- Virtues are character qualities that enable you to act in ways that fulfill your potential.
- Recent research confirms that cultivating virtues is associated with personal happiness as well as a good ethical life.
- Stoicism adds essential philosophical scaffolding to psychological ideas about how to cultivate the virtues.
It’s true that the word “virtue,” with connotations of self-sacrifice and Victorian morality, can be rather off-putting. Yet, for many ancient Greeks and Romans—Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics amongst them—cultivating the virtues was the secret to living both a happy life and an ethical life. Recent research supports this notion. One of the many benefits of Stoicism is that it can help you lead a virtuous and, thereby, happy and purposeful life.
What Are the Virtues?
Aretḗ, the Greek word for virtue, means “excellence.” The virtues are character qualities displayed by excellent human beings, qualities that will help you fulfill your potential to become “the best version of you.”
The Greek philosopher Plato identified four main or “cardinal” virtues, these being wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. There are many other virtues, all of which can best be seen as part of a family of related qualities headed by one of the cardinal virtues. For example,
- Knowledge, curiosity, creativity, insight, judgment, and prudence are part of wisdom.
- Persistence, bravery, honesty, integrity, strength, and determination are elements of courage.
- Moderation, self-discipline, self-regulation, temperance, patience, and humility are components of self-control.
- Fairness, kindness, teamwork, friendship, compassion, and love constitute justice. It should be noted that justice is used very broadly to encompass virtues relating to how we treat people well, not only fairness.
The science of well-being—otherwise known as positive psychology—has resulted in considerable empirical research into what makes a life go well. A large-scale literature review of philosophical and historical ideas about positive human qualities confirmed Plato’s four cardinal virtues as being of paramount importance (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Why Virtues Matter
A moment’s reflection on each of the cardinal virtues confirms their value.
- Courage allows you to handle fear well. Without courage, anxiety or discomfort may prevent you from doing what, to paraphrase John Wayne, you gotta do.
- Self-control enables you to temper your desires. Otherwise, your appetites may cause you to make a mess of your relationships or physical health.
- Justice ensures you treat others well, with kindness and fairness. It creates and maintains harmony in relationships and communities.
- Wisdom helps us to understand the world and what matters most, and to exercise good judgment about what to do in specific situations.
Wouldn’t you want your child, or anyone else you cared about, to possess all of these qualities?
Contemporary Research on the Benefits of the Virtues
Our research during a recent Stoic Week found a very strong association between a single statement “I cultivate the virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice” and well-being (LeBon, 2022). High correlations were demonstrated between cultivating the cardinal virtues and flourishing (.55), purpose and meaning (.45), engagement in daily activities (.44), and positive emotions (.41).
Numerous studies have found links between exercising specific virtues and well-being. For example, Steger, Kashdan, and Oishi (2008) found that activities in line with virtue such as being grateful, volunteering, and persevering in a task were associated with higher well-being.
In a systematic review of the research on virtue and well-being, Diener and Kesebir (2013) concluded that there is “a clear association between happiness and virtue, which seems particularly strong when it comes to self-transcendent virtues such as hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity.” They argue that virtue and happiness form a “virtuous cycle,” with causation operating in both directions. For example, if you are loving to others, you will most likely feel happier as a result. Other people may well reciprocate, in which case your sense of well-being will increase further and your motivation to be loving will be reinforced.
Which Virtues Should You Develop?
Contemporary psychology has shed much light on the value of the virtues and how to develop them. The VIA (Values in Action) classification, which resulted from Peterson and Seligman’s initiative, provides a framework for the measurement of virtue, and what they term 24 related “character strengths.” Two top tips from positive psychology are to
- Focus on your strengths, rather than your weaknesses, and
- Use your top or “signature” strengths more (Seligman, 2002).
