Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Theory: How virtue and systems thinking can enable a more flourishing world (part 1/2)

The human spirit isn't measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart...

“The human spirit isn’t measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart”

Positive psychology is a science which strives to understand what makes life worth living, and the enabling factors that allow individuals to thrive. At the very heart of positive psychology is well-being (Seligman, 2011, pp. 13). One model for describing subjective well-being is embodied in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement; each of which individuals strive for their own sake (Seligman). The ultimate outcome variable here is increased well-being (optimal human functioning and experience), and the standard for measuring it is flourishing.

Seligman, one the visionaries behind positive psychology, recently ignited a radically inspiring challenge, stating that the mission of positive psychology is that “by the year 2051, 51 percent of the population will be flourishing” (Seligman, 2011, pp. 240). But can we even dream of reaching such a lofty vision? I believe we can, but doing what we have done so far will merely get us the same results as before.

In this self-absorbed world, where people are often more concerned about feeling good than doing good, striving for more individual well-being might just end up feeding the wrong wolf. Would we perhaps be better off in calling for more moral responsibility, as unappealing as it might sound? In the following two posts I will claim that harnessing virtue and the systemic networks in which we all live may offer a functioning framework for creating a more flourishing world by 2051. And as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Virtuous Life as a Key to Subjective Well-being and Flourishing Societies

Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) have questioned whether pleasure, as one indicator of well-being, is the right thing to be measured. Instead, they bring our attention to the social context: how effective is the individual improving the lives of others? I assert that we need to change the very moral and ethical script upon which our society is written. The violent school shooting in Connecticut just before Christmas and the several mortifying rape cases in India and in Ohio (which made it to the public consciousness nearly simultaneously) are yet another painful reminder of this.

  • The key to well-being is to promote a life of virtue, which leads to more ethical choices and altruistic behavior, as well as acknowledging the significant role we each play within the systems of social networks in which we are embedded. The road to measuring this is to evaluate how much good we have done, and how much value we have added to our surrounding environment: positive thinking should manifest itself as positive action. The focus then becomes the cultivation of ethical actions which benefit us as a society.

Emphasizing well-being over virtue can only take us so far; changing the world requires cooperative effort and we may likely have to learn a new, more altruistic way of communicating with each other. Getting serious with PERMA51 (creating a more flourishing world by 2051) will require us to tap into what is good in every one of us, cultivate it for its own sake, and facilitate and measure its spread through social networks. This calls for acknowledging individual responsibility as part of the process of improving the world.

Aristotle described happiness as the result of actively engaging in habits which cultivate virtues (Melchert 2002). “We are not studying to know what virtue is, but to become good”. (p.188). Positive psychology has taken the same active stance and declares that it is in our power to change our lives, through building strengths of character (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Lyubomirsky, 2007). Often these strengths are sought to obtain well-being, but not merely for their own sake.

In today´s world, ´virtue´ has taken on a rather soft connotation. To Aristotle, virtues are not emotions or capacities, but are dynamic in nature. Not only should one maintain the practice of a chosen habit, but in order to truly enjoy the benefits one should relentlessly strive for excellence (Melchert 2002). Virtues can be learned, and are not rigid features inherent in one’s character. This means that in order to keep them, one must also diligently maintain them through continuous practice. Plutarch once said `Character is simply habit long enough continued.´ Practically speaking, virtues are attitudes, dispositions and character traits which capacitate us to act according to the ideals we have adopted. Being virtuous is a state in which our emotions are guided by reason (Melchert).



Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131

Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy (4th ed., pp. 186-195). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwartz, B., & Sharpe, K. E. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 377-395.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.

9 thoughts on “Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Theory: How virtue and systems thinking can enable a more flourishing world (part 1/2)

    1. Dear Lea, I´m completely captured by your energy and zest after reading your about section. It´s fabulous to share this journey with you (thank you for re-blogging my story. Really appreciate it).

      “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”
      E. O. Wilson


      1. I feel enthused to have crossed paths with you too! I am optimistic about the impact of having an easier process for spreading great ideas such as yours when I witness the connections and communications possible with technology! All the best to you!


    1. Dear Margaret from Poland,

      It warms my heart that you stumbled upon my blog and found it helpful. If you are interested in the methods of positive psychology and the scientific study of well-being I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have. I will add a couple of useful links here:

      The Authentic Happiness website (great resource for learning about positive psychology; it´s past and future prospects)

      VIA institute studies how the cultivation of strengths and virtues can enable a more positive human future. You can also take their survey for free of cost and find out your own signature strengths.

      Since you are a clinician, this might be of interest to you:
      Positive psychology in Clinical Practice, Annual Review, Clinical Psychology 2005. 1:629–51

      Click to access ppclinicalpractice.pdf



  1. Very impressive that you want to reconnect with some of the most intriguing sources of our intellectual development! Aristotle, in particular, both discusses the notion of good life and provides a platform for further development in this field of investigation: Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” (1981) being one of the most well known contemporary ones that pursue a “positive philosophy.” Still, I can recommend reading Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics — book 1 and its argument of “the function of a human being” is probably very eye opening even for those already familiar with the set of ideas pertaining to this approach!


    1. Signum! Thanks so much for your input. We really need to have a good, long discussion before I head to the other side of the globe. Going to dive into Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics — book 1 this Easter!

      Lots of warm wishes!


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