How to Find Your Core Values to Live By (Incl 50+ Examples)

Find Your Core Values
Table of Contents

Whenever you make a big life decision, you might weigh several factors. However, the potential for happiness is probably one of your most significant considerations.

To choose a path that will bring you the most happiness, you will need to identify your personal core values. Understanding your core values is key to creating a purposeful, fulfilling life.

Despite the importance of knowing one’s core values, few people have actually gone through the process of analyzing and labeling their values [1]. This article will help you answer the following questions:

  • What are core and guiding values?
  • Why do we have core values?
  • Why are they important?
  • How do I discover my personal core values?

What Are Core Values?

Core values are the traits that you aim to embody in your everyday life. Your core values form early in childhood and remain unchanged throughout your life. We can acquire our values from our families, influential people, or our societies [2].

However, core values are unique to each person. This means that you will have different core values than your parents, siblings, or other people from your community.

Most core values fall into two categories: Instrumental and Terminal [3].

InstrumentalTerminal
Instrumental core values refer to ways of being and the actions we engage in every day. Examples include honesty, tolerance, and integrity.Terminal core values represent a desired state or condition. Examples include safety and equality.

Core values are distinct from guiding values, which can change as we grow [4]. Think about what mattered to you most as a teenager and what matters most now. Guiding values can also change based on your environment.

Most people follow different guiding values for their work than in their relationships. Guiding values are dynamic, but the reasons you pursued those values are based on your unchangeable core values.

Here is an example. Since you were a child, fairness has always been a core value for you. As a teenager, you held the guiding value of following and respecting all rules.

However, as you learned more about the world, you began to see that some rules are designed unfairly. Over time, your guiding value shifted from conformity to justice. Your primary motivation for adopting both guiding values remains a passion for fairness.

Why do we have core values?

Our core values are much deeper than our interests or passions. They serve as the driving force behind our behaviors. In fact, psychologists and sociologists believe that the ability to develop and retain core values created the basis of human societies. Understanding theories about how and why people develop core values can give you insight into some of your own fundamental values. 

Schwartz Theory

In 2012, social psychologist Dr. Shalom H. Schwartz introduced the Theory of Basic Human Values. He suggested that all human values can be categorized into four categories that correspond with an essential need. The categories exist on two spectrums, openness to change and interest in others [5].

Schwartz Theory: Human Values

Within these four categories are 10 core values.

Openness to ChangeConservationSelf-EnhancementSelf-Transcendence
Self-direction
Stimulation
Hedonism
Security
Conformity
Tradition
Hedonism
Achievement
Power
Universalism
Benevolence

Schwartz believed that openness to change and self-transcendence aligned with growth. Conservation and self-enhancement were associated with anxiety and protection against loss [6].

Evo Devo Model

Short for evolutionary developmental biology, evo devo has its roots in early evolutionary science [7]. Under this theory, humans individually and at the societal level developed a values system that helps further our progress and potential.

The Evo Devo Model suggests that there are 5 universal goals that we pursue through 10 basic values.

GoalValues
IntelligenceInsight, Diversity
InnovationFreedom, Creativity
InterdependenceEmpathy, Ethics
ImmunityPower, Security
SustainabilityOrder, Truth

Balancing these values is key to a healthy and functioning system.

Barrett Model

The Barrett Model breaks down human values into seven hierarchical levels based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [8]. While the Barrett Model was developed for the business world, it can also be applied to personal core values.

Under this model, our core values reflect our level of consciousness. As with Maslow’s pyramid, lower needs must be fulfilled before higher-level needs are considered.

Barrett Personal Stages of DevelopmentMaslow Hierarchy of Needs
Surviving — SafetyPhysiological Needs
Conforming — Family, FriendshipSafety and Security
Differentiating — Competence, ProductivityLove and belonging
Individuating — Continuous Learning, AutonomyEsteem
Self-Actualizing — Humor, Trust, CommitmentSelf-Actualization
Integrating — Empathy, Teamwork
Serving — Social responsibility, Altruism

You might notice that each of these models include a few basic values. However, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of core values that you could possess.

Why are core values important?

What we find meaningful and purposeful is influenced by our core values. When our behaviors and actions align with our core values, we can meet our higher-level needs and reach our full potential [9].

