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Identifying Values – Finding the Things that Matter the Most to You for the Way You Live and Work

Values are things that matter the most to you for the way you live and work. This article should help you to identify which ones are most important to you.

Values and cognitive dissonance

Values are simply the things that are important to us, in the way we live and work: the characteristics and behaviours that motivate us and guide our decisions. They ‘should’ determine our priorities and, unconsciously, often tell us if our lives are the way we want them to be (feeling unhappy and ‘stuck’, or happy and fulfilled).

However, there are many of us who do not consistently live by our values, and perhaps some of these situations may resonate? For instance:

  • you strongly disagree with something someone else did or said, but don’t challenge this and feel ashamed
  • you set goals or actions for yourself and do not achieve them
  • your life or career aren’t going the way you want them to, and you feel ‘stuck’
  • it seems that what you must/should do often clashes with what you want to do
  • you sometimes act in a way that does not fit with what you believe is right

This discomfort, or even distress, that we feel when we do something that goes against a value or long-standing belief that’s important to us, is known as cognitive dissonance or inconsistency. There is an ‘inconsistency’ between one part of ourselves (the behaviour) and another (the value). Festinger (1957) theorised that we all have a desire and drive for internal consistency, and so often try to justify or rationalise our behaviour, rather than working out why this dissonance has occurred. We may be aware of the unpleasant feelings but be unaware that these were caused by this cognitive inconsistency (Gawronski and Bodenhausen, 2012).

Put more simply, cognitive dissonance theory is about how we try to make sense of our environment and behaviour and try to lead lives that are (to us) sensible and meaningful (Aronson, 2019). And the key to this is recognising our own values. When we understand the things that are important to us, cognitive dissonance can act as a sign that our behaviour is not in line with these. Making a conscious effort to identify personal values, and continually reminding ourselves of these, is likely to motivate decisions and behaviour that we are happy with, making life feel more fulfilled.

Choosing values

There are many different values, but below is a list of common ones. Not all will be relevant to you: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ values, and everyone has different ones. Some people value adventure, while others prefer security. An opportunity to run their own company may be a dream for one person, while being a nightmare of insecurity for another.

In a review of the large body of research on values, Schwartz (2011) found evidence that culture, society and individual experiences all contribute to our values, plus people change and prioritise values depending on the opportunities or constraints present. Therefore, values are individual to you, so put aside thoughts about anyone else’s expectations or how you ‘should’ behave. Being honest with yourself about values that are authentic to you, then living by these, will help inform choices that improve your life, even if they don’t make sense to others.

woman painting

The values activity

Read this list and write down at least ten values which feel very important to you. Then in a separate list, write down another ten which also feel quite important. However, remember not to feel limited by the suggestions in this list, feel free to add your own!

It may help to think about what characteristics and ways of behaving make you feel good? What’s important to you in life? What career would you change to if there were no constraints? What inspires you? And think about what disappoints you and makes you angry (may show that you value the opposite)? What would you most like to change?

Read the lists of your top twenty values again. Are there any from the ‘quite important’ list that you would move to the ‘very important’? Once you have a final ‘very important’ list, go through these again, and try to choose around six that feel the most significant to how you wish to live and work.

Finally, write these six or so values out (perhaps to pin up somewhere) to remind yourself this is what you want to stand for as a human being.




be open to and accepting of myself, others, life etc.


be adventurous: actively seek, create, or explore novel or stimulating experiences


respectfully stand up for my rights and request what I want


be authentic, genuine, real; be true to myself


appreciate, create, nurture or cultivate beauty in myself, others, the environment etc.


be caring towards myself, others, the environment etc.


keep challenging myself to grow, learn, improve


act with kindness towards those who are suffering


engage fully in whatever I do, and be fully present with others


contribute and help, or make a positive difference to myself or others


 be respectful and obedient of rules and obligations


be cooperative and collaborative with others


be courageous or brave; persist in the face of fear, threat or difficulty


be creative or innovative


be curious, open-minded and interested; to explore and discover


encourage and reward behaviour that I value in myself or others


treat others as equal to myself, and vice versa


seek, create and engage in activities that are exciting, stimulating or thrilling


be fair to myself or others


maintain or improve my fitness; look after my physical and mental health and wellbeing


adjust and adapt readily to changing circumstances


live freely; choose how I live and behave, or help others do likewise


be friendly, companionable, or agreeable towards others


be forgiving towards myself or others


be fun-loving; seek, create, and engage in fun-filled activities


be generous, sharing and giving, to myself or others


be grateful for and appreciative of the positive aspects of myself, others and life


be honest, truthful, and sincere with myself and others


see and appreciate the humorous side of life


be humble or modest; let my achievements speak for themselves


be industrious, hard-working, dedicated


be self-supportive, and choose my own way of doing things


open up, reveal, and share myself, emotionally or physically – in my close personal relationships


uphold justice and fairness


 be kind, compassionate, considerate, nurturing or caring towards myself or others


act lovingly or affectionately towards myself or others


 be conscious of, open to, and curious about my here-and-now experience


be orderly and organised


think things through, see things from other’s points of view, and weigh evidence fairly


wait calmly for what I want


continue resolutely, despite problems or difficulties


create and give pleasure to myself or others


 strongly influence or wield authority over others: taking charge, leading, organising


build relationships, where fair balance of giving and taking


be respectful towards myself or others; be polite, considerate and show positive regard


be responsible and accountable for my actions


secure, protect, or ensure safety of myself or others


 be aware of my own thoughts, feelings and actions


 look after my health and wellbeing, and get my needs met


keep growing, advancing or improving in knowledge, skills, character or life experience


act by my own ideals


 create, explore and enjoy experiences that stimulate the five senses


explore or express my sexuality


connect with things bigger than myself


continually practice and improve my skills, and apply myself fully when using them


be supportive, helpful, encouraging, available to myself or others


be trustworthy; to be loyal, faithful, sincere, and reliable

How to use your values 

When we feel stuck in our jobs or careers, this can be due to not living to our values, or because of conflict between values and the situation we’re in. Using the ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) Matrix can help you to explore this further insert ‘Feeling stuck in your job or career? The ACT matrix may be the tool you need’ article

Using our values when setting goals, in both work and personal situations, may also improve feelings of wellbeing and fulfilment. How could you put your top priority values into practice? Are you spending time on things that matter to you? Try not to be constrained by practicalities or ‘should’ dos!

Making decisions in line with our values is another way to live by them, remembering that cognitive dissonance acts as a red flag that we may need to remind ourselves of these (or even review them – see below). Read your priority values every morning and think about the small decisions you could make to bring these into your day-to-day decisions. And reflect on your values at the end of each day: did you stray from these? What could you do differently?

Lastly, as explained above, values are not set in stone and there should be caution in adhering inflexibly to one set! As we go through different life experiences our values may change, so it is worth reviewing these at least once a year, which may reveal a shift in priorities.

There are also further resources you may find useful in the Applying Psychology at Work Hub including:


Aronson, E. (2019) ‘Dissonance, hypocrisy, and the self-concept', in Harmon-Jones, E. (ed.) Cognitive Dissonance, Second Edition: Re-examining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 141–57.

Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.

Gawronski, B. and Bodenhausen, G. V. (2012) ‘Self-insight from a dual-process perspective’, in Vazire, S. and Wilson, T. D. (eds) Handbook of Self-Knowledge. New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 22–38.

Schwartz, S. H. (2011) ‘Studying values: personal adventure, future directions’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(2), pp. 307–19, doi: 10.1177/0022022110396925.



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