Finding direction in life: A step-by-step approach to working with your own core values

Values … It’s a big word. Perhaps I should write VALUES …

Why would you want to read about values?

Because values have this peculiar tendency of making you look up and see a broader horizon beyond the life you’re in right now. They give you your own unique direction and get you in touch with your core. Values create stability in motion. Something that can make a difference at any given time, but especially when you’re not sure what you want.

The thing is that you won’t be able to reap the benefits of affirming your values fully unless you’ve had a closer look at them yourself. And that’s why this month’s Insight is all about DIY (Do It Yourself).

The main objective of this article is to guide you through a number of steps that will help you discover and work with your core values. I won’t use a lot of space explaining scientific insights. What I’m asking you to do is to take my word for it that examining your values can help you forward significantly (of course, if you do want to know more, have a look at the academic references in the footnotes¹).

Below, you’ll find a number of steps in the form of short assignments. You may want to read through them first, before completing them one by one. And no, reading them is not the same as actually doing them! It’s the doing them that will lead you to insights.

The assignments themselves only require a pen, a few pieces of paper and little bits of time, spread over a period of around 2 months (but feel free to adjust the timeline depending on your own needs and situation).

So get right into it! Let values surprise you with whatever they have in store for you.


1. Assignment 1: Get to the core of your personal values

Values are an interesting lot. The Oxford dictionary defines values as “beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is important in life”.

Values are usually single nouns, but they can also be adjectives, verbs or combinations of words. And they can cover all sorts of areas². Some of the more popular ones in the world are for example freedom, respect and justness. But wealth, living in the moment, cleanliness and togetherness can be values too. And so can sense of humour, family and athletic ability. Or self-development, politics, discipline and being good at art.²

Values are very personal and vary greatly across individuals. They depend on things like your own characteristics and experiences, but also on your upbringing and the cultural, political, economical and physical context you’re in.

Trying to define all possible values in the world is therefore a near impossible task. There would simply be too many. It would also be a largely irrelevant task, because only a handful of them would be important to you as a person at any given time.


A. Week 1: Identify your core values

Step 1: Developing your list

Take a moment to reflect on what would be the most important values you currently have in your life. Think of things that:

    1. are important to you
    2. help you decide what’s right and wrong (or that help you determine to what extent you’re on the right track in your life)

Make a list of about 10 to 15 values. Don’t worry about getting it absolutely 100% right or about getting to 10 values straight away. You can always go back to the list to adjust and add. Try to get to a list that resonates with you. That makes you feel like “Yeh, that’s me!”. Don’t worry about putting them in any particular order. We’ll get to that later.

Perhaps you find it easy to define your core personal values and you have a list in no time. For many of us, however, it takes a bit more reflection to pinpoint them. Not because we don’t know them, but because they’re so much part of us that they’re almost too close for us to see. Here are a few tips:

    • If you are not a native speaker of English, please feel absolutely free to use whatever language feels most comfortable to you.
    • Sometimes one word doesn’t quite capture the meaning for you, but a combination of words does. This is perfectly fine (for example wonder & adventure or health & wellbeing).
    • If you find yourself at a loss and not sure where to start, have a look at the examples in the table below. This is only a very small sample of all possible values, but they can be useful in kickstarting your thinking.

Step 2: Cross-check

Once you feel like you’ve captured all you can, put your list aside and observe yourself for a week as you go through life.

    • Pay specific attention to the decisions you make. You’ll find that over the course of a day you make many small decisions, such as what to eat, what to wear or when to check your mobile phone. Occasionally, there might be big decisions, such as whether to say yes to a new job or move to another place. Each of those decisions – big and small – is informed by underlying values. Can you pinpoint the values that inform your decisions?
    • Also notice the moments when something upsets you or makes you feel particularly happy or inspired. What was it that triggered those negative or positive emotions? What does that tell you about your underlying values?

During this week, add any important values that were still missing to your list or make other adjustments when necessary.

Step 3: Towards the future

For the final step in week 1, consider the following. Core values tend to be rather stable. They don’t change from Monday to Tuesday only to change again on Wednesday. They do, however, change! New values may surface or existing values may become more (or less) important. This usually occurs when something big happens or when you’re consciously reevaluating your life. Discovering what you want is usually such a moment.

Have a look at your list again.

    • Are there any values that are currently not part of your life, but that you would want to be? Values that perhaps represent a wish for the future. More independence. More creativity. Or more togetherness. More … It doesn’t matter if you have no idea of what that might look like in your life. Add them to your list.
      If you’ve worked with images, snippets of writing or little experiments before, have a look at those as well. What do they tell you about values that might be important for you going into the future?
    • Are there any values on your list that should be adjusted?

Make any changes you want to make at this stage.


B. Week 2 – 4: Explore your core values

You now have a list of values that you’ve given quite a bit of thought. At the start of week 2, prioritise your values, going from the one that is most important to you to the one that is least important. Do include any new values you’ve added in step 3 above, even if they’re not as much part of your life as you would perhaps want them to be. They might turn out to be very important and end up in your top 3.

