Core values—such as "social justice," "financial security," "self-respect," and "compassion"—are the foundation of a moral life, guiding you toward decisions that harmonize with worthwhile personal and social goals. Some describe these values-driven actions with the evocative phrase, “living your truth.” It is not surprising that defining your core values helps strengthen your conscience so that you are more likely to act in accordance with an ethical code of conduct.
It is surprising that knowing your core values can grant you the seemingly unrelated nine superpowers described below. But before you read on, it would help to bring your core values to mind. In my last post, I described six ways to discover and choose your core values. If you’ve forgotten your highest values or never identified them in the first place, you may want to take a look at that post and make a list of six to eight compelling values that guide you to be your best self and live your best life. You can refer to that list as you read on.
The 9 Superpowers of Knowing Your Values
Below I’ll describe each "superpower." It may be hard to believe that knowing your values brings so many benefits. Nonetheless, a variety of research studies, as well as my personal experiences and those of many others, support the idea that knowing your most cherished values can enhance your life and help you through tough situations. I'm amazed by all these superpowers, but I am particularly inspired by #9.
For general tips on using these superpowers, check out the last section of the post.
Superpower 1: Values can help you reduce stress.
Herbert Benson, an early researcher on stress and relaxation, discovered that you can use “inner value” language to reduce both physical and emotional stress, according to Andrew Newburg and Mark Waldman, the authors of Words Can Change Your Brain. Benson was one of the first Western researchers to experiment with using a calming one-word mantra like “peace” or “love” to generate healthy changes in both brain and body.
More recently, researchers at UCLA have also discovered that reflecting on personal values can actually lower your stress response and keep it low. As PT blogger Ryan Niemiec explains here: “Research studies have shown that those who think about their highest values before a stressful event actually experience less stress and show a substantial decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol, compared to control groups.” One explanation: Focusing on your values reminds you of what’s really important and puts the stressor into perspective.
Superpower 2: Connecting with your values boosts decision-making and problem-solving skills.
If you’ve ever found it extra hard to concentrate or make decisions when under stress, you realize what many psychology studies have shown—stress impairs problem-solving ability. But there is a satisfying solution! And yes, it involves your values.
A study by researcher David Creswell and his associates found that college students experiencing high stress were better able to figure out a creative problem-solving task under time pressure if they first wrote a few sentences about their most important values. When they identified and focused on their significant values, they were able to solve as many problems as students in a low-stress group. Knowing—and writing about—significant values turned out to be a protective factor against the harmful effects of excessive stress.
When I've been faced with a difficult decision, I find that searching for the values underlying a particular choice can help me choose a path forward. I may not like the result of my decision, but at least I know why I made the choice, and focusing on my valued reasons counteracts regret and self-blame.
Superpower 3: Your values can inspire better health habits.
According to a large-scale survey of over 15,000 people in 11 countries, people were motivated to make positive changes in health habits when they became a parent (25 percent) or when they renewed an emotional or spiritual connection (26 percent). These turnarounds may have reflected the values of “family,” “self-care,” “community,” and/or “love.”
Similar values also emerge in statistics about pregnancy. As women learned more about the effects of smoking on a developing fetus, they smoked less. The percentage of U.S. women who smoked during pregnancy plummeted almost 42 percent from 1990, from about 18 percent of women, to about 10 percent in 2010. The rate continues to fall. “Healthy baby,” “protecting a child,” and “love” are potent motivators.
I used this superpower to quit smoking. When a beloved aunt died of lung cancer from a long-established cigarette habit, I dedicated myself to overcoming my own cigarette addiction in her memory. When I was tempted to falter, I thought about my values of “long life,” “health,” and “family.” (More on my story here.)
Superpower 4: Values can rev up your willpower so you can persist at difficult tasks.
Many people discount “willpower” as a vague, difficult, and ineffective method of change. This point of view overlooks the power behind willpower—your values.
“Willpower” means “using the thought of your most important values and goals to guide your behavior.” As I say here: “To activate your willpower, you must remind yourself why it's important for you to do something.” It is your deepest values and goals that give you that “why.” While willpower alone may not be enough to change a behavior, your motivation for change must start with willpower — knowing your values. (Of course, you will also need backup strategies to keep you going when willpower is not enough, as I explain in my book, Changepower.)
Psychologist Mark Muraven did a series of experiments that tested the power of willpower. In one, he used standard psychological methods to deplete the self-control of a group of study participants. Then participants were asked to work on two frustrating puzzles. Group 1 was told: "Your work could help create new therapies for Alzheimer's disease." Group 2 was told: "Try your best." Which group performed better? Group 1, of course. The value of “helping others” gave a frustrating task some purpose and amped up the willpower of the participants.
Various experiments performed at the Wharton school of business show that when employees see the positive impact of their work, they work harder and are more effective. Researcher Adam Grant did experiments in a variety of settings and found that "task significance" motivated people as diverse as lifeguards, resume writers, and mail-order pharmacy workers.