Our core values can sometimes clash with values held by other people, organizations, or societies [10]. In this case, people may put their own values aside and follow what is deemed correct by their families, peers, or community. However, the lack of alignment causes psychological friction.

Burnout, an occupational disorder associated with exhaustion, low productivity, and poor engagement, is caused in part by misaligned values [11]. Conversely, job satisfaction and well-being improve when workplace and personal values are aligned.

Core values also serve as a compass for making important life decisions. For example, partners who share some core values have stronger relationships [12]. Knowing your core values also helps you set more meaningful goals [13].

Examples of core values

If you’re not sure what your core values are, read through the following lists and see what resonates with you.

Character Values
Kindness
Honesty
Tolerance
Commitment
Generosity
Diligence
Calmness
Openness
Resilience
Intelligence
Respect
Loyalty
Adaptability
Integrity
Work Values
Hard work
Leadership
Excellence
Quality
Influence
Mastery
Performance
Work-life balance
Productivity
Status
Success
Collaboration
Personal Values
Happiness
Independence
Spontaneous
Family
Adventure
Gratitude
Appreciation of Beauty
Financial security
Health and Fitness
Uniqueness
Popularity
Risk-taking
Competition
Societal Values
Equality
Fairness
Structure
Peace
Freedom
Philanthropy
Justice
Civic Duty
Diversity
Tradition
Community
Democracy

You can find hundreds of other core values here: 377 Core Values List.

Can core values be good or bad?


We all have something within us that this world needs.
~ Source Unknown


In short, no core value is objectively better than the other [14]. Even seemingly self-centered values like popularity or power can have a positive influence on others. Think of the populist politician or charismatic activist driven by a need to relate to others and facilitate change.

Likewise, people who live according to their core values have a stronger interest in helping others. As Barrett’s model suggests, meeting self-oriented physical and emotional core values are prerequisites for fulfilling higher-order, other-oriented values.

While no core value is harmful, holding aspirational core values can be detrimental to mental health and happiness. Aspirational core values are values we hope to embody one day. These may be values upheld by wider society, like prestige or fame. Aspirational values can also come from our families or social circles.

While aspirational values can be inspiring, they can stall your personal growth. If your true core values contradict your aspirational values, it will be more difficult for you to find direction in life.

You may set and accomplish goals that do not bring you internal joy or satisfaction.

You can identify a true core value from an aspirational one by measuring the value against your behavior. For example, you may think that work-life balance is one of your values. Yet, when you look at your behavior, you consistently request overtime work or hold more than one job. In this case, your true core value may be financial security, productivity, or achievement.

By acknowledging your true core value, you will no longer feel guilty for not living according to your aspirational values. As a result, you may look for ways to positively meld work into your daily life rather than separating the two.

How can you discover your core values?

We all have core values, but they can be tough to identify. Uncovering your core values takes reflection. You can use the following exercises to figure out your personal values, and how you can apply them to your life.

Exercises for finding your core values

Reflection Questions

  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • What do you spend your money on, or what would you spend on if you had more money?
  • Who is my role model? Which of their traits do I admire most?
  • Is there anything in my life I would like more/less of? Why?
  • When do I feel my best/worst?

Questionnaires

Since core values often exist on a spectrum, you can use a questionnaire to narrow down which values matter most to you.

Dr. Schwartz created the Portrait Values Questionnaire based on his values theory. The Human Values Test uses Dr. Schwartz’s work to measure your score in 10 different value categories.

The Core Values Finder is also based on the PVQ. You can fill out the questionnaire and receive a summary of your core values within 24 hours.

Core Values Lists

Another way to identify your values is to review a list of common core values. First, circle the 10 values you prioritize most. From those 10, narrow your list down to 5, then to 3.

Value Cards

Rather than reading through a list, you can go through a stack of cards that each contain a core value and its definition.

Separate the cards into two piles: “keep” for the values that are important to you, and “discard” for those you don’t prioritize. Then go through the keep deck and further refine the values that are most important to you. Continue to go through the cards until you have six cards left.

You can try this exercise online here: Values Card Exercise.

Emotional Tests

When we perform actions in line with or against our values, we tend to have stronger emotional reactions. Use the reflection questions below to clarify your core values.

  • Think of a situation where you were highly motivated and passionate about what you were doing. Who was involved? What kinds of actions were you engaging in?
  • Think of a situation that made you unusually angry or sad. Who was involved? What kind of actions were you engaging in?

