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Character and Human Flourishing

The empirical study of character and virtue.

Key points

  • There are commonalities in the understanding of character across numerous philosophical, religious, and cultural traditions.
  • Character is not easy to empirically assess and study but various methodological approaches can partially address these challenges.
  • The study, promotion, and formation of good character may help contribute to greater individual and community well-being.

Aristotle conceived of happiness as being attained by living in accord with virtue, and virtually all philosophical, religious, and cultural traditions have likewise placed some notion of character or virtue at the heart of their conception of well-being. Moreover, some cross-cultural research has suggested that a number of character strengths or virtues are arguably held in common across diverse cultures and traditions. These include what are sometimes called the “cardinal virtues” of practical wisdom, justice, courage or fortitude, and temperance.

During the past couple of decades, both in the social sciences and in other parts of society, there has perhaps been some hesitancy to address character and virtue. In part, this might have been motivated by concerns of over-emphasizing the role of institutions and structures in shaping human behavior, and perhaps also by a concern that the concepts themselves are parochially “Western.” But the consistency across most cultures of the importance of character itself, and also in what strengths of character are considered important, might suggest that these notions have been abandoned too quickly. So how is it that character might contribute to, or even be constitutive of, well-being?

Character and Virtue

Character itself has been variously defined as “a set of personal traits or dispositions that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct” (Jubilee Centre) or alternatively as “the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Character is not necessarily easy to alter. It is shaped in part by one’s temperament, by decisions and habits that are formed over years, and by one’s communities. But character is also part of what makes us who we are, and itself shapes our capacity to pursue the good and attain well-being. As one’s character is strengthened by habits that are in accord with reason and that help us attain what is good, we might say that it becomes “virtuous.”

In much of the western philosophical tradition (and again related ideas appear in other cultural traditions as well) a virtue has been understood as a habit in accord with reason to attain the good. Understood thus, by its very definition, virtue helps one attain the good. It contributes to well-being. But many traditions of virtue ethics understand virtue not only as helping one attain what is good, but also as constitutive of the good, of well-being itself. Virtue – living in accord with reason; living to attain the good – is its own reward, because it fulfills our nature as human beings.

flourishing together
Source: shameersrk/AdobeSpark

Empirical Studies of Character and Well-Being

For the past several years, we have been making various attempts at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard to empirically study different aspects of character. This is no easy task. Much empirical research is carried out by self-report surveys and something like character assessment may be especially difficult to accurately assess by self-report, subject to both social-desirability and self-deception biases. We have in fact recently released a report, published in the Journal of Education, on the numerous challenges in, but also the tremendous opportunities for, the empirical study of character.

While self-report of various aspects of character may be subject to various degrees of exaggeration, there might still be meaningful information in these assessments. On an assessment of courage, say, there may be real differences between someone who self-reports, a 7 out of 10 versus a 9 out of 10, even if both scores would have been reported two points lower on more objective grounds or by a third-party observer. Some studies have in fact indicated a relatively high degree of correlation between self-report and other-report assessments. This does not mean the scores are identical, only that they probably contain some meaningful information. Moreover, when longitudinal data over time are available, one can study changes in self-reports of character. Even if the absolute scores themselves are exaggerated, a change in self-report over time for an individual may indicate some meaningful change in the person’s life.

In fact, this was the sort of approach we used in a recent empirical analysis. We looked at one of the character items from our flourishing index, namely, “I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations” for which participants gave responses from 0 (= not true of me) to 10 (= completely true of me) and collected data over either two or three waves from employees in two different samples in the United States and Mexico.

We examined how this character assessment indicator, or changes in it, affected subsequent well-being, while also controlling for the same outcomes at baseline, along with a host of other demographic, social, economic, and health-related variables. We found that those who reported positive changes in this character assessment item subsequently had higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, greater purpose in life, and greater social connectedness. Character, at least as assessed by this particular item, did appear to contribute meaningfully to future well-being. Some of our other prior work has examined associations over time with other aspects of character, such as forgiveness, volunteering, and hope. The incorporation of character items into large longitudinal cohort studies could facilitate more research along these lines.

Character Interventions

Character can also in part be empirically studied by examining the effects of interventions to help shape character. Our report on the challenges and opportunities for empirical character assessment briefly discusses a number of character interventions, evaluated in randomized trials, that have successfully altered aspects of character such as gratitude, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and perseverance/grit, along with evidence that some of these also go on to improve psychological well-being, mental health, and other outcomes. Indeed this randomized trial approach is how we are going about evaluating the effects of a forgiveness workbook intervention, a study that will soon be reaching its conclusion. Various character education programs, resources, and materials have also been developed (such as those available at the UK’s Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues), and the Journal of Education will in fact soon be releasing a special issue on character education.

But once again, there are inevitably challenges. Many of the existing school-based character programs, while arguably well-conceived, still need more formal rigorous assessment. Also, as detailed in our report, some of the other character items we have explored do not seem to have worked quite as well as the one above, at least with respect to the evidence we have to date. Some aspects of character may be more amenable to self-report assessments than others. We need a better understanding of what can and cannot be reasonably assessed, and we likely need greater methodological diversity and conceptual clarity in the approaches taken to character assessment.

Source: Pexels/AdobeSpark

Character, Love, and the Well-Being of Others

Some of the challenges of character assessment were in fact what led a number of us at the Human Flourishing Program to focus more specifically on character assessment as it relates to love, a project concerning which we’ve recently received funding from the John Templeton Foundation to pursue. While the topic of love has perhaps not received adequate academic attention, and the attention it has received at least from psychology has often focused on romantic love, there is arguably a great deal to be learned about the promotion of human flourishing from the study of love. Indeed there are both classical and contemporary claims that our various loves effectively shape all of our actions, and much of the Christian tradition has insisted that charity, the love of God and neighbor, is the highest of the virtues.

The exploration of love also introduces an important complexity in the empirical study of character and well-being. Virtue, understood as a habit in accord with reason to attain the good, may contribute to one’s own good, but it may also contribute to the good of others. Indeed, when we think of people we consider as having strong character, often these are people who have sacrificed something of their own good for the sake of the good of others.

These effects of love and of other virtues on the lives of others have important implications for our research designs. The vast majority of empirical research studies on character, and on many other topics, attempt to examine the associations of some type of behavior or attribute with various outcomes for the same individual. But if certain virtues or character strengths like compassion, or generosity, or forgiveness, or justice, sometimes involve sacrificing some good for oneself for the sake of others, or for the community, then such research designs are not going to be adequate. We will be entirely missing the effects of such actions or aspects of character on others’ lives. Indeed certain aspects of character might appear, in individually focused studies, to be detrimental to aspects of well-being, when in fact they contribute substantially to the common good. In future studies of character, we should almost certainly, when feasible, try to collect outcome data on other members of the community as well, or at least be aware of the limitations in interpretation in not doing so.

Character is important. It is both constitutive of, and contributes to, the well-being of the individual and of the community. If we find ways to assist with the formation of character, drawing upon the rich traditions of the past, and potentially examining the effects of character education programs with the research methodologies of the present, we may be better able to promote well-being and create a better world.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, Director

Human Flourishing Program

Harvard University


VanderWeele, T.J. (2021). The importance, opportunities, and challenges of empirically assessing character for the promotion of flourishing. Journal of Education, in press. doi: 10.1177/00220574211026905

Węziak-Białowolska, D., Białowolski, P., VanderWeele, T.J., and 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, 35:388-398.