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How are personal values formed? Discover the joy of a life aligned

September 26, 2022 - 16 min read

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What are personal values, anyway?

Why values are important

How are values formed?

Your values grow with you

Your values in action

Living your best life

When was the last time you thought about your values? It's normal if they don’t cross your mind until they clash with someone else's, expressed as passionate beliefs. Maybe you're vegan and arguing over the ethics of meat consumption, or you want more bike lanes in your city while others want car parking instead. In these moments, your personal values become abundantly clear. 

But the rest of the time, not so much. We’re distracted by the grind of day-to-day life. Our attention is on surviving, and we forget to make time to get to know ourselves. It turns out we all operate off of a broader set of values

It's worth identifying where your values come from. It can provide a deeper understanding of who you are, leading to better life choices. 

If you care about spending time with friends, you might look for a job with a better work-life balance. Valuing helping others might mean you’ll volunteer more often at your local shelter or look for a career that has a clear positive impact on people. If you value financial security above all else, you might do whatever you can to maximize your income and prioritize your financial wellness.

We don't tend to be happy when our work or life choices don't align with our values. But you can’t make choices that align with your values without knowing what matters to you. It's in your best interest to become aware of what you value. Otherwise, you could spend years in the wrong job, wondering why it never feels right. 

There are many ways to know yourself and identify your needs. A good start is to understand how personal values are formed and how they influence your beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Let’s dive in.

 

What are personal values, anyway?

Put simply, values are something your care about deeply. They’re central to your identity because they’re what matters most to you in life. When you value your family, you care about making time for them in your life. The same is true if you value your hobbies or career. 

But you might not realize how your values influence your day-to-day life. They can affect your decisions, interactions with other people, and how you relate to the rest of the world.

Your values, along with your beliefs and attitudes, create the moral, guiding principles you follow. Here’s how they interact with each other:

  • Beliefs are the ideas you accept as true, whether supported by facts or not. For example, you may believe in the importance of honesty above all other qualities, or that stealing is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Your faith, culture, education, mentors, and personal experiences heavily influence your beliefs, and they can change over time.
  • Your belief system then impacts your personal values. These are the things you identify as important to your personal well-being. If your parents raised you under a certain religion, spirituality may become a core value in your life.
  • From your values system comes your attitudes. This is how you treat others and approach situations. If you believe money is the key to human welfare, and you might approach your job solely as a means to earn a living. 
  • Attitudes then translate into behaviors. Theoretically, your behaviors should act in accordance with your beliefs, values, and attitudes. If environmental conservation is important to you, you might devote your life to studying marine biology.
    At the very least, you’ll incorporate “green” habits into your life, like recycling or composting. These behaviors reflect what matters most to you. 

Here are some examples of personal values, which can influence their attitudes and behaviors:

  • Dependability
  • Honesty
  • Human rights
  • Professional development
  • Human life
  • Climate activism
  • Generosity
  • Integrity 

BetterUp can help you start making choices that align to your values so you can live by your values. Together with a coach, you can paint a picture of what a more aligned life would look like and make a plan to get there.

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Why values are important

Your individual beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors can change as you grow older, meet new people, and experience new things. 

You might have grown up valuing wealth above all else. But after seeing how it impacted your relationships, you chose to temper your professional ambitions to better prioritize the people in your life.

That’s why it’s important to regularly check in with yourself. You might find inconsistencies between your behaviors and what you actually value in life. External influences can interfere with your sense of self, leading to actions that don’t align with who you are.

Gender stereotypes might influence your behaviors. If you were born male, you might have felt pressure to be strong, hide your emotions, and be the sole provider for your family.

So, to meet these expectations, you took on a stressful but high-paying job — despite really wanting to be a stay-at-home dad. In this scenario, you’re succumbing to society’s expectations for men to be the breadwinner and sacrificing your well-being in the process.

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This example highlights the importance of identifying your personal beliefs and values and where they come from. This will improve your self-awareness, help you find your purpose, and promote healthier decisions long-term.

How are values formed?

