It seems as if the world is getting darker and bleaker with every breaking news story. With the devastation all around us, we’re forced to look inward and see how we can align our internal states with sparking positive change around us. One of the best ways to do that is to define our values and live by them, but it raises the critical question: what are values?
What is the Definition of Values?
At their core, values are foundational ideas guiding and motivating your behavior and beliefs. In short, your values define what’s essential in your life.
We subscribe our character to the values within it. Values are at the center of our personality, thoughts, and actions. They determine the sort of person we are, and changing values forces us to become the person we’d like to be.
The values you own impact your mental states, such as your thoughts and emotions, your relationships, and your physical surroundings. You should think about your values as tangible things, with color and weight. Do your values make you feel lighter and more colorful? Or do they darken and stain the room around you?
What you view as important, good, and worthwhile sits at the core of values. If you don’t value money, then you wouldn’t work. If you don’t value love, you won’t go on dates to find someone to connect with. Values are what motivate us, acting as the metaphorical carrot on a stick.
Values determine our ethical decisions, as ethics can be seen as the mix between values and morality. When you decide to define your values, you indirectly see what your ethics system is. From there, you can choose to proceed as you usually would or make changes to improve your ethics.
But don’t take our word for it. See what other people, who have thought about the subject of values thoroughly, have to say about them.
Here’s What the Experts Say About Values
Taken from the online excerpt from the book Human Systems Fundamentals, values instigate your actions.
But it should be noted that many things determine your actions. Fear, anger, lust, policies, and goals motivate your behavior as well. The difference with values come that they are ideas alone that regulate your behavior, versus external forces like policies and rules, and concern themselves with how you perform that action.
For example, you need to communicate, but teachers, parents, and your social group have instilled the value of speaking with your “inside voice” and waiting until people finish speaking for you to speak. When you take a look at yourself, you’ll realize that your behavior, habits, and personality is an intricate system of values that you’ve created or received throughout your life.
But you’re probably not concerned with the values you’ve received since childhood. You want to learn more about the personal values that give your life meaning and direction. These values come from within and define your unique code of ethics, which cascade throughout the rest of you.
According to the article, values come from a personal reflection on the best way to live. You’ve taken the life experience incurred thus far, or observed the life experiences of others, and squeezed them into a few “truths” or “maxims” concerning the best way to live.
For example, you’ve noticed that lying, no matter how small, tends to lead to worse outcomes than in you had told the truth. Perhaps most of your friends are intuitive and can sense when you’re dishonest. When they do, they think worse of you, and your image of them falls just a little.
But if you tell the truth, people know they can trust your words more. You have integrity, and it leads to a better quality of life.
Therefore, telling the truth would be one of the values you should have to guide your behavior. It’s a personal choice to guide your actions at the core of your personality.
It takes quite some time to change your values, but the effects are long-lasting. But first, you need to decide what values to adopt.
How Should You Determine What Values to Have?
Get a Sense of Your Morality
Only you can decide what you define as right and wrong. Your parents, education system, peer groups, and society at large will have their moral principles, but you don’t have to adhere to them if you don’t want to (though many of us are pressured to).
Your internal morality should be the main compass, so to speak, you use when finding your values. Your emotions respond when you stray off the path set from your moral compass. If you feel like stealing is wrong, for example, but your friends pressure you to shoplift, you’ll feel shame and embarrassment for having gone against your morals.
If you still want tips on how to go through this process, here are some quick ways to get a hold of your morality.
Blindly Stumble Into Them
Isn’t this what we’re all doing through life? Gaining emotional intelligence involves observing the many experiments we do every day. We’re all gauging the best possible results that come from an interaction or experience to determine if we should continue doing what we have done.
Let’s use dating for an example. We all, for the most part, have an idea for how dates should go. Typically, two people talk to each other in a relatively reserved setting, such as at a bar or restaurant.
You’ve met someone online and have both decided to meet up for a date. But what if you met this person online or through an app and got a sense that they’re more into you than you are with them? You now need to ask yourself: should you go through with the date and potentially lead them on, or do you do the difficult action of telling someone you’re not interested in them?
Alright, so let’s say you went out on the date to give the person a chance. It goes fine, really fine, actually, and you find yourself getting attached to them. You ask them if they would like to meet up again for a second date, but now the other person isn’t responding.
After checking in with them to see if they’ve gotten your message, they haven’t responded. You realize you’ve been ghosted.
Ghosting is the act of intentionally cutting off all contact with someone without an explanation. It usually comes in the form of ignoring someone’s text messages or calls, and research shows that 80% of millennial singles have been ghosted, according to a study from Plenty of Fish.
Ghosting is a statement of your values. First off, you don’t value the other person, as ghosting has been shown to cause extreme mental distress in those who have been ghosted — especially the longer the relationship goes on. Second, you don’t value open communication, hoping the other person gets the hint rather than telling them the complete message.