Whilst such interventions have been found to be beneficial, there are possible pitfalls, including the overuse and misuse of strengths. Modern advice needs to be tempered with ancient wisdom. Suppose that your doctor’s top strength is optimism. Would it be a good idea if, when you asked her to inspect your potentially sinister-looking lump, she used her optimism “strength” to dismiss your justifiable concerns by saying, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that!” This would be an example of the overuse of a strength. Or, consider a burglar whose top strength is bravery. Would you want him to use that “strength” to pluck up the courage to break into your house in broad daylight? This would be the misuse of a strength.
The Stoics proposed two key ideas that explain why an over-simple application of positive psychology interventions can backfire:
- Wisdom is the foundation of the virtues. We need practical wisdom (phronesis) to distinguish situations where caution rather than optimism is required, such as the case of the suspicious-looking lump. We also require moral wisdom (sophia) to understand that burgling houses is not a path to the good life.
- The virtues are strongly interconnected. If you don’t have one of the cardinal virtues, it’s going to stop you from possessing the others. For example, true courage (as opposed to bravado) requires all the other virtues. Suppose you are considering quitting your less-than-fulfilling job. You might imagine this to be a courageous move. However, the Stoics would urge you to consider whether it is wise (How will you pay the bills?), just (How does it impact others?), and self-controlled (so not an impulsive reaction after a bad day in the office).
It follows that we should try to develop all the cardinal virtues,
How to Be Virtuous
In 365 Ways to Be More Stoic (LeBon, 2022) a chapter is included on how to develop each of the cardinal virtues, drawing on both contemporary research and ancient Stoic advice.
Here, I will close with three pieces of advice that can be applied generally to all of the virtues:
1. Emulate a role model.
Who would be your role model for each of the cardinal virtues? Maybe Nelson Mandela for justice and Greta Thunberg for courage? Perhaps Dumbledore might be your role model for wisdom and a friend of yours who gave up alcohol an example of how to develop self-control?
2. Use the lens of the virtues.
When anything happens to you, always remember to turn to yourself and ask what power you have to deal with it. —Epictetus, Handbook, 10
Today, when faced with a choice, ask yourself which virtue you need. If you are at the supermarket waiting in a queue, you might require patience (part of self-control). If you need to give negative feedback to a colleague, you might need both tact (part of wisdom) and courage. A virtues lens will help you frame your dilemmas in terms of the very qualities you need to handle them well, and also give you practice at developing each virtue.
3. Turn the virtues into habits with regular tiny steps.
Every habit and every faculty is confirmed and strengthened by the corresponding acts…if you do not wish to acquire the habit, abstain from doing it, and acquire the habit of doing something else instead. —Epictetus, Discourses, 2:18
Will Durant (1926), channeling Aristotle, makes a similar point:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
Recent research suggests that habits can best be formed by dividing them into tiny, easily performed steps (e.g., Fogg, 2019). You might begin today, by deciding on one cardinal virtue to work toward. You might extend the well-known idea of performing “random acts of kindness” to other virtues, and perform five small acts of courage, self-control, or wisdom. You might even count reading this post as one such step!
Durant, W (1926) The Story of Philosophy. Simon and Schuster.
Epictetus, Enchiridion, translated by Elizabeth Carter (1750).
Epictetus. Discourses, Books 1-2. Translated by W. A. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library 131. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
Fogg, B.J, (2019) Tiny Habits (Virgin Books).
Kesebir, P. & Diener, E. (2013). A Virtuous Cycle: The Relationship Between Happiness and Virtue. SSRN Electronic Journal. 10.2139/ssrn.2309566
LeBon, T (2022) Report on Stoic Week 2022 ( https://modernstoicism.com/report-on-stoic-week-2022-by-tim-lebon/)
Lebon, T. (2022) 365 Ways to be More Stoic. London: John Murray Press.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Plato (2007) The Republic, Penguin, translated by Melissa Lane and H.D.P. Lee.
Steger, M., Kashdan, T., Oishi, S (2008). Being good by doing good: Daily eudaimonic activity and well-being, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 42, Issue 1, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656607000396