What Are Values? How To Discover Yours And Build A Life Of Purpose
Values are a crucial foundation to living a life of purpose. Figuring out what yours are will help you set fulfilling goals.
Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.Albert Einstein
What’s truly meaningful to you? What qualities do you wish to cultivate? How do you want to live your life? It’s fair to say a growing number of people are feeling lost and uncertain. The face-paced world can feel chaotic and confusing, with competing demands of family members and work on our time, attention, energy, work life balance and emotions.
Einstein pointed to the importance of values for a reason. Values are the qualities that, deep within, are most meaningful. In some ways there is nothing more powerful. They are a crucial foundation to living a life of purpose, and a compass to guide through highs and lows. The trouble is, if you don’t choose your values, they’ll be chosen for you.
Many areas of society are superficial and informed by materialistic values — the thirst for fame, riches, success, and acquiring material things is a seductive idea. Factor in social media, celebrity worship, hyper-capitalism, and you find a breeding ground for what Johann Hari refers to as “junk values”.
All things considered, values are really important, they’re everything. Connecting to your values, and beginning to live in alignment with them, will give a huge boost to your courage, your self discovery, your self esteem and self development journey.
Here, we’ll explore what values are in detail, offer some examples, before giving practical advice on how you can take concrete actions to find out what your values are.
What are values?
Values are guides to human behavior.
In philosophy, values are crucial for ethical decision-making. In psychology, they’re the core of what makes a life meaningful, moving away from short-term satisfaction to long-term fulfillment. Abraham Maslow, the groundbreaking psychologist responsible for the hierarchy of needs, also noted that they’re an integral part of self-actualization.
Values are important to thriving in life or overcoming depression, anxiety, or a general lack of meaning. In many ways, we’re living at an age with a crisis of values. The disintegration of religion, along with a growing sense of individualism, has left a void. Fortunately, you don’t have to look outside of yourself to connect to your values — quite the opposite. Values reside within. Rather than being created, they’re discovered.
Values have a drip-down effect. They inform our beliefs, our behaviors, and our choices. Without knowing what your values are, it can be difficult to know what direction to move in. The beauty of being connected to values is that they are a form of intrinsic motivation.
That means, no matter your path or outcome, no matter the team you play on or the players by your side, if you are true to your values, that alone will add meaning and fulfillment.
What are core values?
Core values are those that are most meaningful, residing at the core of being. Core is defined as “the part of something that is central to its existence or characters,” or “the tough central part of various fruits, containing the seeds.” The image of a seed sprouting is a useful metaphor for growth and self-actualization: there is a place within where the truth of our core values resides.
Not only that, but core originates from the Latin cor, which means heart. Bringing this terminology together gives us a poetic image of what core values are: they’re qualities that reside in the heart, shaping who it is you are here to become.
Due to their significance, core values play a big role in motivation. Why do you do the things you do? It’s likely there are core values that act as intrinsic motivation, below the surface. For example, having a dream to become a millionaire might be less about cold hard cash, more about a core value of freedom and independence.
What are personal values?
Personal values are essentially the same as core values. However, I like to view these as your unique exploration of what values are meaningful to you.
Search online and you might find a list of hundreds of labels, each referring to a value. This can feel overwhelming, and words alone don’t mean much. What’s most important is what these words mean to you, subjectively.
For example, you might value integrity. The images, feelings, and motivations associated with integrity are part of your inner landscape. For some, this might mean developing a strong character and being true to your word. For others, it might mean making difficult decisions and experiencing short-term discomfort for long-term fulfillment.
Values often operate like a network, not one-off or individual traits. There are areas of overlap and interconnection. Integrity, truth, honesty, and courage may interlink with each other. You don’t have to stick to a set list of personal values. Although they serve as helpful guides, you might benefit from using your own language to summarize or translate the values residing in your heart. When I worked with my coach some years ago, we discovered a value of mine: Boogie Woogie.
This doesn’t mean much as a label in itself, but to me, it’s a reminder to embody a childlike playfulness, spontaneity, and innocence, in my relationships, my work, my career and my creativity. It helps me avoid becoming too serious or rigid in the way I’m living life, a trap I find it easy to fall into!
What are examples of values? A list
I’m about to contradict myself by presenting you with a list of values. This is far from comprehensive, but it can get you looking in the right direction. One way of discovering your values is to look through a list, highlight those which intuitively stand out, and then to prioritize that list, reducing it to four or five key values.
