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Virtues: Our Best Bet for Happiness

“What constitutes a good life?” “How should one live?” “What kind of a person should one be?” In their answers to these perennial questions, history’s great minds have frequently invoked the concept of virtue.

Philosophers ancient and modern have argued that the road to a happy, thriving, worthwhile life is paved with virtues. Aristotle, for one, believed that anyone willing to lead a virtuous life could achieve fulfillment. More recently, philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse posited that possessing and exercising virtue is the only reliable bet for a happy and flourishing life—just as adopting a healthy lifestyle is the only reliable bet for a healthy life.

There are no guarantees in life. Yet, if we commit to living virtuously, the argument goes, we are doing all that is in our power to maximize our happiness.

Is there any merit to these claims? Are more virtuous people indeed happier? If we cultivate virtue, could we become happier too? Fortunately, the scientific study of virtue has seen an awakening in the last couple of decades, providing us with fascinating insights into the relationship between virtues and happiness. Before we delve into these, let us briefly examine how psychologists think of virtue.

While virtue is an elusive term, most psychological definitions agree that virtues represent extraordinary character strengths in the service of optimal intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning. Consider honesty, kindness, sincerity, wisdom, courage, justice, and diligence. These are our noble attributes, and act as powerful resources in dealing with the difficulties inherent to human existence and social living.

Given the critical role they play in optimal functioning, it is not surprising that people who lack virtues generally do not fare well. When we think of people who make life difficult, either for themselves or others, we often notice conspicuously low levels of certain virtues, whether integrity, mercy, or self-control.

The Relationship Between Virtue and Happiness

The burgeoning empirical literature on virtue and happiness offers strong support to the age-old argument that virtues increase happiness. One line of support comes from studies showing that doing good is associated with feeling good.

For example, one study using a daily diary method found that engaging in behaviors that allow the exercise of virtues (e.g., expressing gratitude, giving money to a person in need, persevering at a valued goal even in the face of obstacles) was associated with significantly higher well-being than engaging in purely hedonic behaviors, like getting drunk or high on drugs, or having sex with someone one doesn’t love. Furthermore, daily virtuous—but not daily hedonic—behaviors predicted greater life satisfaction and greater sense of meaning the following day, attesting to their causal role in fostering happiness.

Relative to pursuing hedonic or egoistical goals, pursuing more virtuous goals has similarly been linked to greater well-being. In one study, those who endorsed other-oriented and altruistic life goals, such as commitment to family and friendships, helping others, and being socially and politically involved, reported higher life satisfaction both concurrently and over time. Commitment to competitive goals related to wealth and consumption, in contrast, was associated with lower life satisfaction. The picture emerging from these and similar findings is that virtuous, self-transcending priorities in life are linked to greater happiness.

Studies that assess to what degree a person possesses certain virtues, and how happy they are, further testify to the positive relationship between virtue and happiness. These studies have benefited from the Values in Action (VIA) classification that specifies 24 measurable character strengths, such as love of learning, bravery, forgiveness, fairness, and gratitude. It is possible to take the VIA survey online (free, but registration required) and see what your top virtues are.

Which Virtues Are Most Closely Linked to Happiness?

Studies using the VIA framework reveal a positive relationship between virtually any character strength and happiness. That said, certain strengths turn out to be even more closely connected to happiness—specifically, the strengths of love, gratitude, hope, curiosity, and zest.

Research on adolescents and young children (as described by their parents) similarly reveals love, zest, hope, and gratitude as the character strengths most closely affiliated with happiness. Cross-cultural studies, and studies that assess people’s strengths by asking knowledgeable others instead of relying on self-reports, further reinforce the robustness of these findings.

Do you see a common thread linking the character strengths most strongly linked to happiness—love, gratitude, hope, zest, and curiosity? One might argue that they all have a self-transcendent aspect to them, involving positive connections to things that go beyond the self. Love, of course, connects us to other people. Gratitude connects us to a benevolent higher force, as well as to others. Curiosity connects us to a rich, fascinating world. Hope connects us to a desirable future. And finally, zest represents an energetic connection with all that life offers. Transcending the ego and connecting to something larger than the self are considered essential to psychological health and well-being. It should probably not surprise us, then, that virtues that facilitate these qualities are the ones most conducive to happiness.

How to Cultivate Virtue

The unequivocal relationship between virtue and happiness suggests that cultivating virtue can be a promising happiness strategy. Both longitudinal and intervention studies support this view, and show that increases in virtue are accompanied by increases in happiness. The happiness gains turn out to be even greater if an increase occurs among the aforementioned virtues most closely linked to happiness. As with any character trait, there is a significant genetic component to virtues; hence, we should not expect them to be endlessly malleable. At the same time, the evidence is compelling that we can cultivate virtues to the degree that they give our happiness a boost.

