Even if you haven’t defined your values or specified the role they play in your daily functioning, your values drive everything you do. They help you make both large and small decisions, they shape relationships, and they play a significant role in your mental health and overall quality of life.
It’s believed that living congruently within your value system is associated with a deeper sense of fulfillment and meaning. With that, the first step is being able to identify your most important values.
What Is a Value?
A value refers to a certain principle or belief that coincides with human behavior. Values can be cultural, religious, and societal. They exist in families, couples, and individuals. Values create various customs, rituals, and traditions. They also represent the most important priorities in someone’s life. What you value becomes who you are.
What Influences Someone’s Values?
A combination of evolving factors can shape someone’s values. In addition, values can change over the lifespan. What was important to you as a small child may be dramatically different from what is important to you today. What you wanted in a job at age twenty might be unrecognizable to what you want in a job at age fifty.
Societal messaging: Society reinforces certain values while ostracizing or even shaming others. For example, in a more capitalistic society, there’s often value placed on innovation, wealth, and autonomy. But in more interdependent or socialist societies, there’s more value placed on equality, community, and cooperation.
Family dynamics: Values are shaped from infancy, as parents play a vital role in teaching children what is and isn’t important. A family that values generosity might instill the benefits of volunteering or helping others in time of need. A family that values adventure might focus on maximizing opportunities for novelty and spontaneity.
Peer influence: Along with family, peers can also largely affect values. Peer influence becomes heightened during the adolescent years, but it persists through adulthood.
Individual personality traits: The Big Five personality traits refer to openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness. While exceptions and variability occur, it’s believed that these traits are relatively consistent throughout one’s life. These personality traits can influence the development and reinforcement of shaping values. For example, someone who identifies as being more extroverted might value teamwork or collaboration, whereas an introvert might value connection and loyalty.
Lived experience: All lived experiences, whether positive or negative, can impact values. Trauma, in particular, may change one’s value system. Someone who didn’t care about safety or trust in the past might deeply value it after experiencing abuse. Likewise, someone who spent many years single may value their ambition and competence, but the experience of having children might shift them into valuing parenting and love.
Why Defining Values Matters
It may feel difficult or too abstract to fully define your values. But knowing them is important for many reasons. When you truly understand your values, you can build a life that feels both virtuous and rewarding.
Values help you orient how you spend your free time: Even though most people lead busy lives, unstructured time leaves so much potential for opportunity, connection, and pleasure. When you fill that time with something you value, you get more out of it. Paradoxically, if you find that you keep wasting time, you risk feeling restless or unfulfilled.
Values support you in making critical decisions: Knowing your values can aid you in making crucial choices, from which graduate program to attend to whether to get married to if it’s time to adopt a pet or relocate for a new job.
Values can deepen your relationships: While you don’t have to only spend time with people who share your values, there can be merit in connecting with like-minded individuals who feel passionate about the same ethics, goals, and needs. This is often the basis of great friendships and satisfying romantic relationships.
Values can help you change unwanted behaviors or lifestyle choices: Many people live incompatibly with their values. For example, you might deeply value financial stability, but you don’t budget and you’re in credit card debt. Truly leaning into your values may help motivate you to set reasonable goals to improve your situation to live in such a way that adheres to what matters most to you.
Values create a higher sense of purpose and vitality: The reality is that life can be so short and, at times, difficult and confusing. Values offer a sense of meaning. They provide a roadmap for how people can live their lives, even when things fall largely out of their control. From this framework, there can be a sense of peace in knowing how you live.
Step-By-Step Guide to Determining Your Values
Consider How You Would Spend Your Perfect Day
Brainstorm what a perfect day feels like to you. Who’s there with you? What are you doing? What are you not doing? How do you feel during this day? Do you buy anything? If so, what is it? How do you eat, rest, and take care of yourself on this day?
Consider journaling about this day and note if any themes come up for you. It can be helpful to note that most people don’t consciously select their values. Instead, values are both discovered and revealed through how people choose to live their lives.
