A value is a roadmap that guides behavior. It is different from a need or a want. We need to hydrate, so we drink water. We want to get drunk, so we drink whiskey.
What you value may guide your behavior based on what is important to you. A person who values their health and longevity may opt for the water more often than not, while a person who values experience may opt for the tipple. It is their values that help make those decisions.
Values are intricate things. Some values are innate to humans, some are instilled by our cultures, and others are developed based on our own thoughts and personal experiences.
For example, you may have a personal value of having only a few close friends. You may have developed this value because you merit deeply trusting those who surround yourself with. However, there are people who like to meet a lot of new people and enjoy having many friends. They may value being relatively more extroverted and are open to meeting new people. You may decide to only go on trips with friends, while others may decide to go on vacation alone and make new friends on the road. To each their own.
In terms of cultural values, religion is probably one of the most influential carriers of values. For example, religions often promote the value of spirituality, or believing in something bigger than yourself, and even experiencing that higher power for yourself. Of course, not everyone is religious nor spiritual. You may pray, and others may not. Again, to each their own.
But there are some values that are universally human. Given a healthy human and a healthy environment, all people exercise these values, even if some people place more importance on them than others.
The big three in you and me
What are three things that all healthy humans can and will do? We create, we love, and we’ll tell you right from wrong — or creativity (play, creation, imagination), sociability (love, equity), morality (peace, judgment).
These three values dictate the majority of human behavior. Together, they create a basic value system that governs what we do and why we do it. And the best part is that we are all born with these capacities. Even better, we can build on them through the learning process to make them into our own.
Creativity does not mean that you work in graphic design or can paint a masterful landscape. It is based on the human forte to play with one another, to play with objects, and to imagine new ideas. Brilliant creatives can bring those imaginations into reality. But we are all everyday creatives. In fact, we are all born playing. According to Mary Gavin, MD babies use play as their primary tool for learning how to communicate and move. It also helps them acquire a better understanding of the world around them.
Our creative roots go way back. Our ancestors danced and painted with pigments, threw meat into fire, forged stone into tools, and turned land into farms. More recently, we turned tents into towns into cities, and channeled the power of electricity into technology. We even emulated birds and created the flying machine called the airplane — or my personal favorite, the paper airplane. Engaging with some of these ancient and modern rituals — from dancing and cooking to making paper airplanes — taps into our innate human propensity to create.
Today creativity is valued by society differently in ways. We tend to value creative acts that can be monetized. We pay to see music, or for a great invention. But you can create just about anything: a new game with your friend, a new route home from work, or an annoying noise that everyone hates. So don’t let someone tell you that you are not creative, and don’t tell yourself that you have nothing to do. My grandfather used to always say, “you’re not bored, you’re boring!”
Morality is what humans use to judge a given behavior or thought as right or wrong, writes the University of Missouri School of Medicine. All humans have a moral compass that dictates what is right and what is wrong. But you might be surprised to know that an 8-month-old baby knows right from wrong.
A 2022 study published in the journal Nature finds in favor of the view that morality is an innate human value — one that’s evolved and not so much learned initially. The researchers taught the babies how to play a simple video game that tracked their eye gaze as they watched characters (squares with eyes on them) interact with each other. The babies learned that by fixing their gaze on a particular character for a period of time, they could drop a square onto the figure and squish it — sort of like an anvil falling on Wile E. coyote.
Now for the kicker. Occasionally one of the characters would behave badly and squish the other square on the edge of the screen — sort of like a bully shoving someone into a wall. In response, the researchers found that some 3 out of 4 babies would use their power of gaze to stare at the offender until the square (anvil) falls from the sky and splat! — baby retribution.
Morality enables a form of social judgement that can label behavior right or wrong. Morality enables us to keep peace — even though historically those who break the peace are often punished — which ultimately contributes to our advanced ways of living cooperatively in groups. And the researchers of the baby retribution study also agree: an inborn sense of right or wrong, or an internal moral compass, could be an important part of the next innate human value.
It’s probably the most overstated aspect of human nature: we are social. However, this value is extremely important and perhaps the most core or basal of all three inborn values because both creativity and morality come together to help sustain our social lives.
Creativity enables our social lives on many levels. For starters, we begin to form relationships through play. Your parents can tell who your friends are as a child because you want to go play with them. Creative play helps us form bonds with others and opens the bridge for mutuality. We dance, we sing, and we run and jump — and we do it all together. Another aspect of creativity that plays a role in developing and maintaining social ties is language. Language is perhaps the most creative system in the human repertoire. We can endlessly express our thoughts and feelings to one another through a limitless combination of words. Whether it is a written token of thanks or simply whispering someone sweet little nothings, language keeps our relationships running.
Then there’s morality.
Morality leads to equity in the community. From the inborn sense of right or wrong, we derive more complex societal norms like fairness and justice. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Save the women and children. Innocent until proven guilty. These are the kinds of norms that humans have created to help uphold our society. It is not perfect, as history shows, and equity does not reach all corners of the human race, but our morals have enough substance to prevent us from slipping into complete chaos.
Above all, our social nature is built on inborn capacities like love. Why would we even form such complex relationships if we did not love? Without love — the deep, visceral kind that tugs at heartstrings — we would not develop compassion. Without compassion, we could not care for others’ misfortune, and that would be a society without equity.