So as you move through dating, you have to determine what values you should have and come up with. Do you think ghosting is a valid form of letting someone off easy, or do you think it’s a cowardly way to tell someone you’re not interested? You decide that based on your ethics, mixed in with the personal experiences that inform your morality.
Each encounter bolsters the moral systems you put in place, creating the average of what your morals are. Just be sure you’re aware of yourself, how you feel, and the tug of your moral compass as you move through life.
Use a Journal
If you’re going through a particularly boring stretch of your life, such as if you’re a student and have summer vacation, or have settled into a routine in which you’re not accruing new experiences, use a journal to sift through the experiences you’ve had prior.
Write down the plot points of your life. There are experiences you’re bound to mull over, those that have stuck with you because they left a bad taste in your mouth. Write down these experiences as objectively as you can, as if you’re narrating the life of someone else and need to get it down perfect for a biography.
Once you’ve written down the event, study it. See how it affected other actors in the story. If you were alone, how did it affect you? Depersonalizing a story that’s still about you lets you review it from a less biased position and determine the moral outcome more easily.
So if you wanted to use the morality of ghosting someone again, you could write down how ghosting made you feel, but you could also extrapolate as to how it would make the other person feel.
If you’ve ever wondered what you’ve done to cause another person to stop texting you so suddenly, do you think the other person would be feeling the same? Do you think the situation would have been easier if you had directly communicated your feelings no matter what to ensure everyone’s on the right page?
These are questions you can ask yourself after the fact to inform future similar situations, should they come up. View your history through a moral lens lets you get new perspectives on not only past you but present and future you.
Do Thought Experiments
If you’ve exhausted your past experiences and don’t seem to stumble upon morally dubious scenarios in your everyday life, take the time to do thought experiments. Philosophers have been doing them for centuries to ascertain certain philosophical truths, and you can use them to determine your life philosophies.
Imagine scenarios that are likely to happen to you, but you haven’t necessarily come across before. For example, someone drops a bundle full of one hundred dollar bills out of their coat pocket. The band around it says $10,000. It’s late at night, and you’re the only person to see this happen.
Anyone carrying around that much money in cash must not have gotten it through legal reasons. It could be drug money or money received through worse transactions. You don’t know where it came from — you only know it’s in your hand right now.
Do you stop the person to tell them they dropped their money? That’s the morally right thing to do, and could prevent you from getting in trouble with the person and their friends should they realize you pocketed their money. But if that person got their money through illegal reasons, can you ethically take the illegal money?
You don’t have to go to the improbable route like we did. You could ask yourself what you’d do in more commonplace situations, like if you’d see someone stealing from a store or hitting their child.
Asking questions like these interrogate your value system and give you plausible scenarios in which you have to put them to the test.
Have Help from an Outside Source
Human cultures are inundated with sources that tell you how to live. Religious and spiritual texts did that for centuries, so you’re never short of texts to pull from when deciding the values to have.
Feel free to get creative with the texts you find. You don’t have to follow one school of thought to the letter — you can mix and match or omit values that don’t jive with you. There’s nothing wrong with tailoring a religious or spiritual ideology to fit your particular set of morals as long as you feel fulfilled by following them.
However, it should be mentioned that you should do research on the schools of thought you come across. Smaller sects and followings have been created for nefarious reasons, so be sure you’re not just critically thinking about the values they present but why they present them and who’s doing the presenting.
Also, get creative with the values you come across. Fiction, for example, is just as didactic as spiritual or literary texts, though differences of course arise. Be open-minded about the ideas you come across, even if they come from an unlikely source, and decide whether or not to use that value more seriously.
Use Your Intuition
If you like eating meat and you don’t think you could live without it, you’re not required to go vegan just because other people do. You can work within your value system to live by your values, but you shouldn’t do things that don’t make sense for you.
Finding your values also means finding what’s sustainable for you, given the parameters you have. In some cases, such as with disability, you can’t act in moral ways because you need to choose the seemingly amoral option.
For example, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard is a disabled YouTuber who frequently talks about her disability and what she needs to cope with it. Due to her body’s issues with regulating blood pressure, she needs to rest lying down a lot and constantly drink caffeine from diet Coke to avoid passing out.
She commented on the trend of forgoing plastic straws for environmental reasons from a disabled person’s perspective. Sometimes, people need plastic straws because they don’t have any other feasible option. Yes, it’s bad for the environment and contributes to plastic pollution in the ocean, but some disabled people cannot forgo plastic straws for medical reasons.
Decide what values are feasible for you and which aren’t. Don’t let yourself feel down about what you’re physically unable to do, but focus on what’s in your control.
How to Live By Your Values
You’ve decided which values are important to you and have decided to blend them into your life. But you have to know how to implement serious life changes without falling off.
Go For Habit Change
Habit change is the best way to ensure you practice your values consistently. Once you’ve implemented the habit deep enough, you won’t even have to think about doing it at all. You’ll become accustomed to living in line with your values; you have to go through a brief adjustment period first.
