Values are ideals that guide our behavior, especially in difficult situations.

There are good surveys that show you your preferences among common, even near-universal values, but before we get to that, let’s consider that one’s values are deeply personal and don’t need to accord with other people’s pre-set notions. Indeed, one’s values deserve to be interrogated – Where did that come from for me? Does it serve me now? Especially in a time of uncontrolled human-induced climate change, it’s reasonably to think that many of people’s inherited, default values might be, well, bullshit. But we have to move beyond such thoughts to a position of personal strength. And that means knowing one’s own values and ensuring that they bring you the qualities you want and need – more confidence, relatability, decisiveness, equanimity, joy, motivation, and such.

Choose one or preferably two of these exercises, and just do them! Then, for each of them, the final step is extract from your answers a list of values that make themselves apparent. And try to notice any patterns that emerge.

Option 1: Flip your frustrations

If you’re not sure how to identify your personal values, try flipping your frustrations:

  • Make a list of 10-20 things that frequently frustrate you in your life.
  • For each frustration, ask yourself, What goal am I being thwarted from achieving? and then write that down.
  • Finally, for each goal, ask yourself What might this tell me about my values?

Option 2: Answer these questions

The answers could be the basis for you to create a personal vision statement, but you needn’t take it that far. Just the answers can help you discover patterns and themes that reveal your values. And this will move you towards a more specific vision for who you want to be.

  1. What qualities in yourself do you want to cultivate? (Be more patient… a better listener… more compassionate with myself… etc.)
  2. What habits do you want to build? (Exercise regularly. Floss every night. Make time to call up old friends. Etc.)
  3. How do you hope other people would describe you when you’re not around? (Kind. Decisive. Brutally honest. Etc.)
  4. In the story of your life, what are the main obstacles to overcome? 
  5. Who are your personal heroes? (Uncle Frank because… etc.)

Option 3: Describe the 3 happiest days of your life

Think about the three happiest days of their life. Try to remember as much as possible for each. If you need to, look at old photos, or talk to someone else who was there to get their perspective on what happened. Write down the story of that day (it’s amazing how many details you start to remember when you put a day in story form).

Your very happiest days can often tell you a lot about what you value most. For example, if all three of your happiest days involved doing something new or creative, that might suggest that creativity is a bigger value in your life than you think. Or, if all three of your happiest days were noticeably free from time pressure or scheduling constraints, that might be a hint that spontaneity or personal freedom are underappreciated values for you.

If what you’re getting is like, ehh…: dig deeper with the 5 Whys

Our explanations for things can be rather superficial. We often have to push beyond the superficial explanation to get at the real one.  The 5 Whys is an old technique to get at the root cause of something. Here’s an example:

  • What’s one of your most important personal values? Being healthy.
  • Why is being healthy so important to you? Because my doctor says I need to be healthier.
  • Why do you think you need to be healthier? Because I don’t want to die young like my dad.
  • Why don’t you want to die young like your dad? Because he missed out on so much of life that he could’ve experienced?
  • Why is experiencing as much of life as possible so important to you? I want to spend as much quality time with the people I love as possible.
  • Why is spending time with the people you love so important? Gosh, I don’t know… I guess I just love the feeling of having a good conversation with my friend…

There’s nothing wrong with being healthy as a value. But if it comes across a little vague to you, or you don’t know why you value it, it may be less motivating. Ideally you’d like your values to hold some real power for you.

To repeat: choose one or preferably two of these exercises, and just do them! Then, for each of them, the final step is extract from your answers a list of values that make themselves apparent. And try to notice any patterns that emerge.

If doing any of these exercises just isn’t going to happen, go straight to the Life Values Inventory. I suggest in any case that you do this interesting survey after some work on the tasks above. Be sure to keep its report.

(The reasons for doing the Life Values Inventory later are: you get a richer, more personally meaningful read on your values if you do the work yourself; comparing your answers with what the Life Values Inventory tells you may be quite revealing; and while validated in many ways, the Life Values Inventory may channel you into societal norms that don’t fully express everything that’s going on with you individually.)

(Parts of this article adapted from Know Your Values: 7 Ways to Discover and Clarify Your Personal Values [2021] (