I am a general psychology graduate, and I am about to start my Master’s studies in clinical psychology. While always interested in counseling and psychotherapy, lately, I have discovered my particular interest in people’s personal values. I believe that this topic is extremely relevant nowadays when there are (still) so many people undermining their own and others’ values. Yet some manage to thrive living by their firm values and even encourage others to do so. I intend to investigate how and why does this happen. This article explains personal values, its meaning, and function, as well as gives practical advice and some ‘healthy’ food for thought.
What do values mean?
Personal values or core values are your guiding principals in life, your core beliefs, and your standards. They are the most essential things in life, motivating, and stimulating your actions. Usually, they are positive things like family, honesty, health, peace, security, and many more. In some cases, negative attitudes can form out of fear or insecurity, and greed or self-interest. Common personal values are freedom, love, family, success, health, peace, equality, independence, education, money, tolerance, happiness, etc.
Common personal values are freedom, love, family, success, health, peace, equality, independence, education, money, tolerance, happiness, etc.
Which values are universal?
Back in 1992, a psychologist called Schwartz named 10 universal basic human values:
Universalism (appreciation, tolerance, etc.)
Benevolence (welfare of others)
Conformity (respecting social norms)
Security (safety, harmony)
Power (social status)
Hedonism (pleasure, self-indulgence)
Stimulation (excitement, novelty)
His thought was that: “Values serve as socially acceptable terms that people use to communicate with others about their goals and to coordinate in pursuing them” (Schwartz, 1992).
Circular depiction of values shows that they influence one another, if one value gains more importance, adjacent values are enhanced. This is one of the models depicting human values and showing conflicting values on opposing poles. For example, openness to change contrasts conservation values as the first group emphasizes independence and flexibility, while the latter is about resistance to change. Self-enhancement and self-transcendence are called high order values because, in a way, their extremes can lead to altruistic or selfish people. Some values are more personal or social-focused. Others work as protective measures or promote personal growth. These values are found across cultures and have an evolutionary reason for that. They could have had real survival functions as people sought security and created communities. Or those who needed stimulation and were self-directed managed to invent and achieve unimaginable things.
Some values are more personal or social-focused. Others work as protective measures or promote personal growth.
How do values determine your personality?
At the beginning of the 20th century, psychologist and philosophist Eduard Spranger grouped personalities in terms of six value orientations. He proposed personality ‘types’ based on one dominant interest and others being complementary, subordinate.
Theoretical (interested in the discovery of truth)
Economic (what is useful, practical)
Aesthetic (beauty, harmony)
Social (love of people)
Political (power, control)
Religious (unity of the world)
These personality types derived from and were based on people’s core values. However, they are not so commonly used in research.
Nowadays, personalities are described by personality traits from the Big Five Inventory, not so much grouped into personality types.
Psychologists worldwide agree on the universality of traits:
Openness to experience
Some universal values are shared in personality traits like compassion, politeness, enthusiasm, openness, intellect, assertiveness. Meaning that there is an interplay between personal values and personality traits, resulting in actions based on beliefs. Even when actions seem to be unexplainable, they usually arise from our unconscious ‘base’ of core values.
All people have their dreams in life, goals to achieve, something they value and enjoy doing. They rise from personal values, or they influence them back. It is a two-way work between values and behavior.
Someone who values other people, for whatever personal reason, is more open and extraverted, would enjoy socializing more. They are compassionate, others would describe them as friendly and helpful, pleasant to be around. Someone else might highly value success and be a high achiever, they would be high on conscientiousness. Meaning that they are very organized and determined to plan things and follow schedules. All people have their dreams in life, goals to achieve, something they value and enjoy doing. They rise from personal values, or they influence them back. It is a two-way work between values and behavior. You are the person you are because of your personality trait tendencies and your values and dreams.
What are YOUR values?
People like congruency and consistency, so when you act based on what is important to you, it feels good! We are more motivated and focused on goals that have value and meaning to us. We tend to prioritize tasks that fulfill our desires, get us closer to our dreams. That is what we should all strive for – a life based on personal values to bring us happiness! So how can one achieve that without knowing what are their values?
Ask yourself a few questions: what is important to you in life, what makes you feel good? What makes you proud, happy, motivated, and engaged? Search for lists of common values and see what applies to you. If you still struggle, look at your behavior, think of reasons for your actions. For example, if you are inspired by social activists for human rights, your values could be justice, or peace, or equality. If you admire people who are truthful and honest, your values are truth and honesty. Ask other people how they would describe you. Usually, your most prominent qualities represent your personality traits and values.
