“The good life is a process not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination,” Carl Rogers, psychologist.

This direction of travel is in the direction of what we might call our values. Values matter. Even for people who have mental health problems, there will always be values. They will be hiding within the difficulty itself.

Someone who is terrified of rejection and isolates themselves could theoretically be perfectly happy living as a hermit, were it not for the fact that they know deep down that relationships are important to them. A person who fears making mistakes could again be happy if they never tried anything new. However they know that trying something different is the only way to gain confidence.


Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) works with this idea of values seeing them as central to any recovery from depression. It uses a questionnaire which outlines four broad values. They are

  1. Work and Education
  2. Relationships
  3. Personal Growth/Health
  4. Play

The questionnaire drills down, asking more detailed questions about each area, such as what kind of work or what kind of relationship a person might want. The questionnaire also distinguishes values from goals. The difference is important. Values are as we have said, directions of travel. They are open ended whereas a goal is specific. We need both. Goals tell us that we are “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk”. They are stepping stones in the direction we wish to go in.

The value of health can be realised through goals such as joining a gym. The value of a loving relationship with a partner may involve the goal of going out for dinner. Often values will overlap. Health and play may be served by the one goal of running.

Values versus rules

A value must be freely chosen. Someone who is depressed may convince themselves that they know what they value but how far are they simply following rules which were part of the background of the depression in the first place?

Paul’s depression was triggered by his redundancy. He invested all of his self-esteem in his work because he was “taught” by his father that this is what worthwhile people do. A person without a job was therefore a person with no worth. The clue in knowing the difference lies in the function of the behaviour.

We may go to an evening class because we were told by people important to us that we “should” always be busy even when we are not at work. If we don’t do this then we are lazy. This is rule led behaviour.

We may go to the same evening class because of a love of the subject. This is value led behaviour. When we do encounter what it is we truly “value”, we can become more motivated to act and when this happens, the hazy picture of what a meaningful life might look like becomes clearer.