their pain and distress. What the study found was that the control group, on average, lasted about 10 seconds less on their second attempt. However, whilst the values group rated their pain and distress about the same as the control group, they lasted on average almost a minute more (51 seconds) than their previous attempt.

The participants who elicited and were aligned with their values persevered much longer than those who didn’t, whilst experiencing the same level of pain and discomfort.

Other research shows similar results. One such study compared values plus a mindfulness acceptance strategy with the acceptance strategy alone, and a control. Whilst both groups tolerated greater discomfort than the control, during the cold-pressor task, the values plus mindfulness group had significantly greater pain tolerance than the mindfulness group.2

What these experiments demonstrate is that when we identify and align with our values we are willing to put up with discomfort, and even pain, to pursue what’s important to us.

When we pursue goals in life or business, we often don’t think about the roadblocks or challenges that we will inevitably encounter, until we come face to face with them. Some of them will be uncomfortable, maybe even painful. When we identify what is most important to us, our values, and commit to living by them every day, we’re more likely to persevere when faced with the ice water of life.

Thanks for reading.


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