Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
‘To be good, we must do good; and by doing good we take a sure means of being good, as the use and exercise of the muscles increase their power.’ Tryon Edwards (1809 – 1894)
With the recent economic turmoil in the world, what is the best way to respond to a topsy-turvy world? (Some PPND suggestions here, here, here, here and here). Aren Cohen writes in her article “Habit Forming, Even in Tough Times” about the benefits of keeping to routine for sanity during extreme times.
Ben Franklin would have agreed – especially where virtues are concerned. As a leading writer and printer, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat, Franklin attributed his success and happiness to only one thing – developing virtues. Especially so in tough times. In his autobiography, Ben Franklin quotes Aristotle:
“The moral virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed, prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit.”
Why did Franklin care about habits and virtues? Early in his career, Franklin had listed 13 characteristic ethics that he wanted to attain, and behaviors compatible with each virtue. He focused on a particular virtue and set of behaviors each week, kept track of his behaviors in a small chart (see image) and made a black mark in the chart if he had not abided by that virtue during the week. As time went by, he found that there were fewer and fewer black marks on the table.
The Fast Track to Growing Virtues?
In every bookstore during the upcoming holiday season, you will likely notice that the self-help section is blossoming and seems to almost call out to passers-by: teasing about fast solutions and fast skills to help people achieve happiness. In this modern and result-oriented society today – both Eastern and Western – fast tracks or skills such as impression management tactics and personal marketing strategies from the West, or “mind games” (計謀學) and “thick face black heart” (厚黑學) from the East have indeed become the panacea to many people. Are we right to aim for shortcuts and a fast track?
There Is No Fast Track
Tal Ben-Shahar, the author of Happier and Stephen R. Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and still many others, have made an argument that a fast-track self-help book may be effective in the short run, yet most such books could only help cure the symptoms and are not able to sustain a successful or happy life. What, then, would bring about a genuinely happy and flourishing life?
Introducing Slow Change
Yes, changing the surface level may not be enough. For example, there is a growing slow food movement of savoring, enjoyment, and purposeful simplicity. In some domains, we are returning to slow and steady results that shape our core – our habits, behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions to the world. Virtues (the Latin word ‘virtus’, means ‘moral excellence’) concerns the kinds of ethics and morals an individual or community finds desirable and appropriate. No matter in the East or West, from Aristotle to Confucius, we share similar virtues like courage, temperance, generosity, self-control, honest, sociability, modesty, fairness, and justice. (Ivanhoe, 2000; Rorty, 1992)
The Honest Method for Growing Virtues
You may have doubts on the importance of the 13 characteristic cthics listed by Franklin, or even consider his practices lack of scientific support. Decades later, however, Franklin’s practices are supported by the ideas of strengths from Positive Psychology. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman proposes that constantly utilizing our virtues in the main areas of our lives will bring us gratification and authentic happiness. This is supported by Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson and Seligman in 2004 research that shows that having higher scores on VIA character strengths was associated with greater life satisfaction for 21 of 24 strengths. The idea of focusing on positive qualities is appealing as it grants us hope and optimism. To the extent that interventions strive to build life satisfaction, the virtues most robustly associated with well–being might be considered prime targets. (For the full paper of Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004), please click here) Slow and steast virtues development may yet win the race.
Which Way is Your Way?
We all learned about virtues and ethics from kindergarten on: we have all heard about the story of little George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree and his famous line of honesty, “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet,” we have also read the story of the hare and the tortoise from Aesop’s Fables and learned to be hardworking. Yet simply learning about these virtues and ethics is far from developing and realizing them. As we grow up and are clearer about the cruelty in reality, we could often take what we have learned for granted. As a result these virtues and ethics are regarded as fabled and antiquated.
At present, we have a systemic and evidence-based approach for everyone to develop their virtues (more exercises to develop strengths and virtues are here). Now it is time to take action: to be good and do good by developing our natural virtues and ethics, and achieve a more positive and flourishing life; or we stay naive and lazy sitting and waiting for one-day magic?
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional
Covey, S. R. (2004). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster Ltd; 15th Anniversary Edition
Franklin, B. (1793, 1996). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover press.
Ivanhoe, P. J. (2000) Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. Hackett Publishing Co, Inc; 2nd Revised edition.
Rorty, A. O. (1992) Essays on Aristotle’s “Ethics” (Philosophical Traditions). University of California Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2003) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd