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How to align your work to your values

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Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

Reviewed by Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

In this article

Eudaimonic vs. hedonic well-being

There’s much more to career satisfaction than landing a steady job with good pay and a kitchen full of free snacks. While perks and pay matter, there are other considerations that can significantly affect your happiness in your work. One of the biggest can be working at a company that aligns with your personal values.

Psychologists understand well-being as comprising two distinct categories: eudaimonic and hedonic. Hedonic well-being is ordinary pleasure, associated with quick dopamine spikes in the brain. A great meal, a new car, a massage, and a foosball table in the break room fall into this category. Hedonic pleasures are fleeting and ephemeral, quickly forgotten once the experience has ended.

Eudaimonic well-being refers to a deeper sense of purpose and fulfillment, a feeling of living virtuously in the world and flourishing over the long term. 

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When it comes to overall career satisfaction, hedonic pleasures end up meaning relatively little. Ask any retiree what they loved most about their careers, and you won’t hear about free snacks or happy hours. You will, however, almost certainly hear about lifelong friendships, challenges faced and overcome, character-building and a sense of accomplishment derived from doing something that felt worthwhile to them.

Aligning your work to your values sets you up for more eudaimonic well-being, in other words. But it’s worth noting that, throughout our careers, the ratio of hedonic and eudaimonic satisfaction tends to shift. In my experience, younger workers seem to enjoy the perks and fun of hedonic workplace benefits, while mature workers tend to prioritize work–life balance and a sense of having contributed something of a legacy through their efforts.

How can you set yourself up for a long and meaningful career, full of eudaimonic experiences and opportunities? Let’s take a closer look. 

Values and well-being

Doing work that lines up with your personal values can help you to feel good about the time and energy you spend at work and the impact you have in the world.

It can also help you feel better about yourself and improve your overall emotional and physical well-being by serving as a buffer against psychological stressors that can lead to chronic stress and adverse health effects.

By contrast, poor company culture and a persistent feeling of living out of sync with your values can eventually become a chronic stressor leading to unhealthy outcomes such as insomnia, unwanted weight gain or weight loss, anxiety and depression. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of chronic stress, consult a mental health professional and be proactive about caring for your mental and physical well-being.

On top of potential negative health impacts, the effects of diminished morale and demotivation can end up hindering your career, as studies demonstrate a strong link between feelings of demotivation and actual reduced job performance. This is a vicious cycle that can worsen over time if underlying issues aren’t addressed. 

Identifying values

Before any of us can align our work to our values, we must first understand what our values are. This may sound simple, but the process of really connecting with and articulating our core values can require some focused attention and self-reflection.

Several types of values are associated with personal and professional life. Some values encompass core virtues like:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Fairness

It’s very difficult to flourish in a company where these basic values aren’t honored, because they’re fundamental to virtually everyone.

Social values, on the other hand, speak to what we want from others and the impact we want to have on those around us. Examples of social values include:

  • Loyalty
  • Generosity
  • Altruism
  • Community
  • Ecology

While most of us value all of these on some level, the degree to which one or another matters to us is highly variable. It might be focused on a very specific expression of the value, and it can shift over time.

For instance, a person’s sense of altruism might be specifically focused on societal issues such as poverty or disease, which might lead them to pursue a career addressing these issues.

Some social values are more personal, such as family, friends and work–life balance. In that situation, choosing a career that doesn’t require 60- or 80-hour workweeks would be important.

Same goes for leisure and recreation. If having adequate time to train for the next half-marathon or to paint or garden contributes significantly to your sense of self-satisfaction, it’s important to build a working life (through career choice and experience) that supports adequate downtime.  

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What are your values?

Your individual psychological values speak to the way you like to function in your life and career. For instance, if you’re highly individualistic and autonomous, you will value roles that allow you the freedom to make your own decisions and find your own solutions to challenges without too much oversight. Landing in a role with a lot of required operating procedures could end up frustrating you.

On the other hand, if you value structure and a sense of consistency and dependability in your work, having independence and autonomy could feel like a lack of support and lead to undue anxiety.

Creativity is another good example, as those who value opportunities for creativeness would likely feel constrained and unsatisfied in a job that is too repetitive and structured. Likewise, if you’re someone who values leadership, you might feel stifled in an individual-contributor role where your ability to lead is limited.

Most of us can readily identify a number of values we hold dear, just through self-reflection. Still, it can be worthwhile and enlightening to try a more structured approach to uncovering values you might not readily articulate on your own. One tool I personally like is the Via Character Strengths survey, which assesses values across 24 dimensions of character. You might also like to peruse some ready-made lists of common types of values to identify which ones resonate with you. Atomic Habits author James Clear has a great list of more than 50 values on his website, and the job-search site Indeed has a very good list as well.

As you progress in your career, you will likely find that no single job supports all of your possible values equally well. Creating a fulfilling career requires a constant process of aligning the way you work to your values, even if the organization or role you’re currently in may not be a perfect fit for everything you want. In most cases, you’ll need to put some effort into ensuring the way you approach any role aligns with your core values and that you’re exemplifying the culture you want to see in your company. Along the way, these tips should help you to identify the qualities you’re looking for in your next opportunity.

Portrait of Robert Strohmeyer

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Strohmeyer is a serial entrepreneur and executive with more than 30 years of experience starting and running companies. He has served in leadership roles at three successful software startups over the past decade, and his writing on business and technology has appeared in such publications as Wired, PCWorld, Forbes, Executive Travel, Smart Business, Businessweek and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

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