The outcome that we aim for in ACT is mindful valued living, or living consciously according to our values. This involves processes of awareness and action.

Mindfulness - an awareness process, is one part of the goal. Valued living or doing what matters - an action process, is the other part of the goal.  

Values are what guide us towards doing what matters, they are the qualities of ongoing action that we most desire. Values describe how we want to behave on an ongoing basis. 

Harris (2009) uses the catch-phrase “Know What Matters” to capture the process of becoming clearer about our values and how we want them to guide us.

Human beings often lose touch with the values that are most important to us, while some people have never had an opportunity to clarify what their core values are. We become distracted and moved by many other forces and factors that pull us in various directions that may be inconsistent with where we really want to go in our lives. We may find ourselves in places that are unsatisfying or deeply disturbing, we don’t know how we got here, and we don’t know how to get away. 

Metaphors that are used to talk about values often invoke travelling language such as journeys and pathways and being guided. Clarifying our values is an essential step to finding and reconnecting with the pathways we really want to travel in life’s journey. Values are also likened to a compass. A compass gives you direction and keeps you on track when you are travelling. Our values do the same for the journey of life. 

Spending some time clarifying values is particularly useful when motivation for action is lacking and when a person is needing more self-directed guidance about directions to take. Getting in touch with our values is also helpful when we are having difficulty accepting painful experiences and this lack of acceptance is holding us back from engagement with life.

Values can be introduced into the work earlier or later in your time with a client depending on individual needs. Some clients are unable or unwilling to explore values in any depth until a strong bond of trust has been established. Harris (2009; p190) notes that this can indicate high levels of experiential avoidance and point to the benefits of working on mindfulness skills first. Other clients respond enthusiastically to discussion of values and start to make changes in their lives. The need for mindfulness skills may emerge only later when psychological barriers show up.

For young people who present to services in crisis and who are experiencing high levels of psychological distress, working on mindfulness skills is likely to be of more benefit in the first instance. In contrast, young people who have been referred from the justice system or are otherwise reluctant to seek help, working on values may be the best place to start your work together. 

Whether the detailed work is done early or late, introducing the topic of values and the importance of talking about them should be very natural and easy for practitioners who work in a client-centred manner. The conversation can be started by asking questions around the theme of “What is important to you in life? And what do I need to know about this for our time together to be most useful to you?” From the very first session an overriding message must be that our work together will be guided by what the client wants to do, and the goals that the client wants to achieve. 

Useful questions to ask to begin talking about values include:

  • Deep down inside, what is important to you?
  • What do you want to stand for in life?
  • As a child, what sort of life did you imagine for the future?
  • What sort of personal qualities do you want to develop?
  • How would you like your friends to describe you?How do you want to behave in your relationships with people?

When people first answer these questions, whether they are young people or mature adults, they will often talk in terms of goals. Examples include statements like “I want to be a great footballer” or “I want my friends to like me”. This is to be expected because our society is much more focused on goals than on values. Alternatively the answer will involve very vague and general desires such as “I want to be a good friend” or “I want to deserve my mother’s love”. For this reason working on values with clients often requires a fair bit of time to be spent clarifying what values are and how they differ from things like goals, desires, wants, morals and ethics.

As with other key constructs in ACT, practitioners use exercises and metaphors to do this.


These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapter 11; as well as Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 11.