Throughout the early years of our lives we are taught certain ideals by our parents, teachers and others around us. I learned from my parents to value kindness, patience, respect, obedience, Godliness. From my teachers I learned to value creativity, quietness, tenacity and intelligence. From my peers I learned to value popularity, attractiveness, wealth, friendship and so on. However, as an adult I do not claim all of these values as my own.
Most of us spend our adolescent years hell-bent on discovering some of our own values. We realise that we’ve been following someone else’s playbook and that we’re no longer satisfied to do so. We may in fact try out a few things that go counter to the standards we’ve been taught. This helps us to see whether we really agree with that standard or not. By the time we’re raising children of our own, hopefully we’ve begun to understand what we really believe in as individuals and can pass our values on.
Why is it important to know what your true standards are?
It is more satisfying to make decisions based on our values, rather than whatever we think will make us happy. Now, at first it may be difficult to spot a difference. As an example, making a decision to buy a very expensive and flashy car may seem enticing. However if I value being wise with my money and the vehicle is not economical to run and care for, this purchase is highly unlikely to bring me lasting joy.
As humans we’re strange creatures. We get sidetracked by the big shiny baubles in life, thinking they will enhance our experience and bring us happiness. But, often counter-intuitively, what most people really need is to live true to their values. This is why someone can have riches, cars, houses, lovers, fancy clothes…and yet be totally miserable. This is why many people who live in the top 1% throw their hearts into charity work. This is why very poor people can still live rich and joyful lives. Shiny things don’t make us happy; living true to our core values does.
How do you discover what your own true values are?
So much of discovering our own values comes with experience.
It’s likely that you are aware of many of your own values, but some don’t become obvious until you’ve had an experience that has piqued your awareness. For example, when I was raising my first couple of children and they were still quite young, we didn’t have much money. This is the period in which I really became aware of the value of thriftiness. As I’ve gained more experience with being frugal I have realised how much power it holds (especially for a person who does not earn a large income), and have felt the pride and joy of being wise with our money, making achievements and being able to live well with less. This has held true even as we’ve started earning more. Frugality is one of my core values.
The absence of a thing can make you realise how much you appreciate it.
Sometimes it is deprivation that shows us what we really care about. I know I appreciate simplicity much more because my life is so full and busy, and I know I value peace because of all the activity that is constantly swirling around me. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Maturity is demonstrated when we’re not only aware of our true values, but also living in tune with them. It is the ability to respond to things in ways that do not compromise our standards. For example, if I yell at my children to be quiet, I am not parenting maturely. Why? I may be responding in accordance with some of my values (peace and quiet) but certainly not all of them (having respect for all, especially the vulnerable). I’ve let immaturity guide my decision to yell at my children, rather than my values. This is not a desirable response, even if it does get the result I was looking for, and it will not be satisfying to me.
Our true values can seem counter-intuitive.
For example, we’ve been trained to believe that work is bad, unenjoyable and to be avoided. Because people tend to grow up thinking work is a bad thing, and trying to avoid it, it certainly runs counter to our long-held beliefs that hard work can be a personal value. But, for most people, the need to work is hard-wired into us. Most people will not be really satisfied unless they are engaging in some hard work. This is how we were designed as humans.
Try it and see. Try lazing around watching Netflix for a few days in a row. Chances are you will begin feeling listless and uneasy. You may feel bad about yourself. You will probably get very bored. Then go do something in the garden, or clean a room from top to bottom, or rearrange some cabinets, or organise the budget. You will feel reinvigorated and proud of your achievement, even if you didn’t enjoy the work itself.
Many of our other ideals are the same way. For example, the general population may try to teach us that frugality is undesirable, and spending money without thought is something many people aspire to be able to do. They feel it will bring them happiness. The truth is that, as humans, having more things doesn’t make us happy. Taking care of the things we do have, and having what we truly need, makes us feel secure and safe. Having more than that just makes us feel overwhelmed. Though frugality may not be popular, it is a way of ensuring we have what we need and not much more. Having less actually makes us happier.
Living according to your values takes thought and care.
At times it requires planning and work to figure out how to do something in a way that doesn’t compromise your standards. It may not come naturally at times, as it seems counter-intuitive to most of us. However, it remains true that living according to our own values rather than anyone else’s, rather than chasing whatever shiny object you think will bring you a thrill, is the way to living a happy and fulfilling life. Even when it goes against the grain.
The biggest benefit of being aware of your core values is that it clarifies your pathway in life. With the benefit of this clarity, individual decisions become simpler to make (if not always easier). You will always be able to hold your choices up to the light of your standards to determine whether they make the grade or not. It will become much easier to streamline your daily life and pare away the things that do not really, truly matter to you.
Today I would like to encourage you to really explore your own standards and values. How can you use your values to guide each of your decisions today? Diving into this thoughtful process can be the beginning of a new era for you of living in step with your true values.