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The Philosophy of Virtuous Use of Strengths

The work of positive psychologists like Seligman appears to show that the happiest people are those who have discovered their unique strengths (such as kindness and curiosity) and virtues (such as humanity and wisdom), and use these strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals (Seligman 2001).

We see this idea developed at length in Aristotle, who defined happiness simply as “the exercise of virtue (arête).”  This Greek philosopher teaches us that happiness is more a matter of actualizing your full potential as a human being rather than merely obtaining pleasure, wealth, or other external goods.  A key notion for Aristotle is that pleasure is an intrinsic component to the exercise of virtue; hence it would not be possible to possess the virtues unless one took a natural delight in them (Nicomachean Ethics Book II).  This closely parallels Seligman’s idea that our ‘signature strengths’ are those virtues we enjoy, and that therefore our happiness will be increased if we find novel ways to apply them (Peterson 2005)

The Confucian thinker Mencius’ concept of the greater and the lesser self also serves to clarify the distinction between two kinds of happiness.  The lesser self seeks satisfaction and happiness through satisfying biological desires such as food and sex, and the greater self seeks a deeper form of happiness through the realization of a higher purpose.  Whereas many western thinkers such as Kant see morality as the triumph of reason over our physical inclinations, Mencius thinks that both the greater and lesser parts of ourselves are natural, seeking different kinds of nutrition to grow and flourish.  In the same way that we enjoy eating for physical nourishment, we need to perform acts of humanity to feed our spiritual selves, and the more we perform such acts the better we feel.  From Mencius’ perspective we have been programmed to think that virtues such as humanity and righteousness are simply duties we have to fulfill, instead of natural inclinations that can bring us a profound sense of joy.    Thus, like Seligman, Mencius does not see these two concepts of happiness as contradictory.  The Junzi uses the lesser self in the service of the greater self.  The harmony between these two selves produces a deep sense of joy.  As Mencius writes: “when they (the sprouts of virtue) are rejoiced in, they will grow. Once they begin growing, how can they be stopped? As they cannot be stopped, unconsciously one’s feet begin to dance and one’s hands begin to move.”

The third connection to ancient wisdom concerns Seligman’s virtues of spirituality and love, which signify the three “theological virtues” of Thomas Aquinas: hope, faith, and charity (love).  These theological virtues together with the 4 cardinal virtues of the Ancient Greek philosophers make up the 7 virtues which closely parallel the universal virtues that Seligman and Peterson found in their worldwide study.   It turns out that the “virtues of the heart,” viz, hope, gratitude and love are the ones that are most highly correlated with Subjective Well Being (SWB) rather than the intellectual virtues such as love of learning and curiosity (Park et.al 2004)