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An Honest Method for Growing Virtues

written by Timothy T.C. So 19 November 2008

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

‘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” (???) and “thick face black heart” (???) 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

ben franklin

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Claudio 19 November 2008 - 1:32 pm

Nice article. The author reviews interesting perspectives on habits. I think it would be a good “habit” for everyone to identify those habits that make us happier in the everyday life. Sometime the too hard, stressful and frenetic working oriented life takes ourselves away from healthy routines.

waynej 19 November 2008 - 2:23 pm

Timothy, aren’t some strengths worth developing more than others (hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity) as they impact more on SWB. It would be interesting to know what the scores of the top 5% were in absolute levels. Do you have that data?

Again looking at the research there doesn’t seem to be any case for developing appreciation of beauty, humility and creativity. any thoughts?

Kare Anderson 19 November 2008 - 2:54 pm

What a pithy, helpful post.

Beyond positive intent:
As a long time fan and beneficiary of positive psychology and of the research on making choices from Tony Schartz and on hiring the right people for the job so they (and their employer) can thrive as they use their best talents I look for more specific ways to act positive:

• to “satisfice” – make choices more easily, and
• to bring out the best side in others so “we” can be happier and higher-performing together.

That practicality is powerful. A main path on which to practice this in daily life is collaboration in our personal, socila nd work life – with people who don’t act right, like us.

As we learn to collaborate with people extremely different we have no choice but to come up against our hot buttons and blind spots.

Thank you again, for your insights.

In a civilization when love is
gone we turn to justice and when
justice is gone we turn to power
and when power is gone we
turn to violence.

Opportunity is often inconvenient.

Remember the many
compartments of the heart,
the seed of what is
possible. So much of who
we are is defined by
the places we hold for each
other. For it is not our ingenuity
that sets us apart, but our
capacity for love, the
possibility our way will
be lit by grace. Our hearts
prisms, chiseling out the
colors of pure light.


Nicholas Hall 19 November 2008 - 4:47 pm

Great article, Timothy!

I totally agree with slow change. Change can happen overnight, but how? Usually through some difficulty or trauma. Better done slowly over time.

I am so inspired by Franklin through your article that I am now printing out my own set of virtue charts. I might have a different mix than ol’ Ben, though it will be just as effective.

I agree with Kare… Satisficing should TOTALLY be one of the items on a Franklin-like list. It may not be a virtue, per se, but something I definitely have to pay attention to.


Kenny Li 20 November 2008 - 8:42 am

Hi Tim,

I think I have to tell you that every month when I am reading your articles, I feel relaxed indeed, as they direct me to get rid of those pressure and pity.

For me particularly, every thing should be perfect or nearly perfect, but obviously this goes against to reality. Working as a secondary school teachers, it is impossible that every thing is perfect. This makes me feel frustrated and think negatively all the time. But now, your articles help build up my “virtue”.

“To be good and do good by developing our natural virtues and ethics, and achieve a more positive and flourishing life” is what I am going to do.

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 3:54 am

Claudio –

Thanks for your comment. Yes, identifying + developing our virtues and transforming into our daily habit would surely lead to a happier life. I strongly believe in this.

Best, Timothy

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 4:00 am

Waynei –

Thanks for your questions, as inspiring as usual:)

Personally would go for the initial rationale when Seligman first introduced the concepts of strengths: everyone should have his/her own top strengths thus different strengths would probably have different impacts on SWB across individuals. That’s why self awareness of and identifying our top strengths are important: to be aware of our significant strengths and virtues and to develop and use them would probably be one of the best ways to enhance SWB.

Research however shows that some particular strengths would have more momentous relationships with SWB. For instance Gratitude has been uniquely studied for its predicting power on satisfaction by Wood, Joseph and Maltby (2008). Philip Watkins and his teams (2003) also developed a scale on gratitude. I think you would be interested in the following articles

(Wood, A. M, Joseph, S., Maltby, J. (2008) Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: Incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Personality and Individual Differences, Vol 45(1), Jul 2008. pp. 49-54.

Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., Kolts, R. L. (2003) Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality, Vol 31(5), 2003. pp. 431-452.)

And yes, you are right. There aren’t many studies that examine how appreciation of beauty and creativity could be developed…. Far more has to be done in these area before we have complete understanding of them. It would be a pity when we know people with appreciation of beauty are more likely to recover from depression and anxiety disorders with greater levels of life satisfaction (Peterson, Park, and Seligman, 2006), but lack knowledge on how to develop it.

Best wishes,

Peterson, C., Park N., Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(1), 17–26.

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 4:07 am

Thanks Kare –

I like your poem, particularly the line ‘our capacity for love, the possibility our way will be lit by grace.’ Thanks for sharing.

Consider that satisficing is a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”, it reminds me of a very good phrase in Chinese ???? (Zhi-zhu-cheng-le), which means a contented mind is a perpetual feast/Enough is as good as feast. We all have heard about this as a child but it does take time and effort to put it into practice.

