Determining your values is crucial to self-development because improving your life requires clarifying where you are going. Figuring out a destination is something we do naturally in other areas of our lives. Think about the last time you walked out of your house. Did you have a goal in mind? Maybe you were headed out for a walk around your neighborhood? Or you were taking a trip to the mailbox? Perhaps you were going to the grocery store? Let's say you were headed to the grocery store. Now, if you really have your life figured out, you might have even decided on a specific store and the route you were going to take before you left (sometimes even unconsciously, because you've done it so many times before).
It's kind of funny that many of us (myself included) take things like grocery shopping more seriously than we do the direction of our lives. When it comes to our lives, we have no idea where we are going or how we will get there. Without clear direction, we become vulnerable to getting yanked away from what is important to us as we get distracted by urgent issues or someone else's priorities. We end up running in circles during busy times and meandering aimlessly during downtimes.
Values can help us focus on what is important to us because they give us a sense of direction and guidance. Unlike goals, we can't ever fully achieve our values or check them off a list. There is no limit on how much of a value you can have. Take the value of "love," for example. You will never reach a point where you can say, "Welp, I think I've done it. I've finished loving everyone as much as possible. No need to focus on the love thing anymore. Maybe I'll learn to crochet or something." Love as a value isn't a goal to be achieved. It's a value to work towards, a guide, and a reminder of what matters.
Your values are your own. You can choose any value and can decide to change it at any time. When considering values, you can select as many as you would like, but I find that it helps to choose less than five (ideally three or fewer) to focus on at any one time. Anything important to you can guide the direction of your life. It can be hard to sum these values up in one word, but here are some examples (in no particular order). Don't feel limited to these- remember, anything goes, and no one can decide your values for you!
If you have trouble figuring out your values, there are some questions you can ask yourself to elucidate them:
Think about some of the most meaningful times in your life. Perhaps a time when you felt very content, deeply loved, connected to something important, proud of yourself, "in the zone", or at peace in some way. These situations may reflect something that psychologists have called "peak experiences," or experiences that "involve a heightened sense of wonder, awe, or ecstasy over an experience." (Privette, 2001). Describe what was going on at the time. Who was there? What were you feeling? When describing your peak experience, notice any themes that come up: chances are what you value is hiding among them.
Think about your role models and the people who are most important to you. Describe these individuals. Why are they so important to you? What are some of the traits you admire about them? Can you find any themes here that may relate to your values?
Although this may seem a bit morbid, think about the end of your life. When you have reached the end, what would you like to have accomplished? What do you hope people will say about you? What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
Once you have a better sense of your values, choose just a few of them to focus on (again, ideally less than three). Then write them down in a journal, post them somewhere you can see them, or even set them as alarm reminders on your phone. As you go through your day, try to stay aware of these values. As difficult decisions or distractions arise, you can practice staying focused on your values and choosing to move in the direction of those values no matter what may try to derail you.
Privette, G. Defining moments of self-actualization: Peak performance and peak experience, in K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, and J. F. Pierson (Eds.). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, 161-180; 2001.