The basic virtues are universal. So why are they news to us?

by John McManamy


A VERY IMPORTANT - indeed crucial - key to happiness, Martin Seligman, author of "Authentic Happiness," explains, is building on our strengths and virtues. These are embedded in the old-fashioned concept of "character," which takes some of the element of "no-fault" out of the mental illness equation.

With his colleague Christopher Peterson, Dr Seligman explored 200 works of literature that dealt with virtue. These included: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido, The Koran, Ben Franklin, the Upanishads, and a lot more. Reports Dr Seligman:

To our surprise, almost every single one of these traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues.

These comprised:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

From there, Seligman and his colleagues identified 24 character strengths, clustered around the six virtues. Thus, under the virtue of "wisdom and knowledge," we have the character strengths of "curiosity/interest in the world," "love of learning," "judgment/critical thinking/open-mindedness," "ingenuity/originality/practical intelligence/street smarts," 'social intelligence/personal intelligence/emotional intelligence," and "perspective."

"Courage" would include valor and bravery and integrity while "love and humanity" would include kindness and generosity. The other virtues are filled in with various strengths. As Dr Seligman explains:



I believe that each person possesses several signature strengths. These are strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if he or she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love play, and parenting.

Thus, the key to a good life (and authentic happiness) is using one's signature strengths all the time. This translates to such things as "recrafting your job to deploy your strengths and virtues." This not only makes work more enjoyable, but may transform routine work into a calling (which Dr Seligman defines as a passionate commitment to work for its own sake).

Gretchin Rubin, in her 2009 "The Happiness Project," describes her revelation from years before that the career she excelled in (law) was not something she would do if no one was paying her to do it, such as writing. Over time, she made the change. The bio on her book lists her as the author of four other books.

You can test yourself for your signature strengths by going to Dr Seligman's Authentic Happiness site.




All this may sound pie-in-the-sky to you right now, particularly if you are in a bad depression or are just coming out of one. But I ask you to reconsider the conventional wisdom:



Modern psychiatry is based on prescribing meds to 1) get us out of crisis and 2) to avoid relapsing into crisis. Psychiatry is very good at its first objective, but is a notorious underachiever at its second. The very few long-term studies we have indicate that at best our meds delay the time to relapse. Eventually, we crash or flip, hopefully with less frequency and intensity. But crash and flip we do.

So, maybe we need to be thinking pie-in-the-sky, even as we find ourselves in that long slow glide over the bottomless pit. Certainly, we need to be looking up rather down. I do not purport to be adept in my own personal quest for happiness, but to the money question - Am I better off now than I was, say, three years ago? - I can truthfully answer yes.

But I still have my work cut out for me, and so do you. Dare to be happy, and Godspeed ...

On to: Happiness - A Life of Meaning ...

Previous Happiness articles: Happiness: Life's Greatest Challenge * Happiness: Putting in the Effort * Happiness: Optimism and Flow

Published as a series of blogs 2009-2010, reworked into a series of articles Jan 26, 2011, reviewed Dec 5, 2016


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