Being Glued to Your Core Values is the Key to Getting Unstuck
Navigating life’s twists and turns is never easy. But figuring out your true path in life begins by having an open mind, accepting your feelings and living according to your true values. These are among the important first steps to achieving what author Susan David calls “emotional agility,” which is also the title of her new book.
A psychologist at Harvard Medical School, Susan discovered this after two decades of studying emotions, achievement and the true source of happiness. She observed that how people respond to various life events is a critical determinant of what comes next. And most of us, she says, respond in ways that don’t serve us well.
How can you get on the path to emotional agility? Susan contends it starts with understanding that happiness is the result of your actions and not a goal unto itself. As she explains below, this takes effort, which is why those living on autopilot often have a tough time arriving at this destination.
How do you define emotional agility?
Emotional agility is the ability to deal with your inner self in a way that helps you bring your best self forward. The key idea is that we often react based on our emotions. We don’t take the time to examine what’s really going on and how it relates to our core values. For example, when people feel stressed, they usually just get into a spin or shut down. It’s far better to develop critical skills that allow you to bring these emotions to the surface and deal with them in a way that enables you to thrive in today’s world.
Is emotional agility something we’re naturally born with, or is it a learned skill?
It’s definitely something we need to cultivate. Part of the challenge is we get hooked into treating thoughts and emotions as facts. For instance, you may get really angry at someone you perceive has undermined you and respond by shutting down. Or you may not apply for a job because your mind tells you there’s no way it will ever work out. These are examples of getting hooked into believing what you feel. A better approach is to stop and create space to bring your values and intentions forward.
It sounds like you’re suggesting we rewire ourselves.
Essentially, yes. When we face a challenge, be it in a relationship or at work, we often start to experience frustration and a sense of anxiousness. One way we deal with these situations is by what I refer to as bottling emotions, or pushing the feelings aside. One might rationalize, for instance, “I’m unhappy with my job, but at least I’ve got a job.” Research tells us such coping strategies can differ by gender. Men tend to compartmentalize their feelings more, while women often brood and overanalyze what they are feeling. My advice is to instead face into your emotions. It’s what I refer to as “showing up.” Emotions are data. Once you accept and label your feelings, you’ll be able to deal with them effectively.
You write that people shouldn’t make “being happy” their primary goal.
The reason is when you make happiness your priority, you start to have unrealistic expectations about life. You expect everything to be glossy and perfect, and it’s not. Don’t get me wrong: happiness isn’t a bad thing. But it’s achieved not through setting it as a goal but rather by noticing the thoughts and emotions that come your way and then taking steps to make real changes that will ultimately bring you happiness. In other words, happiness is the by-product of being with ourselves in a way that is curious and compassionate and behaving in ways that are aligned with our intentions. Happiness itself is not the goal.
Once you’ve identified your emotions, how do you go about changing your situation in life?
I use a framework called “walking your why.” The idea is to identify the true values that are most important to you and letting those call the shots. Success is not about how much money you have in the bank, but whether you’re living a life congruent with your values. It’s really important to define these personal values since there’s a lot of psychological research showing people are subject to what’s called social contagion. This means if we don’t have clarity on what is important to us and how we truly want to live, we unconsciously mimic people in our social network. For instance, if you get on the elevator and everyone is on their mobile device, you’re likely to take out your phone and do the same. No one wants to feel like the odd man out. Walking your why means going your own way and figuring out what’s really important to you.
Can you give us an example of how this might work? For instance, let’s say someone is working at a job they don’t enjoy. How could they use emotional agility to get unstuck and figure out what to do next?
Clearly, it starts with acknowledging or showing up to these emotions. But then you need to figure out what’s causing them. Are you not making enough money? Do you feel disrespected? Is your boss really difficult to work with? Or does the job not line up with your values? For instance, if I have a core value of autonomy, it is important for me to call my own shots. If I was working at an office and feeling frustrated, my initial response might be to quit my job and find another one. But that wouldn’t solve a thing if I didn’t first identify that my core value is likely to be at odds with working in a bureaucratic workplace or on a rigid schedule, regardless of the specifics of the actual office. Knowing this information helps you set a course of action for moving forward. With this data in hand, you can begin to make tweaks that lead to productive changes, which should ultimately result in your being more content.
In other words, we can’t just go through life on autopilot.
Exactly, and that’s what we’re taught to do! We go to school, take a job, and then many get married and have children. Years later, we often wind up with careers we don’t like and relationships that aren’t working out. We need to get off autopilot and think about what kinds of tweaks and shifts will bring us greater levels of happiness and satisfaction.