How to clarify your core values

CoreValuesWhen you look around society – specifically Western society – you see a lot of unhappy people.  By the World Health Organization’s estimates, nearly 1 in 9, or 1 in 10 Americans are being treated for depression.  Anxiety disorders, and other serious mental illness is at record levels.  Many people is striving towards making more money, getting the next promotion, or buying a new flat screen TV.  To achieve these goals, many work in jobs or professions they hate.

There are many political and economic theories out there to explain the state of things; the state of happiness in our society.  I propose a very simple theory:  many (most) of us are not living according to our values.  We have no mission beyond accumulating wealth and “things.”  When we live in a way that is not consistent with our core values, we are not living as integrated human beings.  Literally, we are living at odds with ourselves, with who we are.

So how do we change?  First, we must identify what our deeper and core values are.  Then we must make a commitment to live by them.  This may mean changing careers, leaving a relationship, or making other life changing decisions.  But if we have the courage to do so, to live as integrated human beings, our lives will be filled with meaning and happiness.

Make no mistake.  Even when we live with integrity, we will still face challenges that may make us unhappy, or even miserable, in a specific situation.  However, if we cling to our values, we will always maintain the sense of purpose and meaning which leads to a happier and more satisfying life.

But how do we identify what our values really are?  And how do we dig deep and figure out what our deepest values – our core values – are?  Doing so takes a real dedication to deep self-reflection, and courage to accept what we find.  Below is a basic technique that provides a start.  Through it you can get a sense of what your deeper and core values really are.

Be warned, however, that identifying your core values is not a 15 minute exercise, or even a one-time exercise.  As you live your life, look for signs that you are truly living your core values:  happiness, contentment, passion for what you are doing, fulfillment.  If these are absent from your life most of the time, it may be that you should re-assess your value system, and engage in deeper self-reflection to clarify your core values.

However, here is the starting point:

Think about some of your interests and desires.  List them on a piece of paper.  Then, take the time to really visualize what it would be like to fulfill your desires, to be able to really immerse yourself in your interests.  Let your visualization be as precise and detailed as possible. As you are visualizing, which invoke the most passion?  Which are most important to you?  Choose the ones that are most important to you, that you are most passionate about, and write them down.  You may choose 1, 2, 3, or more.  But only choose those that really inspire you.  These are the goals that, if you could let them, would really shape the future you desire the most.

Pay attention to the reasons these interests and desires really inspire you.  Now that you have listed the most important, the most inspiring, interests and desires, take each one and think about why it inspires you.  Ask yourself why you value the interest or desire so much?  Write the answers down.  There may be only one value for each, or there could be several.  These values will usually be one word, or phrase, such as “challenge,” helping others,” “making the world a better place,” “providing for my family,” “honesty,” “excellence,” etc.  Again, think hard about the “why?”  In some cases, maybe “making money” may be a genuine value.  But in most there is a deeper why, like “freedom,” or “providing for my children.”  Peel the onion, asking “why?” for each value you identify, until you reach the root meaning, which will be the deeper value.

Once you have gone through this for each interest and desire, you will have a list of your deeper values.

Identify your core values.  Now that you have a list of your deeper values you can identify your core values.  To do so, you will look for connections between your deeper values.  These connections will be the core values, or the values that are at the core of your being.  It may be helpful to ask yourself what is important to you about all of the deep values you have listed.  You may come up with several core values, but probably no more than a handful.

With these core values in mind you can make decisions that bring meaning and happiness to your life.  When some of them conflict, as they may, you will be able to reconcile which is more important given the situation or context, and make the best decisions for you and those who are close to you.  Living in accordance with your core values enables you to live a life of integrity and purpose.

Photo by Kai Schreiber, who has loads of awesome images on Flickr

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