Rethinking Retirement  

Choosing Personal Values

By Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D.

For centuries the question of what is "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad" has occupied the minds of philosophers, moralists, ethics teachers and ordinary thinkers.

The Greek philosophers, who lived in the fourth century B.C., were engaged in clarifying their values. Plato and Aristotle would ask questions like: "When, if ever, is it right to tell a lie?" "Under what circumstances should one break a promise?" "Is the law, cultural convention, personal morality, religion, or self-preservation the final arbiter of right action?" If questions like these seem to plague you, consider that they have plagued thoughtful humans for at least 25 centuries.

If good old Socrates were around today, he would be referring to moral philosophy as "values clarification" or "character education." Those are contemporary words used to describe the process we go through when wrestling with questions like: "what is the best thing to do?; what is right for us?; what is best for the common good?; what is in the best interests of the community...the nation...the world?"

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." Whatever happened to the education of our children in such values as, beauty, intimacy, wisdom, love, service, etc.?

At any time in our growth we may have all the following ethical reasons (excuses? justification?) for acting the way we do: because it is essential to survival ("If I don't, I'm gonna' die"); because Mom and Dad said so ("If I do that, Mommy and Daddy won't love me anymore"); because it is the law ("If I do that, or don't do that, I'll go to jail); because it is the moral thing for me to do ("I am virtuous or "saved," when I behave this way"). In the final analysis, what guides "right action" is one's own personal value system.

Much psychological difficulty and emotional pain results from developing and clinging to a personal value system that is 1) inappropriate; 2) rigid and unchanging; 3) in conflict with other value systems; 4) not based in reality or unrealistic; or 5) confused and unclear to ourselves or others. When our personal value systems take on any of these characteristics, we will experience "feeling stuck" or actually failing to grow up (e.g. doing what everybody else is doing because it has always been done a certain way). We may experience moral dilemmas and perhaps paralyze ourselves with inactivity. For example, we may do nothing when struggling with the question: is killing another human being always wrong...or is doing so okay when we are supposedly defending ourselves or our own values?

Conflicting with others is often a result of different values regarding right action. An example: disagreeing with the way your spouse disciplines the children, spends money, spends time or doesn't do things the way you do.

Not only to avoid these (and more) difficulties, but also to avoid educating menaces to society, it is important IDENTIFY those behaviors you enjoy doing and discover what you like about them; CLARIFY AND AFFIRM your values by making them known to yourself, intimates, friends, acquaintances and even strangers; CHOOSE from known alternatives that are possible or what's been done before; ANTICIPATE the consequences of your actions...think ahead; and ACT CONSISTENTLY from within...what your value system calls for.

Keep in mind that your values are what drive your behavior and always result in consequences. Choose them wisely. Choose them according to what you believe is the best for all concerned, and you will create a lifestyle that is most valuable.


Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D. has 30+ years experience as a Life Coach and Licensed Psychologist. He is available for personal life coaching and can be contacted at (970) 568-0173 or E-mail: or


Editor's Note:  A "Defining Your Personal Values" exercise is available in pdf format by clicking here.

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