We have values because we are verbal, symbolic creatures who can imagine futures that have never been and think creatively about how to take a current situation and advance it. Language is an excellent tool to note and describe behavior, which allows us to gain increasing control over it. Language is also double-edged. The symbolic processes that enable us to hold values bump up against the impulse to measure and compare ourselves in ways that leave us never satisfied, never happy, never at peace. Read more on Psychology today
As those uses of cognition gain ground, we become inordinately focused on achievement, money, power, and domination over others as the ultimate values: We pretend we’ll live forever, are better than others. We wind up presenting a mask to the world, which prevents us from making genuine connections with others.
Values get you to enough; they make this moment about something that you hold dear, and then the next moment, and the next. A person with values might look back and say, “I am committed to being loving. I’m never as loving as I need to be, but I’m on that journey.”
Because what generates vitality and meaning is right up against what generates comparison and judgment, it’s all too easy to slip from enough to more. The solution is to regard values as qualities of being and doing—not as labels worn as self-righteous armor. Actions are loving or kind or honest. When, in the continuing course of life, each moment is values-connected, the journey unfolds and then one’s life is enough.
If asked, many people would say they go to work to provide for their families. This is important and true, but it is separate from the values that nudge them forward. Valuing money as a means to autonomy and sustenance is critical and presumably close to a human universal. Valuing money as a means to an end—wanting money to be able to contribute to others, for example—is one thing. It’s another when money feeds comparison, judgment, and avoidance of the pain that comes with being human. If you use money in that pursuit, it doesn’t matter how successful you are—you always want more. It’s a thirst that can’t be quenched.
People vary on how dominant the comparisons more and less are in their mindset. In a recent study my colleagues and I conducted, we found that those who respond very strongly to more and less tend to be not as satisfied with life and to experience more negative affect than those whose response is weaker. People who always want more are miserable because they will never get to enough.
As our heroes, we choose the people who stand for something we admire, something we would like to stand for ourselves. As a result, one way of getting at your values is to ask yourself, “Who are my heroes?” Once you identify the people who really mean something to you, who move you deeply in some way, then you can spend time examining and identifying exactly what that something is. What do they stand for, in your eyes, in the qualities of their actions?
Think of the most rewarding moments of your life and pinpoint what makes them so. Sometimes values are domain-specific, sometimes more general. If, for example, you are looking at work values, think back to those moments in your career where you felt especially alive, especially vital, especially moved, especially connected to life—moments that were special in some way. Then unpack that experience. There will be something in that memory that connects you to the vital source of valuing. When confusion sets in, it can serve as a light to direct you to what you care about.
We hurt where we care. Pain has large lessons to teach us. If you look inside the pain and see why it hurts, you have a precise and powerful indicator of what you value.
You can flip that pain over as if it were a piece of paper and ask yourself, What would you have to not care about for that not to hurt? That is what you value. If you were betrayed in love and the experience stabbed you through the heart, that means you care about love. If you were lied to, and it deeply hurt you, you care about honesty. If somebody showed disloyalty to you in a way that shocked you, you can be certain that loyalty and commitment from others are important to you. If you’re afraid of being with other people or afraid you may not be accepted by others—socially phobic or socially anxious—you value being included, being connected to others.
Sometimes people are not willing to feel. But I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have within a deep yearning to feel fully and openly, and to feel genuinely themselves. That yearning is invariably connected to past wounds, for which the mind’s attempted solution is to try not to feel at all.
When you try to throw away painful parts of your history, you have to pretend that the other side of that experience—the values side—can be thrown away too. To throw out the pain of betrayal you have to forget that love matters.
If you think about your life as a narrative, a story you are writing, what would you put in the next chapter if you wanted that chapter to stand for something? It can be helpful to think of values as an extension of your narrative, because they create the theme, the meaningful through-lines of our stories. The elements of the story so far—the challenges you’ve overcome, the opportunities you’ve missed or reached out for, the poignancy of love and loss—exemplify life as a journey. You don’t yet know the details of the next chapter of your life story—you might get a phone call in the next two minutes that completely changes the content—but you do know the themes, the underlying meaning, because they are the values you are choosing to live by.
Think of how children play. They pretend that getting to that tree before you touch them is very important. There is as much life in those next moments of tag as they can possibly muster. They’re running as hard as they can, laughing, not because it’s important but because they’re pretending it is—they are caring about a moment by their own choice, not because someone is going to applaud—which allows them to fully participate in that moment in a playful way.