If prioritising your values is a little challenging, you may find it helpful to imagine a situation where several values are relevant. Which value would be the leading factor for you going through that situation?

Again, don’t worry about getting it 100% right (you can always adjust later), but do give it an honest go.

In week 2

Take your most important value. Write 0,5 to 1 page (A4) about this value focusing on the following.

    • What does this value represent for you?
    • Why is it important?
    • Describe a time in your life when this value was/would be particularly important to you.

Store your list and the page you’ve written in a safe place and leave them there. Let them “marinate” there for a bit. Simply continue your life, while your brain keeps on processing in the background.

In week 3

Have a look at your list again. Take your second most important value and write about the same 3 questions as you did the week before.

Again, store your list and the two pages and leave them be.

In week 4

Now take the third most important value and do the same as you did in the previous weeks. Store the list and your three pages in a safe place again.

At the end of week 4, read through all you’ve written and add any additional thoughts you might have, before starting the second assignment in week 5.


Assignment 2: A focus on the groups you’re part of

You’re not alone in the world. You likely form part of different communities of people. People you are related to, people you spend a lot of time with, people you identify with, etc. Some of the communities you’re part of are important to you. Some perhaps less so. And depending on your culture, you as a person might be defined in terms of an independent self or an interdependent self resulting in a different focus on relationships (also see the articles on intercultural differences and the people around you).

The second assignment focuses on the values of the groups you’re part of and that are important to you.

A. Week 5: Identify the groups most important to you

Step 1: Develop a list of your groups

Before you can start looking into the values of any group, you first need to identify the groups you’re part of and that are important to you. Again, this might be very easy for you to do, but it might also require a bit more thought.

Here are some examples to help you on your way:

    • Family
    • A circle of friends
    • A team of colleagues
    • Religious community
    • A group of fellow students or alumni of a school
    • A sport’s club
    • Neighbours
    • People who share a particular hobby or interest

Make a list of 5 to 10 groups you’re part of and that are in some way important to you.

Step 2: Cross-check

Now give yourself a week to reflect if you’ve missed any particular groups you’re part of and that are important to you. Add them to your list.

Step 3: Towards the future

For the final step in week 5, consider if there are any groups that you are currently not part of, but that you might want to be part of. Perhaps they represent something you’d wish for the future.
As in the first assignment, have a look at your images, snippets of writing or little experiments, if you’ve worked with those already. Do they suggest any groups to you that might be important for the future?

Add any relevant groups to your list.


B. Week 6 – 8: Explore group core values

In week 6

At the start of week 6, prioritise the groups you’ve listed, from the one that is most important to you to the one that is least important. And yes, do include the groups you have added in step 3 of week 5 (those you may not be part of yet)! They might actually turn out to be a priority.

Now focus on the group that is most important to you. Write 0,5 to 1,5 pages (A4) about the following.

    • What do you believe to be 3 important values of this group that you identify with?
    • Why are these values important?
    • Describe a concrete situation when these values were/would be particularly important.

As in the first assignment, keep your list of groups and the page in a safe place and leave them there.

In week 7

Have a look at your list of groups again. Take your second most important group and do exactly the same as you did the week before.

In week 8

Give yourself a week to reflect on the two groups that are most important to you. At the end of week 8, read through what you’ve written about those groups and add any additional thoughts you might have.


3. Week 9 and beyond: Next steps

You now have lists and writings about your own personal values and those of groups that are important to you. How do you take things forward from here?

  • At the beginning of week 9, have a look at all you’ve written. What does it tell you about what you might want for the future? If it’s helpful, use stream-of-consciousness writing to decipher and untangle any thoughts you might have.
  • Apart from such thoughts, have a look if your writings invoke any images of what you would want your future to look like (and do look for such images for your personal image collection to literally represent a picture of the future; also see the article on using images to discover what you want).
  • Ask yourself specifically if your lists and writings suggest things you could try out to help you discover what you want (also see the article on small and simple things you can start with today)
  • Also ask yourself if there are any specific steps you can take to connect with groups of people you’d like to get (more) involved with (also see the article on the people around you).
  • The assignments in this article are restricted to your top 3 of personal values and the core values of your 2 most important groups. If you find it helpful, you can of course also write about other values and groups you’ve listed.
  • With regards to your lists and writings:
    • Keep the two lists (your personal values and groups) in a place where you’ll regularly see them without having to go looking for them. If you’re working with images, this could be the same place as you’re keeping your images.
    • Keep your pages with writings about your personal values and those of your two most important groups in a place where you can easily find them. This can be the same place as your lists, but it doesn’t have to be. Every now and again, perhaps once every few months, have a look at what you’ve written.
  • Over time, adjust or add to your lists or writings if necessary. Remain alert to what they tell you about the direction and next steps you’re taking in life.