If we are convinced of the felicific powers of virtue, how should we go about cultivating it? The answer to this question goes back at least as far as Laozi (Lao Tzu), and to Aristotle, who argued that virtues can be formed by habit. Accordingly, we become virtuous by acting virtuously. If we want to cultivate kindness, for instance, we need to habitually perform acts of kindness—such as volunteering, checking in on elderly neighbors, or expressing gratitude to others. Or, if we want to cultivate curiosity, we need to create opportunities in our lives to stimulate and satisfy our curiosity. We might, for example, commit to listening to new podcasts, trying new foods, or traveling to new places on a regular basis.

But, of course, virtues are not only habits of deed, but also habits of the heart and the mind. Virtuous actions, if they are sincere, spring from virtuous thoughts and feelings. Hopeful, wise, and loving acts, for example, are preceded by hopeful, wise, and loving psychological states. Although different virtues might require different approaches, one skill can universally facilitate the cultivation of habits of the heart and the mind: mindfulness—paying attention to our present-moment experience with an attitude of openness and acceptance.

The more mindful we are, the easier it becomes for us to recognize our more and less virtuous thoughts and feelings. This recognition, combined with a gentle and compassionate approach toward ourselves, will in time allow us to better regulate our thoughts and emotions, strengthening our more virtuous inner states while reducing the less virtuous ones.

The Role of Culture in Cultivating Virtue

Being exposed to exemplars of virtue is crucial to the cultivation of virtue. When we consider the character development of children, the importance of surrounding them with virtuous role models seems apparent. Yet adults also benefit greatly from contact with those who possess admirable character traits. These people both instruct and inspire us by their sheer being. Critically, exposure to virtue (or lack of it) takes place not only in our daily lives and within our small social circles, but also on social media. A valuable question to ask ourselves is what virtues the celebrities or influencers we follow on social media represent, if any.

This brings us to the importance of culture in the cultivation of virtue. Virtues need favorable cultural conditions to thrive, one of which is the wide availability and endorsement of virtue role models. Another is the cultural salience of virtue—or how much virtues are a part of the public conversation. In a virtue-salient culture, people talk and write about virtues, which itself is an indication of how much this topic is at the forefront of their minds.

Interestingly, there are ways to scientifically capture the cultural salience of virtue. In one such study, I collaborated with my twin sister, Dr. Selin Kesebir, from London Business School. Together, we tracked how commonly words related to virtue appear in American books over the 20th century. Specifically, we came up with a list of 50 virtue words (e.g., love, courage, perseverance, forgiveness) and examined these words’ appearance frequency in books digitized by Google. Our analyses revealed a significant decline for 74 percent of them from 1900 to 2000.

Upon closer inspection, we saw that the decline was more pronounced for certain groups of virtues. For instance, the appearance frequency of courage, bravery, and fortitude—all virtues related to the ability to act and prevail in difficult circumstances—dropped 66.6 percent, on average. The majority of virtues indicating care and concern for others (kindness, generosity, mercy, charity, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, courtesy, love, politeness, gentleness, benevolence) also showed precipitous declines; the average drop from 1901 to 2000 was 55.7 percent for this group of words. Finally, virtues encouraging a modest opinion of oneself (humility, humbleness, and modesty) also showed a substantial decline of 51.5 percent.

Our findings suggest that over the course of the 20th century, the attention paid by the culture to concepts of moral character and virtue in the United States has declined. This is in keeping with the larger trends in the American moral landscape observed by many scholars and social commentators, particularly the increase in individualism.

Virtues, almost by definition, make the world a better place for ourselves and for others. The diminished cultural salience of virtue during the 20th century might thus be a cause for concern. One hopeful development marking the first two decades of the 21st century, however, is the increased popularity of the field of positive psychology. In their endeavor to study what makes people thrive, positive psychologists have turned their attention to virtues and character strengths, in both individual and organizational contexts. The scientific study of virtue has thus been witnessing unprecedented growth, and the lessons learned have been increasingly infiltrating the culture. Think of the popularity of concepts like “gratitude journaling” or “random acts of kindness.” These concepts are only a recent phenomenon and are exceedingly promising developments—especially if we agree that virtues are our best bet for happiness.

Pelin Kesebir, Ph.D., is a writer, speaker, and consultant trained in social and personality psychology. She has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles on the topics of happiness, virtue, and existential psychology. Dr. Kesebir is an honorary fellow at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.