In The Meaning of Life, there are two points where we run into the issue of values: growth and ethics. In the Growth chapter, we talk about identifying growth areas that matter to you. Obviously, you can do 100 finger curls today and 101 finger curls tomorrow and you’ll have “grown” in your ability to do that, but not many people would say that that is meaningful growth. In the Ethics chapter, we talk about how ethics are rules that people follow to optimize their own growth without harming anyone else. All ethics come from values because you value your life, your friends, etc., and those are the things you don’t want to harm; similarly, you value money, success, etc. and want to foster and strive for growth in those areas. But it raises the following questions:
In this post, we’re going to use biology, psychology, and economics to help you figure out the answers to the above three questions. By the end, you’ll hopefully understand this topic well enough to identify what about your life really matters to you.
What Is a Value?
Value is the importance, significance, or desirability that a person places on a thing, a person, or even an idea. In economics, we understand value as how much money something is worth, and we know that something is worth whatever another person is willing to pay for it. The classic example is that water is abundant and, therefore, cheap, but if you were in a desert your willingness to pay for that same water would increase exponentially. This type of value is a matter of supply and demand: how much of something exists, and how much of a demand is there for it? The higher the demand and less of the supply, the higher the price gets. While this might seem unfair to, say, pay $200 for a roll of toilet paper, if you only have one roll and someone needs it that badly, the price is the way to let the person who wants it or needs it the most to signal it through their willingness to purchase it at that price.
In psychology and biology, we understand value as the importance, significance, or desirability as it pertains to surviving and thriving. As shown in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we know that we value food, water, shelter, etc. to meet biological needs as well as safety to protect from harm. People value family and friends because of the protection and support they provide (and they receive “warm, fuzzy feelings” from them to incentivize social behavior). Above those basic needs come advanced desires, such as comfort, pleasure, fun, and other things and experiences. This is why people buy sound systems (to experience music and entertainment), go to haunted houses (to be “safely scared” in one of humanity’s many ironies), or lie on the beach.
Perhaps the most interesting part of value is the significance portion, as it causes people to do the most amazing (and, to some, crazy) things: run marathons, travel to space, or lift 1,000 pounds for no other reason but to see what’s possible for them to achieve. This is represented by the “self-esteem” and “self-actualization” parts of Maslow’s hierarchy, but it also involves a variety of factors from attaining social status to simply wanting to have that unique experience.
By combining all of the above examples, you can hopefully begin to understand what value is and what you value.
What Do You Value?
So now we get into the subjective part of this post. Value is a subjective assessment by a person regarding how much they want/like that thing. Therefore, nothing has inherent value. In economics, someone might be willing to pay $1,000,000 to experience something that you wouldn’t be willing to be paid $1,000,000 to experience. In psychology, you might love a teddy bear or a vacation spot that no one else holds with remotely the same feeling. Biology dictates slightly greater uniformity since everyone needs water and food to live, but even then someone might like broccoli and another person might like green beans (or Coke vs. Pepsi, beer vs. wine, etc.). Some of these differences might be arbitrary preferences, but many of these preferences are backed by biology because everyone has nuanced nutritional needs.
Using the above methods, you can easily figure out what you value:
Note: We often say, “All people have intrinsic value,” because we value human rights; one just needs to look back into history, though, to see that not everyone always valued everyone’s lives or right to live. However, all living things (barring severe illness or trauma) value their own lives so, by definition, they all have value—but that value is subjective since you would help your family or friends before you’d help a stranger who was in need.
If you don’t know what you value, you simply need to assess its importance, significance, or desirability to you. If you would pay little for it, then you don’t value it much. If you feel like you would die if you lost a person, then you value that person greatly. If you will die if you don’t get it, then you greatly value that product or experience.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what you should value—it’s one of my rules not to put my own beliefs on to others. Only you can tell yourself that. However, I do have a few recommendations:
Once you know what you value, you’ll make sure to establish ethics in your life to protect or enable those things and avoid anything that might hurt or detract from it.
Why Do You Value It?
You value anything in the world for one simple reason: it makes your life better. Some things have physical benefits like food keeping you alive, but other things like diamonds or houses might be aesthetically pleasing or have benefits beyond their functionality.
The only reason that this question matters is that it can help you in a few ways as you progress in your life:
There are many reasons to understand why you value what you do, so feel free to analyze it as much as you feel like it. There are always obvious reasons that trace back to psychology, biology, and sociology, but there will also be reasons that are unique to your interests and preferences as an individual.
How do values cause you to think and act differently?
This is one of the most important parts of this because of how it shapes your life and your destiny. If you value hard work because of how it makes your own life and others’ lives better, then you’ll live a life of work. If you value nothing but pleasure, you’ll live a life constantly seeking the next high. Your values shape your ethics and behaviors, and they will show in almost everything you do.
The first change is that of your ethics. If you value excellence, then you’ll have a strong work ethic to become excellent. If you value freedom, then you will fight to attain or retain it. If you value safety, you will have possibly hundreds of things that you will be unwilling to do because of the risks involved.
From there, your habits and behaviors change. You might prioritize career over time with family if you value money, prestige, and being a provider and are willing to sacrifice for those things. You might also be sacrificing because you care about your family, but you are ultimately choosing to provide for them over being with them. In another example, you might treat others poorly because you value yourself over all else. You might not prioritize friendships or others’ happiness or success as much as your own comfort, so you will act accordingly.
Again, there are no recommendations or judgments here—just the reality of how your actions are a reflection of your priorities, values, and ethics. You ultimately choose how to behave as a result of what you care about.
On a final note, this is why people who are treated poorly believe that you don’t care. How can you value your spouse, your children, your parents, or your friends if you treat them poorly? You treat things and people that you value well, so by basic logic you don’t value them if you don’t treat them well.
Hopefully, this helps you figure some things out for yourself. What do you value? Why? How do your values influence your behaviors? If you changed your values, how would you act differently? Answer those questions, and you’ll have a lot more insight into what matters to you in your life and how you act—and should act—as a result.