Defining Moments

What Are Your Core Values? Ask Yourself These 7 Questions

Whether yours need to be clarified or created from scratch, this is how to develop your defining values.

Originally Published: 
Bearded middle aged man relaxing in men's store.

Hey buddy — quick question: What are your values?

It’s an innocent ask but the answer might make you a bit defensive. You probably think that you have values. Wait, you know you have values. You have lots of them — good ones. You just keep them to yourself, but when you say them out loud…

Well, there’s the problem.

When determining your values, one of two things usually happens. You say them but they sound incredibly vague (Wow. I believe in honesty...) because you haven’t really defined them. Or, when you explain them your rationale falls apart (I gave up playing all sports to spend time with my kids, but is that the best way to promote being active?).

So maybe it’s time for a tune-up, or to establish a core set of values. It’s a good thing to do. When it happens, life gets easier. Those stressful decisions, whether it’s moving for a job or letting someone merge, aren’t so stressful, because you’re not wondering if you did the right thing.

“It’s a way to live with fewer regrets,” says Rosemary Lloyd, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

But determining your values is not an intellectual exercise. It’s about taking those general ideals — loyalty, family, generosity, etc. — making them your own, and then putting them to use. Otherwise, it’s just a premise.

“A value doesn’t mean much if it isn’t attached to a behavior,” say Carol Landau, clinical professor emerita of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

To get there, it starts with figuring out what matters, since, as Lloyd points out, “there are hundreds of values in the world.” You don’t need all of them — a top three usually helps — and your list can change over time and each value can shift in importance.

Some values may come quickly, but you may have forgotten others because, well, life gets hectic. What helps in determining your values is to ask yourself questions and see where the answers lead. The following can help.

1. When Was I Happiest In My Life?

It might have been something from the past like at summer camp or the weekly poker game, or something as recent as holding your child. The moment taps into you at your best, and you can tease out the elements to recapture, whether it’s traveling a little more often or just laughing really hard.

“If you know what makes you happy, don’t we want to maximize that in our lives?” Lloyd says.

2. When Was I Most Proud?

It could have been changing jobs at 30 years old or telling the truth at 9, but the commonality is that you faced a challenge and pushed through it. This kind of adversity often reveals what’s most important.

“It’s something you’re willing to fight for,” Lloyd says.

But, she adds, it’s also good to ask the converse question, like when you were saddest or least proud. Those low points offer motivation by giving you a choice: feel like this; never again like that.

“I’ll remember it for the next time,” she says.

3. How Am I Spending My Extra Time?

We get it — extra time? Who has extra time? — and with everything you have to do, there doesn’t feel like you have any, but there are pockets. “That’s when you theoretically have freedom of choice,” Landau says.

Everyone needs distractions, but you want to examine if your YouTube break is five minutes or bleeds over into scrolling Twitter for 90, which leads into useless, online debates.

If it’s the latter, you then want to ask another question: Does it make me feel a little uncomfortable? It’s a gut check and it makes you realize that what you’re currently doing might be preventing you from spending time with your partner, reading, or anything else you profess to value.

4. Are We Where We Intended To Be?

This is a question to ask your partner because values are rarely solo endeavors. If you want to play weekend basketball, you need support to make it happen. And if it’s a family matter, you want to make sure you’re still in sync with what you’ve always talked about, Landau says.

But this is just an example of the need to reach out to others when trying to determine what matters. It could be a friend, relative or mentor, any person you trust and who knows you from different times in your life and can remind you of what has always made you happy.

“They’re out of the fray,” she says. “It gives you perspective.”

5. What Would Break Us Up?

Relationship-wise, that is. An affair is the quick answer but not always the complete one. Maybe it’s actually not being considered or seen as a priority. With any question, your goal is to get away from the first, and most obvious, response. Dedicating some attention gets you to the third or fourth where your answer lies, Lloyd says.

This kind of question also taps into family history, which is where most values originate from, and you might realize that being stoic and not talking about problems is actually a tradition that you no longer want to continue.

6. If I Could Start Over, How Would I Spend My Time?

You still live within the limits of your life, but this is a pretend do-over. It doesn’t mean complete upheaval, but based on what you know now, maybe you see spots where what you thought was urgent, e.g., repaying a loan immediately, can be stretched out without much downside. Whatever it is, you have a chance to course correct and refocus your energy.

“You feel better if you’re living according to your principles,” Landau says.

7. Why Am I Doing That?

It’s always good to examine your reason, from working late to buying used sports equipment. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe it needs to be tossed. But now you’re off autopilot and there’s more certainty and less mystery in your decisions.

“You’ll find out what’s driving you,” Landau says.

And it’s not an overly intense process. It can be five or 10 minutes of thought, sometimes not even that much because you’re certain that making people laugh or comfortable is always who you’ve been. It’s just the other values that are there but need a nudge to become more prevalent.

“You just go live your life, but maybe do it with a little more awareness,” Lloyd says. “It has you live a life worth living.”

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