Our values are among the most valuable things we have. Our core values represent our most deeply-held beliefs and what’s most important to us. Think of them as compass points that point us in the direction we need to travel to be our true, authentic selves—not who other people want us to be or who we think we should be. These are the higher values that will guide us to the people, places, passions, and activities that will give us the most fulfillment and purpose in life.
Our beliefs influence our values. Our values influence our actions. Our actions ultimately determine who we become in this world.
Having the right values and living according to them will give us a fulfilling and purposeful life. Not living by our values or living by the wrong ones will result in an unfulfilling life that lacks purpose.
Many people think that being happy involves doing things that make them feel good like eating, drinking, making money, getting another promotion, or buying things like cars, clothes, and electronic devices. The problem is that they’re looking for happiness in the external world. When they do these things, they’ll never find true, long-lasting happiness. They’ll only find temporary happiness and they’ll always need more. They’ll never have enough.
One of the keys to true, long-lasting happiness is living a life that’s aligned with your core values.
The Perils of Not Living By Your Core Values
If you’re not living according to your core values, a strange paradox oftentimes occurs. You think you’re doing things that make you happy and move you forward in life, but you’re doing things that will make you unhappy and you’re moving backwards. For example, many people are working jobs they don’t like, yet a large number of them are getting promotions, raises and staying in those unfulfilling careers for decades or a lifetime.
Let’s say a man named John says “last year I was making $78,000 and this year I’m making $88,000. I’m getting ahead in life and getting what I want.” He doesn’t like his job, doesn’t feel like he’s doing something meaningful, and dreads going to work most days.
Because he’s making more money and is getting more promotions, he thinks he’s moving forward, when in reality, he’s moving backwards. Each month he stays at this job with no hope of getting a job that’s fulfilling, he’s moving further away from long-lasting happiness, fulfillment, and authenticity.
He’s moving backwards because he’s moving away from his core values. He’s doing boring accounting work because his dad told him that’s what he should do. John’s core values are contribution and teaching others. He doesn’t like his job because he’s usually stuck behind a computer crunching numbers by himself when he really values actively helping other people and teaching people how to do new things.
He even told his dad he wanted to be a teacher, but his dad scoffed at the idea and told him “teachers don’t make good money. You gotta make good money to support a family and get respect.” Instead of doing what he wanted to do, he did what many people do—he did what other people wanted him to do and sacrificed his core values and the things he loves to do the most.
John also married a woman who has core values that are very different from his, and they argue a lot. Things are so bad they’ve discussed divorce many times.
John really enjoys eating, drinking alcohol, and buying motorcycles and electronic devices. These things make him happy. The problem is that he’s doing these things to distract himself from the mental and emotional pain he feels because he’s living an unfulfilling life. He’s not doing these things because he enjoys doing them for the sake of doing them.
The worst part is that John feels a lot of dissatisfaction and doesn’t even know why—he doesn’t even know that his values are disconnected with how he’s living his life. He’s never even sat down and figured out what his core values even are.
His job and his marriage have become mental prisons that have trapped him in a state of unhappiness and apathy.
John isn’t alone. There are likely billions of people in this world who are also living lives that are disconnected from their values, which has a detrimental effect on job satisfaction and romantic relationships. It stops us from finding the friends, hobbies, and activities that will give us a strong sense of fulfillment and purpose.
Not living a life congruent with our values can make us dislike or even hate ourselves, which can make us engage in really destructive acts. Many people overeat and develop catastrophic health conditions. Others get addicted to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, sex or other destructive things that allow them to distract themselves from their internal pain.
If we start down this path to self-destruction, we can start feeling like we actually don’t deserve to be happy, which can further erode our self-worth.
Finding Our Core Values
We sometimes hear about people who attended a self-help seminar, had a “mid-life” crisis or a “spiritual awakening,” went on a ayahuasca retreat, or did something else that caused them to suddenly develop a new perspective on life.
What they were really doing when they did these things was shift their values. They were living miserable lives and were finally beginning to figure out how to align their lives with their core values.
Identifying our values and then aligning our lives with them answers some critical existential questions. Who am I? What gives me the most fulfillment in life? How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? How can I live a truly authentic life?
By identifying your core values, you’re creating those compass points that will allow you to be your authentic self.
Start by identifying your top 10 core values and then narrow that list down to the top 5. Use caution when creating your top values. For example, be very cautious about including money as a core value because it really isn’t a core value. It’s a means value—it’s a means to get to an end. For example, if you value freedom and novelty, money can help you become financially free or experience novel things by traveling to distant places.
But money can also become toxic if we become obsessed with it. When I sold drugs, I made a lot of money, which caused me to become greedy, uncaring, and complacent. Serving a prison sentence gave me the opportunity to be mindful. I clearly saw how flawed my values really were. I took ownership of these bad values and eventually replaced them with good ones.
It’s very important that you identify your toxic or dysfunctional values and let them go. Be wary of things like money, sex, power, gambling, and shopping. These things can become very toxic.
And make sure you’re living according to the values you say you have. Many people say their top value is family, yet they work 60 to 70 hours a week for many years. They’re disconnected from their families. Many of these people end up divorced and alienated from their kids.
Many people say they value health, but they overeat and don’t exercise. Others say value love, but they hurt and mistreat others.
Becoming Your Best Self
The best values are usually the ones that involve using your gifts and talents to do something you love that makes this world a better place. Good examples are contribution, justice, equality, and love. Each of us is unique and we have different life experiences and genetic traits. We have our own gifts, talents, likes, and dislikes. All of these things help define our values and ultimately, who we were meant to become in this world.
I’ve worked in technology the last 18 years and have made good money. I bought a house, cars and went on great vacations, but I was never truly happy until I did things that were aligned with my core values. I found that contribution and human connection are two of my top values. I learned this when I joined a non-profit that teaches incarcerated men the business and personal development skills they need to start their own businesses or get good jobs when they’re released.
I felt a very strong, long-lasting form of happiness because I was contributing to something bigger than myself. I was no longer looking for happiness in the external world. As I discovered more ways to align my values with my life, I began to live a fulfilling, authentic, and purposeful life. My values helped me become who I was meant to be.
Live by your sacred values. Let them guide your actions and transform you into that awesome person you were meant to be.