Think About Your Best Moments
When you look back at your life, what makes you feel most proud? Was it the time you walked across the stage at your college graduation? Was it when you made your first sale at the business you started? What about when you watched your child take their steps?
These moments feel good to reflect on and for a good reason. They often speak to the presence of values being rewarded. The young adult who values education or tenacity will feel proud of themselves for graduating college. The gritty entrepreneur who values creativity or leadership will get excited at the prospect of their business thriving. The beaming parent who values family and connection will delight in their child achieving important milestones.
Consider When You Have Felt Guilty
It can also be helpful to think about past decisions that triggered a sense of guilt. Guilt is a normal emotion that everyone experiences. However, feeling guilty often has to do with taking an action that either clashes or jeopardizes a core value (1).
For example, an employee might feel guilty when she tells her boss she can’t take on another project. If this employee values her career, efficiency, and competence, it would make sense that saying no evokes some guilt. In another instance, someone might feel guilty telling his brother he won’t loan him money. If this individual values love and generosity, his action risks threatening the values he cherishes.
It’s important to note that guilt does not inherently mean someone needs to change their course of action. Life can sometimes be a balance of competing values (i.e. the desire to be ambitious at work and the desire to be a present parent), and it’s not uncommon for important values to intersect.
Write Down Your Five Values
If you search online, you can reference several value inventories or value assessments. Most of these lists have upwards of 75-100+ values. Consider spending some time reading through each value and thinking about its weight. Circle any that genuinely resonates with you (or come up with your own).
Then, narrow down your list to determine your top five values. The goal is to avoid getting hung up on what “sounds good” or “feels desirable.” This, of course, can be hard, particularly if your values differ from those of your family, religion, peer group, or another important influence.
But your values are worthy, and they mean something to you. They have meaning in your life, and your mind and body will react when you make choices that directly oppose them.
How to Live According to Your Values
After identifying your core values, you may be questioning how to actually prioritize these values in your life. It’s important to remember that this is an evolving journey. You may need to make some changes along the way, but it can be helpful to commit to starting small instead of overhauling everything right away.
Define What It Would Look Like to Honor Each Value
What does living with X value look like to you? How does it already exist in your current life? If it doesn’t have much of the spotlight, what would need to change?
For example, if you value independence, you may feel frustrated if you still live at home with your parents and can’t financially cover your costs. In examining this value, you might decide to work another job or go back to school to pursue further certification. Or you might decide to start looking for roommates to help subsidize the cost of living on your own.
Think About the Values Draining You From Your Real Values
It’s estimated that we make 35,000 choices in a given day (2). From when you wake up to what you eat for dinner to how you organize your work day, every moment represents a value-based choice. But are you honoring the right values when making those choices?
It may be helpful to look back at your values inventory or values assessment and circle the values that tend to consume the bulk of your day. For example, if you’re being honest with yourself, you might note that you spend several hours each night watching TV. This might be honoring the value of freedom or leisure. But if you value health, nature, or personal fulfillment, this ritual might be directly stealing from those values.
As you move through your day, it can also be beneficial to note when you feel misaligned with your values. Maybe you need to do something you really don’t want to do or something doesn’t go the way you hoped it would. This is a normal part of life, and it’s important to practice self-compassion and kindness when it happens.
Make Value-Based Goals
Many people make goals that sound good to them. They want to make more money or lose weight or write a book. But goals that aren’t attached to core values often feel arduous. At times, they can even feel pointless.
Instead, consider shifting how you can attach value to your goals. Why do you want to make money? Maybe it’s because you value travel, and you want to save up for an international trip. Maybe it’s because you value stability, and you don’t want the threat of debt looming over you. When you can connect value to each goal, adhering to them feels more obtainable and rewarding.
Values are an extension of who you are. Identifying, reassessing, and living according to your values is one of the kindest gifts you can give to yourself. The first step is knowing where you stand. What’s most important to you? And what wouldn’t you give up even if you had all the money or resources in the world? Those are where your values lie, and that’s where happiness can be truly harnessed.