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13 people found this helpful
on February 16, 2015
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the line virtue became a dirty word.
You can’t say it without getting weird looks. You can’t even think it without feeling like a hypocrite. Virtue? Isn’t that something Victorians believed in? Look where that got us: a world so full of oppression that the sun never sets on it.
I used to be in that camp. Virtue was a guilty pleasure of mine. I believed in it (sort of). But I always felt like either a faker or a cultural imperialist for doing so. Whenever the word popped into my mind, I gave myself one good mental flogging as penance.
The field of psychology seems to have been beset by similar demons. Much of the research agenda has been dedicated to identifying pathology (things gone very wrong), and mitigating it where possible.
That is, until now (or, to be more accurate, until about ten years ago). Martin Seligman is one of the founders of the field of Positive Psychology, a new branch of research that tries to identify what can go very right.
His findings are compiled in Authentic Happiness. The book has vindicated virtue, at least in my mind.
Seligman has spent the last decade plus trying to identify the sources of human flourishing. He has found a combination of six such sources appearing in literature from the Indus Valley to the Japanese Archipelago to the Mediterranean Sea (how about South America, Africa, or the annals of the Iroquois Nation? I’m not sure. I bet you’d find these traits in abundance there, too, if you looked).
The six (drumroll please) more-or-less ubiquitous human virtues as uncovered by Seligman’s team of graduate students are….
Ha! As if I’m going to just tell you. Go read the book!
Sike. I’ll tell you.
1) Wisdom and Knowledge
3) Love and Humanity
6) Spirituality and Transcendence (defined as moving beyond narrow self-interest)
Quibble as you will, this seems like a good place to start. The first step to becoming a better person is believing that it is possible. For a long time I didn’t. I thought that the best I could do was keep to myself; I cowered in fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities with my notions of good and bad, or of taking on a model I couldn’t live up to. I’m done with that.
I may go down, but at least I’ll go down swinging.