Exercises for living your core values

Flavor and Savor Challenge

In his book ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) Made Simple, Dr. Russ Harris describes the Flavor and Savor exercise for acting on your values in your everyday life. The exercise has two parts:

Flavor: Choose two core values to actively practice during the day. For example, you may choose tolerance and leadership. Find opportunities to engage in behaviors that reflect these values. You may volunteer for a group presentation to demonstrate leadership and try to understand the point of view of someone you disagree with.

Savor: When performing these value-aligned actions, pay close attention to your emotions and bodily sensations. Also, look out for how other people react to you. Are interactions more pleasant or free flowing? Reflect on what you notice later in the day.

If you would like to give this exercise a try, therapist Stuart J. Randall walks you through the Flavor and Savor challenge in his video: Values Exercise ACT – Flavor and Savor.


🔗 Recommended reading: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): The Pros and Cons.


Concentric Circle Exercise

This exercise will help you determine which values you are incorporating in your life. Find a piece of paper and draw three concentric circles. Within the smallest circle, write “Often”. “Rarely” in the middle circle, and “Never” in the largest circle.

Concentric Circle Exercise

Place your top six core values in the circle that represents how often you display that value in your life. If one of your values is learning, and you are currently attending a course, that value would go in the smallest circle.

On the other hand, if you value adventure, but haven’t been anywhere new in years, that value belongs in the outer circle. If you have values in the middle or largest circle, plan one activity that aligns with that value.

Wrapping Up

Knowing and applying your core values to your everyday life is the first step to living with more passion and purpose. Start making important decisions with your core values in mind and see how much your life improves!

Sources

[1] Halilović, L. (1624). Core Values – Your Inner Compass. Www.ted.com. https://www.ted.com/talks/larisa_halilovic_core_values_your_inner_compass

[2] Darcia Narvaez. (2018). The Study of Moral Valuing (pp. 345–363). https://www3.nd.edu/~dnarvaez/documents/MoralDevelopmentandMoralValuesHdbkPersonality2018PROOFSdn.pdf

[3] the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Values List of Milton Rokeach, 1973. MIO-ECSDE. https://mio-ecsde.org/protarea/Annex_4_3_values_lists.pdf

[4] Oliver, David & Jacobs, Claus. (2007). Developing guiding principles: An organizational learning perspective. University of St.Gallen. 20. 10.1108/09534810710831037.

[5] Witte EH, Stanciu A and Boehnke K (2020) A New Empirical Approach to Intercultural Comparisons of Value Preferences Based on Schwartz’s Theory. Front. Psychol. 11:1723. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01723

[6] Shalom H. Schwartz. (2022, May 9). Understanding values: Schwartz theory of basic values. Integration and Implementation Insights. https://i2insights.org/2022/05/10/schwartz-theory-of-basic-values/

[7] Dr. Priyom Bose. (2021, December 16). What is Evo-Devo? News-Medical.net. https://www.azolifesciences.com/article/What-is-Evo-Devo.aspx

[8] Barrett Values Centre. (2019). The Barrett Model – Barrett Values Centre. Barrett Values Centre. https://www.valuescentre.com/barrett-model/

[9] Jim Taylor Ph.D. (2012, May 14). Personal Growth: How to Align Your Values and Your Life. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201205/personal-growth-how-align-your-values-and-your-life

[10] Matt James Ph.D. (2016, June 15). Valuing Your Values | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/focus-forgiveness/201606/valuing-your-values

[11] Veage, S., Ciarrochi, J., Deane, F. P., Andresen, R., Oades, L. G. & Crowe, T. P. (2014). Value congruence, importance and success in the workplace: links with well-being and burnout amongst mental health practiticioners. Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science, 3 (4), 258-264. https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2276&context=sspapers

[12] Kristen Fuller, M.D. (2021, August 9). Why It’s So Important for Couples to Talk About Their Values | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-is-state-mind/202108/why-its-so-important-couples-talk-about-their-values

[13] Charles D. Kerns, P. (2010). The Positive Psychology Approach to Goal Management. 2005 Volume 8 Issue 3, 8(3). https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/the-positive-psychology-approach-to-goal-management/

[14] Steven C. Hayes Ph.D. (2020, July 13). What If You Have “Bad” Values? | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-out-your-mind/202007/what-if-you-have-bad-values

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.