Thanks for your sharing Kare. It’s very inspiring.

Best wishes,

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 4:08 am

Thanks Nick –

I read the biography of Franklin when I was doing my masters 2 years ago. I followed his practice afterwards and created my own chart with different virtues. 2 years later when I started doing my PhD, I reviewed my chart and made a new one with 10 virtues, with 2 from the old chart which I think I haven’t attained.

It is interesting: we see ourselves differently at different times in life; we desire for new virtues and reflect on aspects we didn’t do well. I believe life is such a process of constant improvement and development, we enjoy the satisfaction during this learning process while we are becoming a better person.

I am so glad that my unripe piece does have some help to you 🙂

Best wishes,

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 4:09 am

Dear Kenny –

It is a very sweet comment, I highly appreciate it. Every author, or every person I should say, would be so glad that what he/she does or says has positive impacts on others.

And, it is the students’ fortune to have a teacher like you, with such spirit and ardor for education. I wish you all the best and a positive and flourishing teaching experience every day.

Again, thanks for your kind words! 🙂

Best wishes,

waynej 21 November 2008 - 4:57 am

Timothy – let me exercise a strength that I have called curiosity (which happens to correlate strongly with SWB). Why is it that developing strengths works? Aren’t you curious about this?

TimothyT.C. So 21 November 2008 - 1:06 pm

Very great question Waynei, thank you!

It works as it benefits us. Shall we take curiosity as one of your top strength as an example? When you develop and exercise curiosity:
– it benefits your performance directly. Curiosity has an upward spiralling relationship with knowledge, when obtaining knowledge, we are not only satisfied in the process of obtaining knowledge itself but also it also leads to our better performance on work or studies.
– it also benefits your cognitive and intelligence ability. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi once argued that: Nothing is interesting to us unless we focus our attention on it. Curiosity allows us to actively use and focus our brain, lets it become a smarter one and also lets things become more interesting.
– it have indirect benefits to the social and romantic perspectives apart from professional development as well. Curious could make us funnier and more interesting persons as we are keen to know more things or develop different hobbies, which would bring about fun and novelty elements in the context of social and romantic relationships.

Actually all the 24 strengths would bring about different kind of benefits as we develop and exercise it. But people won’t rate these strengths equally important to them. Within limited time and effort, we would target on our top ones which would lead to greater satisfaction to us. 🙂

Best wishes,

Kare Anderson 21 November 2008 - 1:25 pm

Your thoughtful, meaty responses to our comments exhibit complete congruence with the topic about which we are conversing.

kare anderson 21 November 2008 - 1:43 pm

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” ~ William Faulkner

waynej 21 November 2008 - 1:47 pm

Timothy, I suspect you overlook the biggy – when doing what we are good at it gives us a sesnse of self efficacy (competence) – which is in fact a positive emotion.

Another reason is it forces us to get off our butts and do things.

I don’t think strengtss are as important as what PP makes them out to be – its the behaviours that they drive.

Thats probably why zest and curiosity have such a profund effect on SWB

Debbie Swick 22 November 2008 - 6:46 pm


I’m curious to see if you (or Nick) followed Ben’s idea of marking when you didn’t achieve something or if you turned it around with a positive psychology twist to note when you did practice a virtue.

TimothyT.C. So 23 November 2008 - 10:16 am


Yes you are right, I never ignored the significance of gratitude, which is one of my top strengths among the 24 VIA strengths, and think it should be a virtue that every one should practice. I do feel grateful and express my appreciation to every nice thing around me, and realizing that there are so many nice things happening around me makes me happy and even more grateful.

And I really like your quote.

Best wishes,

TimothyT.C. So 23 November 2008 - 10:16 am


Yes of course, the accompanying sense of mastery feels so good when we are doing what we are good at.

I still regard strengths as important as they guide us what behaviors to do. Or I should say it has a lever effect on the impact of behaviors: it is satisfying in general when we do certain behaviors, yet the satisfaction is magnified when what we do is what we concern or treasure.

Best wishes,

TimothyT.C. So 23 November 2008 - 10:21 am

Thanks Debbie! It is a very interesting and wonderful question indeed.

I remember when I first started practicing the virtues’ chart, I felt incapable and depressed week after week whenever I didn’t achieve something, as I was a typical result-oriented person.

I have got 2 insights recently which make me feel much better when I am not able to achieve a virtue (or any other thing).

1.) Life is a process – every single event, no matter success or failure, joyful or traumatic is not the final destination. That’s why I suggested that we should have slow move, show change, and become less result-oriented. With this belief, whenever I fail to achieve a particular virtue, I would think at least I have tried and am making process on it.

2.) Life is a flourishing process – a process which is designated to a happier, flourisher and wiser end, and we keep learning throughout the process. With this belief, I never think it is worth to be frustrated and lose hope towards life when we are doing something we know they are good for us, though sometimes we can’t see the outcome in a short run.

Hope it helps.

Best wishes,


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