Virtue and Emotional Health

What causes emotional difficulties such as depression, chronic anxiety, and excessive anger, as well as the behavioral problems that often mask them (such as alcoholism)? What can be done to prevent and treat these difficulties? These are extremely important questions, given the amount of suffering that these difficulties cause. Furthermore, research shows that many of these problems increasingly are being diagnosed and treated. For example, research shows that approximately 5% of all American men and approximately 10% of all American women now are taking some kind of antidepressant medication.

Most experts now agree that emotional difficulties are due to a complex interaction among biological, psychological, and social causes. Although psychotherapy is an effective treatment – often times more effective than psychotropic medications – biological treatments are becoming more and more popular.

Increasingly, though, I wonder if we are overlooking certain factors and remedies because of the bio-psycho-social paradigm that dominates medicine. Aristotle once suggested that virtue (and its opposite, vice) underlies human happiness. As the field of “Positive Psychology” continues to establish itself as the scientific study of virtue, there seems to be increasing support for this notion. For instance, virtues such as compassion, forgiveness, self-control, gratitude, hope, and faith increasingly are being studied by scientists, with impressive results for emotional health. On the flip side, vices such as pride and greed have been shown to be counterproductive to emotional health.

Some of the best research related to this has been done by Bob Emmons at the University of California concerning gratitude. Typically, in this research, Emmons and his colleagues have randomly assigned research participants to a gratitude condition (where they record what they are grateful for several times per day, for instance) vs. other kinds of conditions where they write about negative emotions or perhaps news of the day. Results of this research have been very impressive, revealing that people in the gratitude condition experience better emotional and physical health, often times well after the completion of the study. What makes this research most convincing is that it is experimental. That is, participants are roughly equivalent in terms of emotional and physical health at the beginning of these studies, but at the end show significant differences, most likely because of differences in what they do during the study (being grateful vs. other behaviors).

For more information on Emmons’ gratitude research, see this link:

Although this science still needs to progress a great deal, I would not be at all surprised if there comes a day where there is a compelling science of virtue and vice that shows that virtue can powerfully influence emotional health. As a parent, I cannot help but wonder whether the cultivation of virtue may be the one of the best things I can do with my children to promote their long-term happiness and well-being. As a result, my wife and I focus a lot of our parenting around the promotion of virtue and the avoidance of vice. Also, although this never has been tested, I wonder if there will come a day where research will show that “virtue interventions” will perform as well as psychotherapy as a viable treatment for emotional difficulties, and whether such interventions will outperform the effects of medication, particular in the long-run.

On the other hand, this line of thinking runs some risks of moralizing mental illness. None of what I have said above should be taken to mean that there are no other causes of mental illness other than virtue or vice. There is compelling research showing that other factors, such as genetics, play an important role. Many conditions are more clearly due to other factors beyond a person’s control (like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia). However, increasingly, it seems that individuals rely on a biological understanding of the world and discount psychological, philosophical, or spiritual factors that may also play an important role.


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