Some common values are:
If you’re dedicated to a path of self-actualization, it’s likely growth will be important to you. Abraham Maslow, the pioneer of self-actualization, identified what he referred to as Being Values, or B-Values. These are a transformative, higher form of values that derive from peak experiences, those moments of a heightened sense of wonder, oneness, or awe. In Religions, Values and Peak Experiences (1964) he explains:
“As revealed in peak-experiences and exemplified in the lives of self-actualizing people, these ‘B-values’ are truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, dichotomy-transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, necessity, completion, justice, order, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness, self-sufficiency.”
Each of these can be unpacked in detail, but what’s most important is to explore what they mean to you. When you’ve felt on top of the world, at your very best, were you connected to any of these B-values? If so, how can you connect deeper to them, or set the conditions to invite these types of experiences?
Junk values and the modern world
In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari went on a journey of discovery to explore the root causes of depression, having been through the struggle himself. In interviewing hundreds of experts in the field, Hari recognized that disconnection from things such as meaningful work, purpose, a healthy future, and nature was a huge contributor to depression and meaninglessness.
Hari spends a chapter discussing the importance of values, in which he highlights our society’s “junk values.” He writes:
Junk food has taken over our diets, and it is making millions of people physically sick. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that something similar is happening with our minds—that they have become dominated by junk values, and this is making us mentally sick, triggering soaring rates of depression and anxiety.
This is a powerful reminder that what the structures of society tell us are valuable, don’t support happiness, growth, or wellbeing. And it acts as a good prompt when exploring what your values are: in today’s age, it takes willpower to discover the truth of your intrinsic values when faced with a barrage of junk values from the outside world.
What are your personal values?
Now you know what values are, and their importance, how do you discover your values? This requires some journeying, and time spent away from the outside noise. It requires stillness and reflection, and, like all areas of growth, it’s an ongoing process. Values evolve and change over time, along with your character. Imagine the difference in values from someone launching a business in their early 20s, compared to someone starting a family in their 30s.
I have found that there are values that seem to be common threads throughout all of my life, and that I’m most content, and feel most alive, when I’m connected to them. A good starting point for discovering values is to look at your childhood: what did you gravitate towards? What activities did you enjoy the most? What captured your imagination and attention? Can you distill values from there?
In addition, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the times you’ve felt happiest, most alive, most fulfilled. What were you doing? Who were you being? These are all indicators of times when you were connected to your core values. Once you have clarity around what they are, it makes it much easier to connect to them in the future.
The life values questionnaire
Let’s turn to another source for an extra-deep dive into discovering values. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of talking therapy based on both mindfulness and meaning. ACT is also an acronym for Accepting thoughts and feelings, Connecting to values, and Taking action. In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris provides great exercises in how to discover values.
Below is an example of Harris’ Life Values Questionnaire. Under each section are questions to reflect upon. Values are about how you would like to behave and relate in the world; so keep this in mind. As you answer each question, explore the underlying values that are meaningful for you.
- What sort of relationships do you want to build?
- How do you want to behave in these relationships?
- What personal qualities do you want to develop?
- How would you treat others if you were the ideal you in these relationships?
- What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with these people?
2. Work / Education
- What personal qualities would you like to bring to the workplace?
- How would you behave towards your colleagues/customers/employees if you were the ideal you?
- What sort of relationships do you want to build in the workplace?
- What skills, knowledge or personal qualities do you wish to develop?
3. Personal Growth / Health
- What ongoing activities would you like to start or take up again?
- What groups or centers would you like to join?
- What lifestyle changes would you like to make?
- What sorts of hobbies, sports, or leisure activities would you like to participate in?
- On an ongoing basis, how do you want to relax, unwind, or have fun, in healthy, life-enhancing ways?
- What sorts of activities would you like to take up or do more of?
Keep in mind, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to your core values. This is a process of exploration, so take time to think deeply about each answer, and allow the values to present themselves as you work through each section.
How to live a life aligned to your values
“Values are directions we keep moving in, whereas goals are what we want to achieve along the way,” Harris writes, “A value is like heading North; a goal is like the river or mountain or valley we aim to cross whilst traveling in that direction.” This is a great image of the difference between values and goals. The best way to align to your values is to use them as a North Star.
That means taking inventory of your life, and assessing if you are living in alignment with values. This requires both self-awareness and self-honesty. Don’t worry if there are areas where you feel you aren’t aligned: it’s an ever-evolving process, and the key is to note where you’re off track, before bringing yourself back.
