What Do You Value in Life?

17/09/2015 12:52 BST | Updated 15/09/2016 10:12 BST

"This above all: to thine own self be true" William Shakespeare

Whilst working in an NHS adult mental health service as a clinical psychologist I was once referred a man with depression. Let's call him Peter.

Peter and his wife had chosen not to have children and instead had pursued high-flying careers in finance. He worked in the private banking part of a major high street bank and, until recently, had been doing extremely well in his career.

But in the months prior to his referral Peter had become increasingly anxious and depressed. After some investigation it turned out that at the root of his depression was a crisis of meaning.

It seemed this had been triggered by issues at work which had caused him to compromise on his values. He felt he was under increasing pressure to sell financial products that he didn't believe in to people who he felt weren't always appropriate.

For this reason, Peter felt he was trapped doing a job for which he had made many sacrifices but in which he no longer felt fulfilled. He felt he was being forced, by his managers, to live and work in a way that compromised things that he believed were right and proper and good - his core values.

This ultimately led Peter to question everything - the point of his job, the point of his life, the point of life in general. He became incredibly isolated and lost all his confidence. His recovery was slow and involved him completely reevaluating his goals in life.

We began our work together in the early summer of 2008, a few months before the global recession, economic downturn, credit crunch - call it what you will - that would soon come crashing onto the world stage.

It was only after our work had finished that I noticed the irony of him presenting with these concerns when he did and the way it had foreshadowed the global financial crisis.

His values in the long term turned out to be incredibly important - not just for him as an individual but for society as a whole. The transgression of this value on a global scale had possibly played a significant role in triggering one of the worst financial crises of the last century.

What working with Peter also illustrated to me was how incredibly important our values are to us and the amount of frustration and distress that can be caused when we are forced to live in a way that compromises them.

So if values are so important, why is it that so many of us have no idea of what our own values really are? Why does this concept of values feel so woolly and so alien?

I don't think many people can reel off the 'top 10 values' by which they live their life. Bizarrely it seems that it's often only when they are contravened that we become aware of them - as happened to Peter.

Your values are what matters to you, what's important, what you care about. Values are connected to meaning in that we as humans need to know, not just 'why do I live?' The other side of that same dilemma is 'how shall I live?'

Nowadays we are freer to work out what our values are. In our increasingly liberalised societies, the church, the state, educational institutions, and in many family situations even our parents, have less power over how they think we should live our lives.

For this reason, now, more than ever, we need to develop our own set of guidelines or principles that tell us how to live, and that help us work out what's important to us.

Research also suggests that people who live their lives according to their values are more likely to be fulfilled and contented. They know themselves and feel they are true to themselves.

So how might we go about clarifying our values? Psychologists say that we should be able to sum up a value in a single word. Examples might be 'family', 'authenticity', 'environmentalism', 'accomplishment', 'humour', 'kindness' - indeed any single word that describes an idea, a concept or an activity which is of fundamental importance to who we are. They also suggest that we should have no more than 10 to 12 absolute core values.

Values change over the course of our lifetimes. What we value aged 18 is unlikely to be the same as what we value as we enter our 70s. But whatever your age, there are bound to be values and principles that you hold dear, even if you've never really thought about them.

And it really is worth thinking about them. If Peter had been more keenly attuned to the fact that his work situation was causing him to compromise on his values, perhaps he would have had more confidence to speak up about it with his managers at an earlier stage, thereby possibly preventing his downward slide into depression.

So take some time to ask yourself: What's important to me? What do I believe in? What are MY core values? You never know - it might just be the most useful thing you do today.