Humans are born creating, loving, and judging. At the most basic level, we use these values to guide how and why we go about doing our business. You might say that it’s in our DNA. But a newer area of research called epigenetics shows how parental trauma could possibly be inherited by offspring — even if the trauma occurred before conception.
Epigenetics and values
Trauma is not a value — it is a lasting emotional response. However, trauma can transform people. Epigenetics is the study of how molecular mechanisms alter gene expression (in a heritable way) without actually changing the DNA sequence. For example, a study in mice shows that both molecular and behavioral changes from emotional trauma were passed on for “up to 5 generations,” says Science. A 2018 review published in the journal Brain Sciences finds an association between maternal exposure to genocide and the development of depression in offspring — another epigenetic link.
Again, trauma can transform. Depression can alter some of the core, or innate, human values. Take morality, for example. A 2022 study published in the journal Nature finds that depression can alter our moral judgments by overloading them with cognitive, or utilitarian, input and suppressing emotional input. In plain language, a utilitarian choice accepts the action as a means to an end, while an emotional choice places more importance on your duty or obligation. In this context, the emotional choice is more concerned with right or wrong — morality. Not only can depression shift the value of morality, it also impacts the value of sociability. A 2020 study also published in the journal Nature notes that depressive symptoms can negatively impact the maintenance of social relationships, which may ultimately lead to greater social isolation.
Our core values can change when we experience changes in our body and mind. A person who was once vibrant and outgoing can become shut off from their loved ones. A moral person can become more utilitarian. This is an important principle because if our core values can change, then the outer layers of our value system can also change.
The idea of changing values is important, because despite the fact that we are all born with the same three values (of course, there may be more), we can place different importance on each value — people can also choose other values to add to their value system. These value systems dynamically change over time as people age. Are all of your values entirely the same today as they were when you were a teenager? Probably not. At 5 years old, you might value sharing; at 15 you might value rebellion; at 30 you might value security; and at 60 you might value good health.
And for those that do maintain core values throughout their lives, many of the layers of their value system have likely changed. We gain new identities and roles (from student, to worker, to family provider), we learn new things, and sometimes we lose or discover faith.
Humans are also experts at learning. We have an incredible capability to take on new thoughts and perspectives. That’s why we can add values to our innate value system. Once we add values, the system becomes more complex. Keep reading to learn more about how culture and personal preference add layers (often different ones) to a person’s base value system.
Many of the first values that we learn are passed down to us culturally. Many people — by some measures, more than ¾ of the entire global population — identify with a religious group. Religions promote core values like spirituality and joy. In Professor Ariel Glucklich’s book “The Joy of Religion,” the scholar argues that pursuing religion is a fundamentally joyous experience, and that through the pursuit of spirituality and the practices of religion a person can not only increase their own well-being, but also fortify their social relationships. Religion is just one example of a cultural value that reinforces parts of our innate values — like sociability — and also introduces new values — like spirituality and joy.
We tend to be introduced to cultural values through our family. But family values can extend beyond what we learn from a religion. Family values are based on what’s important to your family.
For example, my family values growing up were: be good, be smart, be strong. Be good means that you are moral, fair, and place the wellness of yourself and others over other pursuits in life. It means that you don’t take advantage of others; you help people in need; and you don’t use your strengths to hurt others. Be smart means that you take the time to sharpen your mind and use your wits wisely; you read up on life skills, survival skills, and personal interests; you study hard and finish your school work before you go outside and play; you try your best to keep an open mind. Finally, be strong means that you take the time to sharpen your body; you train hard and exercise; you play and enjoy time outside; you have the willpower to use your strength for good; and perhaps most important, you never quit when you set your mind to something.
What are your family values?
Family values add to the innate human values of creativity, morality, and social ties by placing more weight / importance on certain ones. For example, be good emphasizes morality as the primary value when considering a decision, and then sociability. I need to be good, and not only to myself, but to others. Be smart and be strong puts weight on creativity. I need to explore new avenues of thought and to try new things in terms of play and recreational activities. That could also mean seeking out others to learn from. The dynamics of my family values now shift the importance I place on each innate value.
As you get older, you start to pick up personal values too.
Personal values are interesting because although it is typically the last layer added to the value system — again, some people find cultural values later in life but personal values can create deep ties that actually become a person’s most fundamental lens through which they see the world.
For example, when you are a young adult, you may develop a value for experiences. This value can cause you to quit jobs, lose old friendships, gain new ones, and even become distant from your family because you are constantly traveling on the road in pursuit of the next experience. But you might not keep this personal value forever. As you get older, you may begin to value health. This value may cause you to prefer to rest at night and get up early to work on your fitness. You may lose touch with your night owl friends but become closer to the early birds.
It is important to figure out what your personal values are because, regardless of your choice, you are going to adopt a set. Becoming aware of personal values not only helps you improve on values that need work and give up unhealthy values, you can then determine what your goals are and consciously set personal values.
You are born with three incredible values: creativity, morality, and sociability. These values lay the foundation for the value system that you will acquire as you age. Perhaps the first set of the next layer of values you learn are cultural. Your family may teach you about religion, or even set familial goals that help guide you.
Then as you grow up, you start to pick up personal values. At any point in your life you can shed cultural and personal values, all the while picking up new ones. And while you cannot truly lose your innate values of creativity, morality, and sociability, they can stagnate or become corrupted. So be sure to take the time to become aware of your life values, evaluate them, and try to place focus and importance on the ones that can help you achieve your goals.