Finding Your “Why”: The Science behind Value-Based Goal-Setting

By Erica Harrison for Yoga Medicine®.

It’s that time of year again. The global New Year’s Resolution round table is upon us and you’re being barraged by tips and tricks for better goal-setting.

However, despite the wealth of information on goal-setting techniques, most new most resolutions fail by mid-March. 

What if we based our new year’s resolutions not only on what we want, but on why we want it? 

In other words, what if we let go of our perception of societal expectations and made our New Year’s resolutions based on what really makes us tick—our values.

Research suggests that doing so will not only make our resolutions more successful, it’ll boost our health and well-being. 

What are Values?

Values are concepts that orient a person to what is personally meaningful and important to them.  They affect our attitudes, preferences, overt behaviors, help us to determine right from wrong, and persevere during hardship. 

Examples of values include: 

  • Positivity
  • Perseverance
  • Authenticity
  • Compassion
  • Kindness
  • Individuality
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Pragmatism
  • Reliability
  • Respect
  • Altruism

Purpose: The Cornerstone of Goal-Setting

Science has something interesting to say about values and successful goal-setting. According to recent research, value-based goals are not only more successful than those created to meet an extrinsic societal expectation, but they’re also healthier. We attach meaning and significance to pursuing value-based goals, which gives our lives a sense of purpose. 

This alignment is the cornerstone in goal-setting. 

A recent paper presented by renowned neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites research suggesting that a sense of purpose in life provides immense benefits. It finds that a higher level of purpose combats the negative impact of chronic stress as measured by allostatic load. Purpose also protects against elevated inflammation levels in the body and accelerates our recovery from stress as measured by salivary cortisol. Some research finds that those with higher levels of purpose are less emotionally reactive to negativity, as evidenced by increased activity of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and reduced activity in the left amygdala.

So, purposefully increasing the feeling of purpose in your life through activities like value-based goal-setting can increase your resilience to stress, promote healthy behaviors, and improve mood and overall well-being. 

In other words, linking a resolution to a value connects it with purpose, makes it more likely to change the way your brain is wired and will have subsequent sustainable and consistent effects on your behavior. 

In contrast, research also shows that goals linked to an extrinsic societal expectation (i.e., getting “healthy” so you can have six-pack abs for Instagram shots vs. being able to spend time with your grandchildren) are not only unsuccessful but actually lead to negative well-being outcomes. Also, acting on goals that are inconsistent with our personal values will negatively impact mood and overall well-being.

“Life aims serve to organize and stimulate goals and provide an overarching narrative that helps individuals make sense of their lives. Such aims involve the formation of personal values, the concepts that guide behavior by enabling individuals to assess actions and situations, and to persevere in the face of challenges, by orienting themselves to what is personally meaningful and important.” 

Richard J. Davidson, Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

How to Set Value-Based Goals

Value-based goals are more likely to give our lives purpose, and are successful because they’re the part of our core internal system that guides our behavior, beliefs, and attitudes. 

But how do we create value-based goals? 

A value-based goal arises from an innate desire to match our behavior to our values. For example, someone who values connectedness might set a goal to schedule at least one weekly friend date, while someone who values positivity might vow to start every morning with a gratitude practice. A value-based goal for someone who values individuality might be to start their own business within the next 8 months: So-on and so forth. 

How to Create a Value-Based Goal 

1. Catalogue Your Values

The first step to creating a value-based goal is to clarify your values. This is not as easy as one might think.  In fact, it can be quite a daunting task! However, renowned life coach and leadership expert Scott Jeffrey states that the secret to this task is to go into it with a beginner’s mind. He suggests three methods to clarify your values: 

  1. Consider Peak Experiences: Think back to a meaningful moment in your life. Think about the elements of the situation that made it meaningful; these elements will likely represent some of your core values. 
  2. Identify Suppressed Values: Next, take the opposite approach and consider a situation when you were unusually unhappy, frustrated or upset. Identify what you were feeling during this time and flip that feeling around. This will reveal a suppressed value or a low or absent value from your life. 
  3. Establish your Code of Conduct: What makes you tick? What do you acquire just above your basic human needs to experience fulfillment? Is it health? Creativity? Intellectual challenge? A sense of excitement and adventure? Jeffrey asks us to answer this poignant question, “What are the personal values you must honor or a part of you withers?”
2. Link Your Values to Goals 

Once you’ve defined your list of personal values, pick one value. Set a goal related to this value. Next, identify the specific area of your life your goal will improve and how you will measure progress. Keep it realistic in light of your available resources (e.g., time, resources, money, etc.). Finally, specify a timeframe for your goal. 

You can take it a few steps further and identify potential barriers to this goal and how you will overcome these barriers. 

Now, most importantly, journal or meditate on how this goal will bring purpose to your life. 

Live Your “Why”

Value-based goals setting infuses your day-to-day activities and behavior with your “why”—or the things that make you tick. Positive health benefits aside, nothing is more motivating and empowering than fueling your goals with your “why.” 

When you find your “why”, embrace it. Live it. Be it.

“I believe a purpose is something for which one is responsible, it’s not just divinely assigned.” – Michael J. Fox 


  1. The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing Cortland J. Dahl, Christine D. Wilson-Mendenhall, Richard J. Davidson Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2020, 117 (51) 32197-32206; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014859117

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