Virtues, An Express Train to Happiness

Choo! Choo!

"Happiness can be described as a deep sense of flourishing that results from an exceptionally healthy mind. It is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion or even a mood, but an optimal state of being".

- Mattheiu Ricard 

An exceptionally healthy mind is one that is aware not only of it's actions, but of thoughts and patterns that precedes it. In this exploration, a tension can emerge between biology (immediate desires) and agency (long term goals).


That tub of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer would have provided precious sugar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but today, may increase our risk for diabetes. That craving for sugar has our evolutionary inheritance. With awareness, there is a space between thought and action and an opportunity to walk a different way. That ability can transform the lives of other too. 

Humans are social animals, our thoughts and actions form the basis of how we relate to one another. This has been underscored by research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a comprehensive study of emotional well-being conducted over 80 years. It demonstrated that the greatest area which contributed to a persons's well-being was the quality of their close relationships.

So we covered that a healthy mind requires some training in awareness and action, and that how we engage in our relationships contributes to our well being and that of others. The framework we could use to achieve both ends is to find a set of ideals that challenge us to become better versions of ourselves. 

This article was largely inspired by a paper written by Katherine Dahlgaard, Christopher Peterson & Martin Seligman, called "Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture & History". Through their effort, they classified psychological strengths that speak to ideals we can strive for.  



Going through the article, the team had their work cut out for them as some of these philosophical and religious schools did not explicitly detail virtues, but heavily implied them. The challenge of interpretation of the texts was made more complex by the significant variability between cultures and even of the ranking of the virtues themselves. The six broad virtue classes that emerged forms a wonderful cross cultural guide to become a better person for oneself and the world at large.


Emotional strength to do what is right despite internal or external forces.

Civic strengths that underpin a community, such as fairness and teamwork. 

Extending love and kindness to others with empathy and compassion.  

Exercising self control, humility and prudence in the face of excess. 

The application and exploration of knowledge through clarity of thought. 

Forging connections to the larger universe through pursuing deeper meaning. 

The stoics believed that what separated humans and animals was the ability to reason with the virtues as the aspiration. Biological needs for things like food or sex were and are crucial to the survival of the human race. However, in abundance and taken to excess, the fan the fires of craving in us that compromise our ability to see beyond our own immediate needs.


Whether exploring these virtues as a moral code of conduct, or a exploration of a balance of two extremes or even just ideas to reflect on, their power has echoed through the ages, and will continue to do so long after we are gone :) 

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The habits of happiness | Matthieu Ricard | TED2004

What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness | Robert Waldinger | TEDxBeaconStreet

Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History. Review of General Psychology 9(3):203-213 · September 2005 with 152 Reads DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.3.203