Imagine you find yourself in a situation where you have to make a decision and the choices and outcomes may seem morally ambiguous or unclear. Perhaps you don’t see a necessary benefit to making either choice or maybe it’s an obvious choice between something like having another beer and getting to bed on time. We’ve all experienced these things and in all of these situations we have something in us that guides which path we take. Regardless of if you’re aware of what guides you to make certain choices over others it is your values that are the guidance system. As we grow up we may have some major values instilled in us like telling the truth or even basic ones like holding the door for someone or saying thank you when you’ve been afforded a kindness. As we get older, however, we find ourselves in myriad situations where the values we know don’t seem to offer much guidance or something in us is directing our choice that we can’t understand. This is where it becomes useful to go through the process of clearly defining our values.
Defining our values is a largely personal process. It takes learning yourself and what’s important to you. It can take tuning into subtle intuitions and really hashing out what they mean and how you feel about them. Additionally it can take a little knowledge of the world and how it works to get a vivid set of values we can live by. We all have a system that operates without us having to control it but the benefits that can come from defining your system for yourself are immense. Firstly, you know that all of the decisions you are making align with what you find important. Second, you can start to orient yourself in a way that can enable you to accomplish your goals. This process can even start to help you discover what large goals for yourself could look like. It is a process of discovering what is personally and objectively important as well as orienting yourself in a way that enables you to uphold and permeate what you find important in the world. Defining your values is a large part of living holistically. It ensures that you are considering everything important and basing your actions around what those things are.
So it is important to define your values but how do you actually do it? Your values become your highest priorities and help keep you on the path you want to be on even when you feel unsure or confused. Think of your values as a program for your mind to run on. Every time you make a decision your mind runs the situation and possible outcomes through this program. We can learn to make this process more conscious as well as deciding what things actually matter when doing this. In doing this there are two main things we have to do. First, define what is actually important. Second, figure out how to redirect our current patterns to make what is important come out in our actions, speech, and way of life.
How do you know what is important and valuable when there seems to be so many strong values pulling in different directions in the world? First comes a fundamental value to all life: life itself. One part of this includes figuring out which values are important for everyone to have. Think of these as necessary values for helping life work better for everyone, these are essential in a holistic life and to help society work smoothly. Essentially these boil down to valuing human well-being and lessening suffering in all humans. This is a huge value and may seem too large to understand what we as individuals can do to uphold this. However when you start to change your program you realize it all comes from taking it moment by moment and emphasizing your new values. More on this in a minute. A great way to start with human well-being is yourself. You are the human you have the most effect on. Before you can do things for the world you have to figure out what you can do in your realm of influence right now. As you start to improve yourself naturally you start seeing things you can do in larger areas. Perhaps your family or your workplace and eventually even society at large. So when organizing your values find what is close to you first, these things will become the foundation for which you start to radically take control over and change your life. Even as you become able to affect larger realms the things that are close to you will be fundamental.
After having this core value the rest becomes up to you and depends on your personal circumstances. This takes a lot of introspection and getting to know yourself. Really reflect on what has mattered to you and does matter to you in life right now. What is important for you to achieve, what communities do you want to be a part of, what are the changes you want to see in the world? All of these things will make up your values and even what your goals in life are.
Once you have a good list of things that are important to you, you can start to organize them in a way that reflects what is most important to you and that would take precedence in most circumstances. Maybe you can even compile some of your values into larger ones that express a few of your small goals and values. Over time your system will change as you do. It is worth it to reanalyze them every so often or just when you feel like they’ve shifted. As you continue to prioritize this process you’ll start to settle into certain things that most clearly represent what you find as important.
Now when you approach a new decision you have a system you know represents what is important for you. It will become easier and easier to make more difficult decisions that before could have stumped you or become unclear. These structures you build in your mind start to shape the world around you. These values become habits and you are now running on a program you wrote for yourself.