You’ll Be Happier If Your Work and Values Align

After many years of interviewing and coaching people, I’ve concluded that the greatest cause of career unhappiness is when people are forced to work in conflict with their values.

Interestingly, many of these same people incorrectly diagnose the cause of their unhappiness. They tell me that more money or vacation, flexible work hours, a job closer to home, or even a new boss, will cure their unhappiness.

Yet when these changes occur, their unhappiness often remains.

How does this misdiagnosis happen? Why can’t people see something that should be obvious?

It’s embarrassing to admit but most of us are too busy with our daily lives to explore what we believe in and want from our lives. Plus, it’s hard work. Coming to a deep understanding of our values takes effort. 

But when you do not have a sense of purpose in life, you unintentionally let others make your decisions for you, until you reach a breaking point and can’t go on.

I was thinking about a person I met several years ago. (We’ll call him David.) When we met, David was a 48-year old, senior manager in the financial services sector. He had impressive credentials, a solid track record, and above-average compensation. He also had a very promising future with his company. The problem was: he was beginning to resent his work and his employer and was not sure he wanted to do that job for the rest of his career.

I learned that David’s job had evolved into two broad functions. One was dealing with staff issues (problems, he called them) and the other being head office reporting, which he said had become highly politicized. He felt he was wasting his time on these issues rather than being “in the field” with his customers.

Earlier in his career, like many others, David valued compensation, career advancement, fancy titles, and accumulation of nice things (house, cottage, boat, etc.) But as his career went along, he found his priorities changing.

He told me he’d rather spend time with his teenage son, fishing and camping which they both loved, and focusing on a more regular exercise routine. Instead, he was toiling away at the office 12 to 14 hours a day. The problem was there was no end in sight. This work schedule was unlikely to lessen any time soon.

So, while David had all the appearances of success—a good income, fancy title, comfortable work surroundings and prestigious employer—deep down, he was unhappy.

And the source of that unhappiness was the gap between his work situation and his values. None of the things he valued most—balance in life, nature, a regular exercise program, and time with family—were being met.

I know David’s story is not unique. Many of you, no doubt, face the same dilemma.

Why it is important to understand and align your values with your career? As David’s story illustrated, your values give you a sense of purpose. If you are working in a job or an organization that is not a good match for your values, you will be unhappy. Perhaps your symptoms will only be mild (lack of motivation, bored at work, etc.) but they could be worse (physically ill, depression, etc.)

What if you don’t know what your core values are? There are many books and online resources to help you answer this question. One that I have used and find very good is the

Personal Values Assessment offered free of charge by the Barrett Values Centre a UK-based organization.

Once you have identified your values, consider how your career meshes with your values. Your career satisfaction and happiness may depend upon it.