Once you exit that playful space, the mind tells you, “This is important,” so you wind up putting your choices through the filter of logic—which becomes the decision maker, and you get shoved aside by your mother’s voice, a television commercial, or a wagging finger from somebody who played a role in your history.
Instead, it is more powerful to come at your values as a choice—between you and the person you sense yourself to be. It’s not unlike what you knew to do as a kid.
If somebody says, “I just really want to help people,” I’ll respond, “OK, imagine that you helped someone and it was a total secret; nobody knew.” We will actually imagine a situation in which it is possible to do something you care about and not be caught at it. That exercise strips out the possibility of a self-aggrandizing motive: “I’m so great—look, I’m living my values and everybody sees it.”
Approaching actions playfully, as a game, does not trivialize them; it vitalizes
them—all because you get to choose what is meaningful. Kids do that naturally; innocence is where vitality lies. Adults have to reclaim that experience of innocence.
When you do that, you’ve plugged into the power of life itself. How do you know what your core values are? There’s a major metric—vitality. Life itself feels as if it’s there to be lived. You get up in the morning and you go, not because you’re whipping yourself, but because there is an appetitive yearning.
You’re taking yet another step forward toward something you’ll never quite reach. What matters is going in that direction.
There is a significant body of research demonstrating that writing about values boosts people’s ability to succeed. Asking teenagers to write about what they deeply care about in the realm of education has a profound effect on their school performance over the next several years. Writing for just 20 minutes two or three times in middle school may alter their trajectory for years. In a study published in Science in 2006, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues at UCLA were able to narrow the black-white racial gap in achievement by nearly 40 percent as a result of three brief sessions of values writing. “The drive for self-integrity—seeing oneself as good, virtuous, and efficacious—is a fundamental human motivation,” the report began.
Recently, my group replicated and extended this work, reporting in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. During college student orientation, we exposed psychology majors to a 10-minute online program that explained in simple terms what values are—chosen qualities of being and doing—and how they differ from current goals. We then assigned a brief writing exercise focused on educational values and watched what happened to grades over the next semester. The students’ grades went up by about one fifth of a grade point, compared with goal-setting alone or doing nothing special.
Take 10 minutes and explore in writing what is of importance to you in a given area. Write about why it is important and what happens in your life when you forget it.
You want to share what you value with others, because that is simply the nature of the creature we are. The need to share what we hold dear may even be why we have the capacity to communicate in symbolic ways in the first place.
When I ask people what they deeply care about, as I regularly do, other people are always on the top of the list. People strongly care about love, connection, and belonging. They care about contributing to the well-being of others, lifting up people who are suffering, and being there for people they love.
Other strongly held values spring more indirectly from deeply social concerns. If you care about the future of the planet, part of that is caring about what our grandchildren will be seeing—whether there will still be elephants and other creatures as well as rivers for them to enjoy. Even values that appear to be more individualistic, such as the creation and appreciation of beauty, have a social motive: People want to share that beauty with others, to help others appreciate it. In my experience, 99 percent of all values are social in nature.
The process that allows us to care is profoundly social.
When we engage the capacity to choose and to embrace the values that inform our actions, we are humanizing ourselves, living in an intimate, committed, effective way, and moving toward the kind of life we want to produce. That process is not without difficulty, because it brings us close to the razor’s edge, where we get caught up in our own thinking and risk turning our values into a pros-and-cons list by which we objectify ourselves and others. That is how someone ends up being a workaholic and creating misery in his or her family in the name of “being a good provider.”
The mind is a problem-solving organ that allows us to deal with events in imagination before they are faced in reality. That amazing skill has, over the last 10,000 years, allowed us, a weak, slow, and poorly defended species, to take over the planet.
Some of the real-world difficulties a person faced centuries ago have been taken care of or at least diminished. We are living longer, even in the poorest countries; violence is down, despite how things appear on our screens. We have made human progress. But to keep the organ that produced such changes from turning on its owner, we need to stay focused on the kind of life we want to live—connected to the meaning and purpose we choose, instead of creating barriers to that.
In the end, choosing values is simple. But it takes a certain amount of psychological sophistication to rein in the problem-solving mind. It takes sophistication to maintain playful, chosen, conscious, human, values-based action amid the cacophony of voices coming at us from outside and from within—judging, blaming, shaming, and avoiding.
Values set the direction of our life path. If we wander into avoidance and self-aggrandizement, we’re heading away from our own chosen meaning. The gap between the two can serve as an ever-present compass, letting us know we are straying from our gut purpose. Like a caring adult saying, “This way, dear” to a wandering child, our values can be our teacher, vitalizing our life journey when we most need a nudge.