I used to refer to values as a shorthand way of defining whatever is important. Thus, for example, the terms “integrity,” “trust,” “honesty” and “creativity” could all be regarded as values. The Oxford Dictionary has a similar approach; it defines values as: “one's judgment of what is important in life.”
Having worked with and studied values for more than 25 years, I have realized that values are much more than “what is important to us”; values are the energetic drivers of our aspirations and intentions. They are the source of all human motivations and decision-making.
Our values are a reflection of our needs
Whatever we need—whatever is important to us—is what we value. Conversely, if we don’t need something—if something is not important to us—we don’t value it. You can tell what people value in their lives—what they need—by what they pay attention to, what they care about and how they spend their time.
What most people care about, without necessarily realizing it, are their feelings. We want to be happy and we want to experience joy. When we get our ego needs, we feel happy, and when we get our soul desires met we feel joy. When we don’t get our ego needs met we feel fear and anxiety; when the decisions made by our egos do not allow us to get our soul desires met, we feel sadness and depression..
As we grow and develop, our needs change, and consequently our values and our value priorities change. What we valued as a baby is not what we value as a teenager; what we valued as a teenager is not what we value as a mature adult, and what we value as a mature adult is not what we value as a senior citizen.
Despite the changing nature of our values and value priorities, there are three things that we value at all ages—survival, safety and security. They are so important to us that they are hardwired into our brains. When these needs are not satisfied, they dominate our subconscious and conscious awareness and thoughts. We become fearful if we believe our survival, safety or security needs are not being met in the present, and we become anxious if we believe they may not be met in the future. However, when our survival, safety and security needs are met, we give them no further thought. We shift the focus of our attention to what Abraham Maslow referred to as our growth needs.
There are two basic forms of decision-making: belief-based decision-making and values-based decision-making. We either make decisions that align with our beliefs, or we make decisions that align with our values. During the early part of our lives we tend to make decisions based on our beliefs. As we grow older, we shift to using our values to make decisions.
Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. They may or may not be true, but we assume they are true. Our beliefs are useful because they enable us to interpret our reality. Based on the interpretation (meaning) we give to a situation through our beliefs, we make decisions that we believe will allow us to get our needs met or in other words, enable us to get what we value.
Beliefs work well—enable us to get our needs met—in situations where our day-to-day life does not change very much, when things follow fixed patterns. Beliefs do not work well in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations. In such situations, we need a more reliable compass. Values provide that compass because our values allows us to focus directly on what is important to us.
Most of the beliefs we use for making decisions are formed from our early experiences, when our minds and brains were growing and developing and our lives are relatively stable. The most important beliefs we learn during this period of our lives are how to survive, keep safe and feel secure in the parental and cultural and framework of our existence.
As adults, If we have difficulties satisfying our survival, safety and security needs, or we never have the opportunity to travel—to expose ourselves to different communities, cultures and religions, and we do not get a higher education, then it is highly likely we will continue to use the beliefs we learned while we were growing up to make decisions for the rest of our lives.
The shift to values-based decision-making
The shift from belief-based decision-making to values-based decision-making naturally begins to occur when we have been able to satisfy our survival, safety and security needs (what Abraham Maslow referred to as our deficiency needs), have experienced living in communities or cultures that are different from the those we grew up in, and have received a higher education.
For this reason, values-based decision-making is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the twentieth century, the majority of people lived in poverty, never travelled very far and lived their whole lives in the community or society in which they were raised. They were never exposed to people from other cultures.
This is no longer true--at least in the modern western world. As people became more affluent; as travel has become cheaper; as people carried on studying beyond the compulsory school years; and as the global media penetrated into our lives, our framework of existence expanded. Consequently we became more and more exposed to having to live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.