Your values form the foundation of your life. They dictate the choices you make and determine the direction that your life takes. Your values will influence your decisions related to your relationships, career, and other activities you engage in. Despite this importance, few people choose their values. Instead, they simply adopt the values of their parents and the dominant values of society. In all likelihood, the values that you internalized as a child remain with you through adulthood (yes, in some cases, people reject the values of their upbringings). Unfortunately, these values may also have created a life that is carrying you down a path that is not the direction you want to go at this point in your life.
What were the values you were raised with? What values are you presently living in accordance with? Are they the same or different? Do your values bring you happiness? These are essential questions that you must ask if you are to find meaning, happiness, success, and connection in your life. Yet, finding the answers to these questions is a challenge, and then changing them in a way that will lead to fulfillment is an even greater challenge.
Deconstruct Your Values
To truly understand what values you possess and live by, you must deconstruct them until you are able to clearly see what exactly you value and why you hold those values.
Looking openly and honestly at the way you were raised is the first step in identifying the values that you acquired growing up. What did your parents value and what values did they impress upon you — achievement, wealth, education, religion, status, independence, appearance? Think back to your childhood and ask yourself several questions.
- What values were emphasized in the way your parents lived their lives?
- What values were stressed in your family?
- What values were reflected in the way you were rewarded or punished? For example, were you rewarded for being highly ranked in your high school class and for winning in sports, or were you rewarded for giving your best effort and for helping others?
You might even ask your parents to reflect back on your childhood to see what they perceived their values to be and what values they wanted to emphasize in your upbringing.
Your next step in the deconstruction process involves looking at your present life and the values your life reflects. In responding to these questions, you should ask yourself what values underlie your answers.
- What do you do for a living — are you a corporate employee, a business owner, a teacher, salesperson, caterer, or social worker? A common question that people in social gatherings ask is, what do you do for a living? Periodically, I have seen people get rather defensive in response to this question. They say, “Who cares what I do. What I do is not who I am.” I would suggest otherwise, at least to some degree. Assuming people have choices in the career paths they take, what they choose reflects who they are and what they value. For example, though a bit of a generalization, it is probably safe to say that someone who becomes an investment banker has different values than someone who becomes an elementary school teacher. What those underlying values might be may vary, but one might assume that the investment banker values money, while the teacher values education and helping children. Where do you live? Do you live in a high-rise apartment in a city, in the suburbs, or in the country — and what values led you there?
- What activities do you engage in most — cultural, physical, religious, political, social — and what values are reflected in those activities?
- What do you talk about most — politics, religion, the economy, other people — and what does that tell you about your values?
- Perhaps the most telling question reflecting what you value is what you spend your money on: a home, cars, travel, clothing, education, art, charity? Because money is a limited resource for most people, they will use their money in ways that they value most. Over and above what people say and other indicators in their life, where they spend their hard-earned money says the most about their values.
You can then ask yourself whether your current values are the same as those you grew up with. Have you gone through a period of examination and reconsideration? Have you consciously chosen to discard some values from your upbringing and adopt new ones? My experience with people who live unsatisfying lives is the values they grew up with were mostly unhealthy and that their present values haven’t changed since childhood. They never questioned their values and simply bought into them early in their lives and created their life around those values. In contrast, fulfilled people tended to grow up with life-affirming values or had a “crisis of conscience” in early adulthood that caused them to re-evaluate and modify their values.
Now that you have deconstructed your life and have a clear idea of what you value, you can see the values upon which you have created your life. You can see whether those values contribute to your dissatisfaction or bring you happiness. Look at which aspects of your life contribute to your unhappiness — your career, marriage, lifestyle — and ask yourself what values underlie those parts of your life. For example, if your career in the business world makes you unhappy (no judgment intended, but many of my clients happen to come from corporate life), you need to ask yourself what values you have held that led you to a career in business and how those values presently cause you to be an unhappy success.
Popular Culture and Values
A recurring theme that runs throughout my work is that inadvertently buying into the values that predominate popular culture — for example, winning, status, power, appearance, and conspicuous consumption — is a leading cause of life dissatisfaction. The popular culture in America today as reflected in our various media no longer has the time, attention span, or energy to devote to weighty and deep issues such as values. It is much easier to focus on the superficial “things” in our culture. Thus, the pursuit of wealth and material goods has become the dominant “value” in much of our society in the mistaken belief that these values will bring people happiness.
One of the most powerful ways in which this “value” was impressed on you was in how you learned to define success. Popular culture typically defines success as winning, wealth, status, physical appearance, and popularity; the more money and power you have and the more attractive and popular you are, the more successful you would be. Growing up with these definitions, success was largely unattainable for most people. At the same time, our culture made losing even more intolerable to contemplate; being poor, powerless, unattractive, and unpopular is simply unacceptable. With these restrictive definitions, you may have believed, like so many others, that you were caught in the untenable situation of having little opportunity for success and great chance for failure.
Blindly having accepted society’s narrow definitions of success and failure takes away your power to decide how you wish to define them. By buying into popular culture’s limiting definitions of success and failure rather than choosing definitions based on your own values, you can’t become truly successful and happy because you are forced down a path that is, for most people, impossible to attain and that is not truly yours. You may become successful in the eyes of society, but you probably won’t feel like a success yourself. And this path certainly won’t bring you meaning, happiness, or real success in your life.
Which Values Will Bring You Happiness?
Hopefully, my perspective on values and the questions I have asked will help you reflect on which values you hold and their relationship to how much meaning, fulfillment, and joy your life brings you. But you’re not finished yet. It’s one thing to know that your values don’t pay your “emotional” bills. It’s an entirely different thing to know which values will help you find the peace, contentment, joy, or connection that have been missing in your life and that you crave at this point in your life.
So, now that you’ve deconstructed your values, it’s now time to reconstruct them. Here are some questions to ask:
- Which activities in your life bring you meaning, satisfaction,and joy?
- Who in your life makes you feel loved, valued, and supported?
- What in your life moves and inspires you?
Once you identify the values that will bring you what you seek, the tough part is making choices that will allow you to live your life based on those values. These choices might only require small changes in your life; for example, taking up a new activity. At the same time, such choices may demand significant upheaval in your life, such as leaving your marriage, quitting your job, jettisoning your friends, distancing yourself from your family, or moving far away. When faced with major changes in your life as you align your life with your newly identified values, you then must leverage another essential contributor to meaning, fulfillment, and happiness: courage.
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