Living by your values
Now that you have identified your personal values, how do you live by them? Ideally, you would behave and follow all values you appreciate, but your time and energy are limited, so you have to prioritize. Separate 3-4 values that hold the highest importance to you, e.g., family, health, and honesty, and base your actions on them. If a family comes first, spend most of your time with family members, show them how much you care. Next, create a plan for your health, maybe change your diet, find time to exercise. Having honesty in your top values means you should be honest with yourself and others. Be sincere in your actions, be genuine with your words. More on values here.
As mentioned before, goals are easier to achieve if they are based on your values. So combine your values and goals, does not matter if it is long-term or short-term. Find a way that works best for you, whether it is creating a habit, writing to-do lists, visualizing the process and results, re-reading value lists, or having self pep-talk. It is rewarding to live by your values, but it is not effortless for everyone. Look at people who inspire you, how do they succeed? Ask friends for support, create small challenges for yourself to track progress.
When values clash…
Reality kicks in when your personal values go against your family, community, or even society. You can be all in for equal rights, saving the environment, and other important things for you that others do not appreciate and support. Practical barriers can also occur, if, for example, you value creativity and art, but your family needs financial support, and art career can seem risky money-wise. These are all real obstacles that need reflecting upon, yet sometimes a little progress can be made. Then you should evaluate what is more important for you, e.g., risk losing a job for being too honest, putting your happiness on hold to please others, or ending that relationship that discourages your creativity. Thus, it is crucial to weigh those risks and rewards for following your values and dreams or following social norms.
Reality kicks in when your personal values go against your family, community, or even society.
Over time, situations that clash with your values, beliefs, and attitudes create conflicts within yourself internally and/or externally with others. Internally, you feel like you are doing something wrong, you get conflicted, frustrated, upset. Value clashes can result in hating your job but not leaving, loathing your partner, but not breaking up, blaming the world, but not looking at yourself. You might start losing interest in favorite activities, become isolated, unfriendly, even depressed, or anxious. It could be because you carry more duties than follow your dreams. Or listen to what society says rather than listening to your own heart and mind. It can also result in external conflicts, e.g., public protests, where people want their values to be appreciated more. It has worked before for women rights activists and same marriage protests that lead to change. Value clashes can be useful to bring change in the society and yourself. But if nothing is done when a challenge comes, then it only gets worse.
Personal values are flexible, and their importance can change over time. How have they changed in the last decades for current generations? Consumer research has found that the ‘Millennial’ generation (born in 1980-1994) is more materialistic than previous generations. Millennials grew up in a digitalized world with ever-evolving smartphones, electric cars booming, and high-tech tools. They are also used to things on-demand (e.g., Netflix, Amazon, etc.) and have more opportunities for education and international jobs than their parents did.
The majority share social and intellectual values with their parents, yet more than them, Millennials value wealth and personal development. As a result, they work harder on their careers, aim for higher social status, and strive to prove themselves. The 20-40-year-olds of today prioritize values that allow them to reach these goals. But they still appreciate the ‘good old’ universal values of family, health, stability, and happiness.
This shift in values was noticed not only by consumer psychologists but also by marketing and advertising people. Companies target people’s insecurities, deep wishes, and unfulfilled values with subtly manipulating advertisements. Take examples of perfume commercials, they have become more sexualized and romanticized than decades ago. Perfume has the same function as before – to smell nice, yet now it taps into desires for love and sex. Or take expensive sports cars, for instance, their commercials show fast, thrilling rides and mean what? They mean that if you buy our cars, you will show off your status, your money, people will give you attention, and so on. Take any product you have that is really important to you and ask yourself – what is so valuable of it? Is it really its functions and usefulness, or is there something else you hope it brings to your life?
Popular advertisements tap into our insecurities and promise to ‘heal them’ or reduce our anxiety as soon as we purchase that product. Even though we have a saying that money cannot buy you happiness, some people still hope that it does. It is easier to live by your family’s value and buy them great gifts, rather than spend quality time together. Do you really want a Tesla car because it is good for the environment, or because it feels good to show off? As a psychologist, I am afraid to tell you that buying something you hope has an additional personal value does not necessarily mean so. My advice would be to invest time and effort, not only money to improve yourself and live by satisfying your own values.
So what’s next?
Now that you have learned about values, meaning and function, importance, and power – go out and live by them! Spread awareness and encourage action to appreciate, protect, and promote what you love. May you achieve your highest goals, may your dreams come true, may you do what you love.
I love psychology and teaching people about our amazing brains. If you are interested, check out my Instagram page @free.ur.brain for recent research and mental health advice.