Your personal values stem primarily from your social environmental factors while you were growing up. It’s impossible to categorize every possible determinant of your values, let alone all the complex ways they interact. But we can largely break them down into four key elements:

  • Education system. Your teachers play an important role in reinforcing certain beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. According to this study, the moral influence of teachers makes the education system one of the “most efficient institutions to teach human values to the next generations in the community.”
  • Community. As you interact with your local community, you’ll notice positive and negative reactions to your behaviors, like altruism or selfishness. This will teach you certain lessons about right and wrong, informing your values later in life.
  • Culture/society. Your culture and society have their own set of dominant beliefs and values that they impose on their members. You don’t have to accept them, but they do set the groundwork for your own moral development.

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Your values grow with you

Psychologists are far from united on how children individuate and form their personal values. But according to the ontogenetic (or study of maturation) perspective, you likely had a budding sense of morality as early as five years old. Some evidence suggests that kids this age:

  • Can identify which values are important in their environment
  • Understand the potential contradictions between their values and those of other people

By the time you’re a teenager, you’re picking up lessons and experiences from other areas of your life. Your increased independence allows you to pick your friends, choose hobbies, and participate in extra-curricular activities. 

These interactions with your environment influence how you develop your values. And it's around this point that your values form your core sense of identity.

Once you hit adulthood, it’s more difficult to change your values. It’s not impossible, but the problem is that changing your values usually involves questioning core parts of your identity. Learning to put family before your career would require an examination and adjustment of your personal ambitions and sense of self.

This is why value changes often occur during major life events. Perhaps you were fired from a job, moved to a new country, or lost someone you loved. Personal growth can launch you into a new life stage where you can easier re-consider what’s important to you.

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Your values in action

Living in accordance with your own values will help you live more authentically. But what does this look like in action? Let’s have a look.

1. Setting goals

One of the first things you can do is look at the big picture. Close your eyes and imagine what your dream life would be if you lived by your values. Don’t worry about practical considerations here. The sky is the limit.

How does your current situation compare to your dream life? What are the differences between both, and how could you make that a reality?

Your goals should help bring you closer to living your dreams.

2. Making decisions

Your life is made up of big and small choices, and it’s not always easy to make them align with your individual values. Whether it’s the fear of judgment from others or your own limiting beliefs holding you back, it’s easy for life to pull you off course. 

Whether you’re choosing a career or what to eat for breakfast, here are some tips that can help:

  • Read your list of values every morning
  • Visualize the day ahead and plan how you’ll live your values
  • Print your values and post them somewhere visible

Keeping your values top of mind will help your decision-making throughout the day. If sustainability tops your values list, you might think twice about driving to work when you can easily commute by bicycle or public transit.

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3. Facing challenges

There's no greater test for your values than when they conflict with the real world. You may value honesty but don't want to harm your relationships with a hard truth. You may value making music but don’t want to leave your family to go on tour.

But there are multiple ways to live your values. You don't have to be a rockstar to work in your local music scene; honesty doesn't have to involve harming others. Small compromises can help you until you find a more long-term solution.

And if your values conflict with society’s, become an agent for change. History is rife with heroes who refused to compromise on what they felt was right, and the world is better for it. If someone pushes back on what you feel is important — like giving back to your community — you can still choose to live by your values. Making choices and taking actions that align with your values is the heart of integrity.

Living your best life 

If you truly want to live your best life, focus on living in accordance with your values. When you are aware of your core values and your actions and behaviors are in harmony with them, you will be able to show up as the best version of yourself. You will feel the peace and joy of a good life.

Your values are the core of who you are. Knowing how personal values are formed will help you improve all aspects of your life.

It won’t always be easy. You can navigate these challenges and conflicts through strategic compromises. The decision to know yourself and stay aligned to your values doesn't depend on anyone else. You choose, and you may influence others to see the importance of a value through the example of your integrity to it. They might see where you’re coming from and why it matters, and they might not.

Values also change over time. As you go through major life experiences, you may decide some things are more important to you than others, and that’s okay. As long you’re self-aware and adjust your actions accordingly, you’ll set yourself up for a fruitful life.

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Published September 26, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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