Identify your core values and learn how to live by them to build greater happiness.
We sometimes go through life without paying much attention. We just move from one thing to the next, playing on our phones, without considering whether our actions reflect our core values. But when we go through life without following our values, we can lose ourselves and our ability to generate real happiness. Want to identify your core values and learn how to live them? Read on.
Identify Your Values
By identifying our values, we can begin to design a life that is in better alignment with our true self. Keep in mind that values are different for everyone—you are the only one who can identify your values.
To get started, think about the list of values below. Write down any of the values that you hold. Feel free to add additional values if they are not included on the list.
Authenticity Adventure Balance
Bravery Compassion Challenge
Citizenship Community Creativity
Curiosity Determination Fairness
Freedom Friendships Fun
Generosity Growth Honesty
Integrity Justice Kindness
Knowledge Leadership Learning
Love Loyalty Openness
Optimism Recognition Respect
Responsibility Security Self-Respect
Social Connection Spirituality Stability
Status Wealth Wisdom
Next, note your most important 3 or 5 values. For each of these, write down three or more actions that define what it would mean for you to live these values. For example, if you value Loyalty, actions might include forgiving a friend for a betrayal, negotiating fair treatment at work to ensure your commitment to your employer, or choosing not to engage in extramarital affairs.
Now, write down one thing you have done that does not reflect each of your top 3 to 5 values. For example, if you value Optimism, it's a more value-driven choice to think positively than to worry about the future.
Next, write down what you could do differently next time. Maybe instead of bracing for the worst, you could think about what might go right, what you might learn, or what cool things you have to look forward to in the future. As you are doing this activity, you may discover that there are ways that you could live in closer alignment with your personal values.
It may be hard to follow through on some of the actions you identified. Maybe you would need to stop drinking. Maybe you would need to change jobs. Maybe you would need to have some difficult conversations. It’s quite easy to go with the flow and lose sight of our values. It’s a lot harder to live by our values and do what’s right for ourselves in the long run.
What if you haven't been living your values?
For one woman I know—a kind, smart, caring person—the rift between her values and her actions became apparent when she started leaving her boyfriend at home so she could gain attention and physical satisfaction from other men. It was clear from the outside that these actions went against her values. So even though her actions made her feel good in the moment, each night she would go home feeling terrible.
For another woman I know—a strong, giving, selfless person—the growing gap between her values and actions was revealed when she started asking loved ones for things that she could sell to buy drugs. Never had she been the kind of person that couldn’t handle a challenge. Never had she been willing to take from others. But in the throes of her addiction, she lost her track of her values. Thankfully, she recovered. But even after, it was only when she again started living her values that she was able to rebuild her life and happiness.
The tricky thing about values, though, is that we all hold different ones. For each of us who loses track of our values, the outcome will look different. And many of us have never asked ourselves what our values are or what it would look like if we weren’t living them. So we easily get lost.
By identifying what we need to do to live our values, we can start becoming the person that we want to be. And as it gets easier to love ourselves, we begin to feel happier.
Live Your Values
When I first did this activity, I discovered that kindness is one of my top values. I was living this value in some ways, with some people, and in some situations, but I had some major gaps. For one, I could be really mean to my husband, criticizing him for the smallest things. I could tell you I acted this way because I was angry or hurt, but these are just rationalizations–excuses I told myself to justify my behavior. The truth is that living your values is hard, and I wasn’t yet ready to put in the work.
At first, I could still tell myself I was kind when I was being mean, that I was in fact living my values. But one day I realized I was just making excuses, and I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was not who I wanted to be. It seemed scary and overwhelming to start living my values, but I decided that day that I had to do it. And you can do it too.
To start, take a look at the values list you created in the last activity. For each of your most important values, ask yourself 3 sets of questions and record your answers:
Are there any people with whom you have a difficult time living this value? Maybe your romantic partner, parent, sibling, coworker, or friend?
Are there any situations that make it difficult for you to practice this value? Where are you, or what are you doing when you fail to practice these values? For example, maybe you’re at work, at home, out at a bar, on social media, in the car, or at the daycare center.
Is there anything else that makes it difficult for you to live your personal values? For example, maybe you live your values in the morning but not at night, when in your hometown but not on vacation, or on Monday but not Friday.
Once you’ve identified the external events that trigger you to veer away from your core values, it’s key that you identify why these experiences affect you this way.
Look through all of the people and situations that lead you to stray from your values and ask yourself what thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations lead you to act differently than you would like to.
The emotions that trigger you may be the same across all situations, or they may be different. So just write down anything you think of that leads you away from your values. These emotions, thoughts, and associated bodily sensations are at the root of what causes us to abandon our values. When we act in a way that’s inconsistent with our values, we are just attempting to regulate or reduce our negative emotions, even if only temporarily. By acknowledging this and changing our habits, we can start to live in accordance with our values and improve our lives. Changing your life is never easy, but it's always worth it.