Superpower 5: Values can help you act more assertively.
It's easier to be assertive when you are aware of what you stand for, and you are more likely to rise to your own defense when another person has violated your boundaries. For example, if you believe in “self-respect,” you will hear a warning bell when someone puts you down, speaks harshly to you, or does the same to others. You can then decide when and how to speak up. Values strengthen your backbone.
Superpower 6: Values can help you communicate with more compassion.
In addition to helping you communicate with more firmness, your values can help you communicate with more compassion. If you want to act in a more caring way toward others, reminding yourself of values such as "compassion" and "respect" keep you from crossing the line into aggressive behavior. Reflecting on your deepest values can also “create an inner state of intense awareness and calm," according to Newburg and Waldman. This inner state can help you listen more intently to others and choose your words with tender loving care.
Superpower 7: Remembering your values helps you make wiser career and work choices.
Knowing what you value is often the best guide to choosing an initial career, making choices at work, and deciding on career transitions. Realizing that you value “helping,” “discovering knowledge,” “financial security,” or “being my own boss” could be the linchpin in your career choice. The values that guide how you treat others can be critical factors in your success at work as well.
Values also help you avoid typical work traps. As PT blogger Alice Boyes points out in this article, knowing your values helps you distinguish between what seems urgent and what is truly important.
Superpower 8: Knowing and acting on values bolsters your confidence.
Various writers affirm that confidence arises from the courage to act on your values. As authors Barb Markway and Celia Ampel state so succinctly in The Self-Confidence Workbook, confidence is "a choice to take steps to act in line with your values." The phrase "to take steps" is helpful; it lets us know that confidence does not necessarily transform you as if you were struck by a bolt of lightning but is built step by step, day after day.
Superpower 9: Knowing and sharing your values enhances relationship intimacy.
Couples counselors often emphasize the importance of "shared values" in the success of a relationship. But how can a couple use this advice in everyday life?
In this inspiring article, a married couple decides to create a relationship pact based on a written list of their shared values. Included on their list are: expressing emotions, laughter, loving touch, and serving others. What I found most helpful were their rules for conflict, specifically this one: "We do not shout or curse at each other. If we get close to doing either, we take a break, make amends, and start over."
While having a "culture covenant" does not guarantee a smooth relationship, it means that when decisions are made or tempers flare, the couple can remind each other, "This is not who we are."
Using Your Core Values: Some General Tips
Becoming more aware of your core values is the first step toward using them in daily life. Here are eight ways you could incorporate your values into ordinary situations.
- Bring up your values in conversation. For example, you might say, “I’m a person who believes in courtesy.” Or, “loyalty is important to me.”
- Towards the end of a particular day, compare your list of core values with how you actually acted. If one of your core values is “kindness,” were there times during the day when you were kind? If you believe in “self-respect,” did you stand up for yourself today? Of course, sometimes situations catch us off-guard. If you are unhappy with your actions, decide how you could better react the next time. And cut yourself some slack! No one is perfect.
- To reduce stress, relabel a “problem” as a “challenge.”
- Before you face a stressful event or try to solve a difficult problem, think or write about one or more of your values.
- Choose one of your most cherished values to be your mantra.
- Think about 1-3 people in your life who represent what you value. Bringing supportive others to mind is a potent stress-reducer, and when stress gets reduced to manageable levels, problems get solved.
- When you want to achieve a goal, change your lifestyle, or exert self-control in any way, ask yourself: Why? Why is it important to me? Figure out the values behind the “why,” and you will immediately gain access to your willpower.
- Create your own “Relationship Pact” with your intimate partner by making a list of shared values together. Use this list to help you make decisions, navigate conflict, and create a more loving bond between you.
Conclusion: The Values-Driven Life
It is astonishing that values are so powerful. After all, they are just ideas. "Just ideas." But life experience and social science research suggest how effective a good idea can be. Can you always measure up to your values? Of course not. But knowing your core values can help you resolve specific daily dilemmas because values light the way toward a meaningful and satisfying life.
© Meg Selig, 2018. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.
Creswell, J. D. et al, "Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress." PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (5): e62593 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062593, summarized here in ScienceDaily.
Niemiec, R.M. 1/19/17, "What Matters Most? 10 New Strategies for Stress Management," psychologytoday.com.
Creswell, J.D. et al, “Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses,” Psychological Science. 2005 Nov; 16 (11): 846-51.
Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. R. (2012) Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Hudson Street Press: London, p. 104, 188.
Markway, B. & Ampel, C. (2018) The Self-Confidence Workbook. Althea Press: Emeryville, CA.
Compton, J. “How These Newlyweds Created a ‘Culture Covenant’ To Get Through Tough Times,” nbcnews.com.
Selig, M. (2009) Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success. NY: Routledge.