Changing your habits is difficult — ask anyone trying to lose weight or quit smoking. But it’s possible with the right mindset and tricks that have worked for people in the past.
To change your habits, do the following:
- Identify the habits you want to change. You probably have a vague understanding of what needs to change, but it will continue to slide under the radar if you don’t bring the issue to light. Say “I want to change my honesty,” or another habit you’d like to change, to define it concretely. It’s the necessary starting point for further improvement.
- Find a way to replace the habit. If you want to stop lying, you have to, of course, practice telling the truth in all cases. But if circumstances in your life have it so that you’ll get in trouble for telling the truth after so many lies, you can start on the path toward honesty without actually bluntly telling the truth.
For example, instead of telling another lie, you could say something in the gray area between true and false. It will most likely be vague, but it can go either way depending on the context. While still not the ideal, you’re at least replacing lying with not lying (even if not the truth), which is progress towards always telling the truth one day.
- Go slowly and kindly. Depending on the habits you want to change, going slow will be the best bet to avoid burnout and stopping the habit altogether. Take baby steps and try to change just one percent every day. It might not seem like much, but the results compound the more time you put into it.
As for going kindly, don’t bash yourself when you make mistakes. It’s easy to get lost in negative emotions. The disappointment of failing your expectations hurt, but don’t waste time lambasting yourself for your failures. Instead, strive for improvements that lead to the habits you want to see in yourself.
Use a Friend for Accountability
Using a friend can tremendously help you while you change your value systems. Not only will you have someone to which you can report your progress to, but you have someone who will know about and understand the struggle you’re going through.
It would be best if your friend is also trying to instill the habits you’re trying to instill as well. But even if they’re not, the social pressure to avoid embarrassment, disappointing your friend, or breaking the bet with them is a strong motivator to push yourself to succeed.
If you can’t find someone or don’t feel comfortable recruiting a friend for your habit change journey, there are other methods you could use.
Let’s say you want to get up earlier so you can study more or work on a business, as you value personal growth and discovery. If you’ve amassed a decent following on Twitter, you could schedule a tweet to go up after your early wake up that says you’re lazy and that you’re currently sleeping through your alarm.
This forces you to wake up before your alarm to cancel that scheduled tweet. Seeing the blue light will most likely wake you up (if the heart-pounding anxiety didn’t do that already), and you’re ready to start building your habits.
Get creative with how to hold yourself accountable. Finding an accountability partner will be one of the best ways to ensure you stick to your new, value-filled habits.
How Defining Your Values Improves Your Life
There’s a pleasure associated with living aligned with your values. Perhaps you’ve gotten in when you’ve done something good for someone, such as telling them that they’ve dropped a $10 bill on the ground or returning excess change a cashier gave you.
Not only will the other person be happy to have gotten their money back, but you will know that, at your core, you’re a good person. Not many people live with the positive values that most people should live by, such as intense honesty and selflessness. But you’re that person. You know you’re good and benefit the world.
That knowledge alone is a great ego boost, and it can expand into your thoughts, self-esteem, and behavior until adhering to your value systems has improved your self-confidence tremendously.
You know you’re a good person, and the other people in your life will know it too. People want someone who brings positivity. They don’t want someone who brings down the vibe or with whom they have to worry about.
Therefore, setting positive values and living in accordance with them is the key to ensuring successful and copious relationships. Always tell the truth. Never steal. Always bring people up rather than tear them down. Be ambitious and kind. People will notice others with those values, so they’ll notice you.
With the rise of internet discourse, there’s ever-present monitoring of those who are “toxic” and those who aren’t. Most of the time, those who are deemed toxic do not have a set of positive values guiding their behavior. They treat people poorly, make fun of others, and break the law, and their behaviors negatively impact other people, which is why they’re labeled toxic.
No one wants to be around toxic folks. Stay kind and honest, and you’ll be stepping over the dead careers of those who couldn’t set up and follow their own set of positive values.
Happiness won’t come tomorrow, next week, or even next year. It might not come five years from now, even. But if you live with your eyes on maintaining and upholding a set of positive values, you’ll gain a sense of content happiness other people yearn for.
Different people have definitions of happiness, but one type of happiness comes when you realize you are a good person who treats people kindly and is positively taking up space on this planet.
Happiness comes when you’ve set up systems for success, in which you work every day toward your goals. You might not have reached them yet, but you know that one day you will if you keep at it.
Such happiness is possible through your value systems. You have to keep bettering yourself until you become the happy, content, and valuable person you’re working to become.
Decide What Your Values Are
And work to live in accordance with those values. We won’t make it seem easy — in fact, changing your life to live more virtuously will be one of the most difficult changes you make in your life.
But with the great difficulty comes great reward. After settling into the groove of living by your values, you’ll find life much more enriching and fulfilling than it was before.
This article gives you the foundations to understand what values are and strive to live in accordance with them. It can’t change your life for you. Only you can do that, so get started today.