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Value confusion

I’m more accustomed to hearing about values being talked about in a set – I’m thinking mainly of politicians touting “family values” and “American values” – as though there is some established list everyone who is important has agreed to. It also makes me think about times I’ve heard the word used as window dressing for intolerance and discrimination — where “our values” means “not yours.”

But what are values exactly? I wasn’t 100% sure I understood the concept outside of those examples. Do values in fact come in some pre-existing set, such as a religious doctrine or mission statement? Can values be right or wrong? Are they unique or shared? Where do they come from?

What a relief to know that my friend Priya Kapoor, even after earning her master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, struggled with this definition as well. Her new book, Give YourSelf Permission to Live Your Life, is about how you can live the life you want to live, rather than the one you think you are supposed to live. And the foundation of trying to figure out what you actually want from life is first trying to figure out the things in life you care about the most. Those are your values.

Values “can be accessible or tangible concepts such as family, work or respect. More often than not, however, they are emotions like love, peace and grace or behavioral traits and characteristics like communication, nobility and honor,” she wrote.

Values are internal and personal, and shouldn’t be based on what other people want for — or from — you. If you think about how you spend your time, money and resources, and how you have fun, then you will find your values. They are the things that make you happy. Basically they are how you live your life, day-in and day-out. After working through the exercises in the book, I determine that my core values include humor, independence and love. Priya’s include open communications, respect and diligence. But no one set is better than another — having different values just means that you don’t prioritize things in the same way as another person.

Values are shaped by our families and the society we live in, however, they are not a moral code or doctrine that must be swallowed whole. They don’t have to come in a pre-ordained set. Instead, they are unique and personal. They are our own judgment of what is important in life. Thanks, Priya, for making it clear.


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