Atomic Habits’ author James Clear recommends the practice of Integrity Reports. Clear notes how he takes time to check in with how much he’s living aligned to his values. “Integrity is one of those qualities that is easy to talk about, but much harder to live out on a day-to-day basis,” he writes. “This report forces me to revisit my core values each year and consider if I have been living by them.”
An Integrity Report can be done each year. It’s a way to hold yourself accountable, to make sure you’re living aligned with the values that are most meaningful to you. That requires the work outlined above to build clarity on your values. Once you’re aware of your values, you can make sure you remain committed to them. Clear structures the report by answering 3 key questions:
1. What are the core values that drive my life and work?
Within this section, outline your core values and ask explorative questions related to them. In Clear’s example, he uses four of his values: growth, self-respect, grit, contribution. An example of explorative questions for growth are:
- Am I learning new things, exploring new places, and experimenting with new ideas?
- Am I questioning my limiting beliefs and trying to overcome them?
- Am I building habits that lead to continual improvement?
Coming up with questions themselves is a fun, creative process. For example, as someone who enjoys solitude and reflection, peace is one of my core values. Using Clear’s example above, I could ask myself the following questions:
- Am I creating opportunities for extended time in nature and in stillness?
- Am I inviting peace into my day-to-day life with rituals and routines such as meditation and mindfulness?
- Am I cultivating peace and harmony in my relationships?
2. How am I living and working with integrity right now?
This section offers the chance to celebrate the ways in which you’re already aligned with values. Clear’s using the example of:
“Apologizing for my mistakes and righting old wrongs. I make a lot of mistakes. Sometime last year, I realized that not only was I making mistakes, I was also responding to my mistakes incorrectly. I would push the situation into a dark corner of my mind, never bring up the mistake in conversation, and just hope that others would forget about it. Once I realized this, I decided to fix things and send apology letters.”
If you’re fully invested in the path of self-development, this is a great opportunity to acknowledge all the work you’ve already put in. I know how easy it is to get caught up and forget to reflect on progress. But what about the books read, the challenges overcome, the commitment to self-honesty and reflection? These are easy to overlook as growth is cyclical and often difficult to pinpoint.
3. How can I set a higher standard in the future?
Once you’ve acknowledged how connected you are to your values, and what you’re doing right, the next step is to look ahead: how can you live more aligned, and push yourself to do even better? Remember, self-actualization is an ongoing process, and this level of accountability will lead you to grow beyond even what you thought possible.
If you’re looking to write an Integrity Report yearly, this will set your intention for the following 12 months. Clear builds upon his use of apology letters to set a new standard:
“Thank people for their help. While I have done a good job of writing apology letters, I have done a terrible job of writing Thank You notes. A few months ago I wrote the article titled, “Make Your Life Better by Saying Thank You in These 7 Situations” as a reminder to myself. There are some Thank You notes that I should have written six months ago that—as I sit here typing away about integrity and responsibility—I still haven’t written.”
All forms of growth require a growth mindset. It’s illuminating to see how Clear, who sold 4-million copies of Atomic Habits, has helped to shape and inspire many in the self-development field, and has 1 million newsletter subscribers, still pushes himself to do better.
Returning to self-development, you might decide to focus on an area that’s really outside of your comfort zone. For example, you might have spent time learning and applying knowledge, but the thought of teaching might scare you. Or you might have learned a lot about yourself through self-inquiry, but feel nervous about exploring new, community-based experiences.
The importance of values cannot be overlooked. Values guide us throughout life, they give added purpose and meaning, and they help inform each decision, from the day-to-day to the life-changing. Although values reside deep within, in the heart, discovering them isn’t a passive process.
Without consciously exploring your values, others will choose for you — be it society, your community, your friends, or your peers. However, as we’ve explored, a lot of values are junk values, those that don’t add much meaning to life.
By taking time to honestly reflect and uncover your values, you begin to build a life of purpose. You discover the deep intrinsic motivation that fuels you. In knowing this, you can take action to invite more meaning, and more value, into all areas of life.
Then, with added clarity, you can hold yourself accountable by regularly checking in, through integrity reports or good old-fashioned self-reflection.
“Life involves hard work,” Harris writes. “All meaningful projects require effort. Unfortunately, all too often, when faced with a challenge, we think, ‘it’s too hard’ and we give up or avoid it. That’s where our values come in. Connecting to our values gives us the sense that hard work is worth the effort.”
I sincerely hope this guide has helped in adding clarity and showing you a practical way to add more purpose to your life. But hopefully, by connecting to your values, you’ll discover the determination and resilience to build the life you want, informed by your heart’s desire, and motivated by your North Star. And always remember: the hard work is worth the effort.