1. This article is inspired by the work of many experts and academic researchers, including the following.

On the benefits of value affirmations:

  • Cooke, R., Trebaczyk, H., Harris, P., & Wright, A.J. (2013). Self-affirmation promotes physical activity. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 36(2), 217-223.
  • Creswell, J.D., Lam, S., Stanton, A.L., Taylor, S.E., Bower, J.E., & Sherman, D.K. 2007). Does self-affirmation, cognitive processing, or discovering of meaning explain cancer-related health benefits of expressive writing? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 238-250.
  • Critcher, C.R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 3-18.
  • Critcher, C.R., Dunning, D., Armor, D.A. (2010). When self-affirmations reduce defensiveness: Timing is key. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(7), 947-959.
  • Emanuel, A.S., Howell, J.L., Taber, J.M., Ferrer, R.A., Klein, W.M.P., & Harris, P.R. (2018). Spontaneous self-affirmation associated with psychological well-being: Evidence from a US national adult survey sample. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(1), 95-102.
  • Epton, T., Harris, P., Kane, R., Van Koningsbruggen, R., Guido, M., & Sheeran, P. (2015). The impact of self-affirmation on health behavior change: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 34(3), 187-196.
  • Ferrer, R.A., & Cohen, G.L. (2019). Reconceptualizing self-affirmation with the trigger and channel framework: Lessons from the health domain. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(3), 285-304.
  • Gawronski, B., Deutsch, R., Mbirkou, S., Seibt, B., & Strack, F. (2008). When “Just say no” is not enough: Affirmation versus negation training and the reduction of automatic stereotype activation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 370-377.
  • Koole, S.L., Smeets, K., Van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The cessation of rumination through self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(1), 111-125.
  • Lindsay, E.K., & Creswell, J.D. (2014). Helping the self help others: self-affirmation increases self-compassion and pro-social behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-9.
  • Niles, A.N., Byrne Haltom, K.E., Lieberman, M.D., Hur., C., & Stanton, A.L. (2015). Writing content predicts benefit from written expressive disclosure: Evidence for repeated exposure and self-affirmation. Cognition and Emotion, 30(2), 258-274.
  • Schimel, J., Arndt, J., Banko, K.M., & Cook, A. (2004). Not all self-affirmations were created equal: The cognitive and social benefits of affirming the intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) self. Social Cognition, 22, 75-99.
  • Schmeichel, B.J., & Vohs, K. (2009). Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 770-782.
  • Sherman, D.K., Cohen, G.L., Nelson, L.D., Nussbaum, A.D., Bunyan, D.P., & Garcia, J. (2009). Affirmed yet unaware: Exploring the role of awareness in the process of self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(5), 745-764.
  • Sweeney, A.M., & Moyer, A. (2014). Self-affirmation and responses to health messages: A meta-analysis on intentions and behavior. Health Psychology, 8, 1-11.

On brain activation and nervous system responses as a result of value affirmations (also see the article focusing on the brain):

  • Creswell, J.D., Welch, W.T., Taylor, S.E., Sherman, D.K., Gruenewald, T.L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851.
  • Dutcher, J.M., Creswell, J.D., Pacilio, L.E., Harris, P.R., Klein, W.M.P., Levine, J.M., Bower, J.E., Muscatell, K.A., & Eisenberger, N.I. (2016). Self-affirmation activates the ventral striatum: A possible reward-related mechanism for self-affirmation. Psychological science, 1-12.
  • Falk, E.B., Brook O’Donnell, M., Cascio, C.N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M.D., Taylor, S.E., An, L., Rescinow, K., & Strecher, V.J. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. PNAS, 112(7), 1977-1982.
  • Sherman, D.K., Bunyan, D.P., Creswell, J.D., & Jaremka, L.M. (2009). Psychological vulnerability and stress: The effects of self-affirmation on sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors. Health Psychology, 28(5), 554-562.

On cross-cultural differences in value affirmations:

  • Brady, S.T., Reeves, S.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J.E., Taborsky-Barba, S., Tomasetti, S., Davis, E.M., & Cohen, G.L. (2016). The psychology of the affirmed learner: Spontaneous self-affirmation in the face of stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 353-373.
  • Covarrubias, R., Herrmann, S.D., & Fryberg, S.A. (2016). Affirming the interdependent self: Implications for Latino student performance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 38(1), 47-57.
  • Heine, S.J., & Lehman, D.R. (1996). Culture, dissonance, and self-affirmation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 389-400.

2. Values can take all kinds of forms and cover all sorts of areas. This article doesn’t mean to pose any judgment on the values people may hold, as I believe that each one of us is entitled to believe whatever s/he wants (and yes, that’s a value in and of itself of course). However, I do distance myself from values that include a conscious intent to inflict mental or physical harm on other human beings and animals, or to heedlessly abuse the resources of our planet.


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