Aristotle’s conception of happiness and well-being depended on one’s adherence to a life in accord with virtue. In the time since, nearly all philosophical, religious, and cultural traditions have believed some version of character or virtue to be at the heart of their journey toward well-being. In fact, researchers have captured these commonalities in modern studies.1
What Aristotle understood then, researchers have since gone on to examine. In a study assessing medical claims insurance data, it was found that various aspects of character produce beneficial effects on subsequent depression diagnoses, and effects were noted in the case of anxiety disorder diagnoses as well.8
Character Meets Virtue
Your character is what makes you, you. It’s the sum of all the traits and tendencies that inform your emotions, motivations and actions.4 They’re not easily changeable, but we can strengthen our characters by adopting positive habits that help us pursue the good. When we practice the best of our selves, this makes one’s character “virtuous.”
Simply put, virtue is the habit of doing right. Virtue can be understood not only as helping yourself to attain what is good, but also as a manifestation of the good itself.Living a virtuous life is a reward in and of itself, as living in accord with reason and with the goal of attaining good is in our nature as human beings. Virtues like gratitude, kindness, patience and humility help to enrich our lives and the lives around us.
Researchers are finding that character and virtue can have a direct impact on your well-being. In one study, researchers analyzed the effects on well-being of participants’ responses to the prompt, “I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations.”7 After a series of several assessments, those who reported positive changes in this particular item had higher subsequent levels of happiness and life satisfaction, a greater purpose in life, and a greater sense of social connection. Character, as assessed by this item, did appear to contribute meaningfully to future well-being outcomes.
Making the World Flourish
To have a strong character and to care for others is one pathway toward flourishing. Because we are social beings, and our well-being is intrinsically tied to those around us, the flourishing of others is a part of our own flourishing. Helping others to thrive and live well supports our own well-being and happiness.3
It’s also important that our sense of caring not be restricted solely to singular actions when we are in a particularly cheerful or festive mood. Our values of caring, kindness, generosity and love for those around us must be present every single day for our society to flourish.
Consider virtues you can adopt in your everyday life to make your life happier and healthier, and to help do the same for those around you.
- Gratitude. Hone your sense of recognition and gratitude for all that is good and positive in your life. Even just taking time once a week to write down five things you’re grateful for has been proven to lead to higher levels of gratitude, a better outlook on life as a whole, fewer complaints of physical symptoms, and better quality of sleep.2
- Love. Let your life be guided by care and compassion for others. Foster relationships and community with those around you. Enrich these relationships, whether with your partner, friends, family, coworkers or religious community, through being present and generous. . Be willing to make sacrifices and complete unselfish acts of kindness every day.5
- Forgiveness. Forgiveness takes weight off of you and others. Researchers have found that forgiving others for the wrongs they have done to you is generally associated with better mental health, more hope for the future and possibly even better physical health. Forgiveness isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t mean you’re condoning the action: Instead, you’re simply replacing the ill-will you’re feeling with good-will and moving forward from the wrong with positivity and hope for a better outcome.6
- Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of general psychology, 9(3), 203-213.
- Enmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
- Hui, B. P. H., Ng, J. C. K., Berzaghi, E., Cunningham-Amos, L. A., & Kogan, A. (2020). Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 146(12), 1084–1116.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/
- VanderWeele, T. J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), 8148-8156.
Wade, N. G., Hoyt, W. T., Kidwell, J. E., & Worthington Jr, E. L. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: a meta-analysis. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 82(1), 154.
- Weziak-Bialowolska, D., Bialowolski, P., VanderWeele, T. J., & McNeely, E. (2021). Character strengths involving an orientation to promote good can help your health and well-being. Evidence from two longitudinal studies. American Journal of Health Promotion, 35(3), 388-398.
- Weziak-Bialowolska, D., Lee, M. T., Bialowolski, P., Chen, Y., VanderWeele, T. J., & McNeely, E. (2023). Prospective associations between strengths of moral character and health: longitudinal evidence from survey and insurance claims data. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 58(1), 163-176.