Cultivating Character: How to Develop Values and Virtues for a More Meaningful Life

Cultivating Character: How to Develop Values and Virtues for a More Meaningful Life

The moral virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed, prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit. –Aristotle

These days it can sound a little corny or old fashioned to think about values, virtues, and developing your character. Most of us are used to seeing through the lens of psychology, so we think about personality more than character—we may even assume they mean the same thing. But they are different, and there’s a reason a philosophical giant like Aristotle encouraged cultivating character. Today, however, personality tests proliferate as clickbait while character gets pushed aside. 

To understand why this is so and why developing character can actually be key to a more meaningful life, we need to start with clear definitions. 

Personality refers to your natural inclinations, personal qualities, and traits. While personality may change somewhat over time with life experiences, this is not a change we direct. At any moment, we simply are the collection of qualities that make up our personality. This is why taking a personality test can be fun. It’s like getting a snapshot (although many of them are of questionable validity or accuracy) that tells you about who you are right now regardless of who you might want or try to appear to be.  

Character, meanwhile, refers specifically to the values that define how you behave toward others and yourself. It could be seen as interacting with personality or even as a subset of it. But because character is determined by values that result in behavior, it can be developed. And a person who knows their values and acts in accordance with them will generally have a life that feels more fulfilling. 

The catch is that cultivating character comes down to building habits, which is a lot less fun than taking a test that reveals interesting things about you and then lets you get on with your day. Building habits is work, and who wants more of that? 

Unfortunately, if we don’t think about our character and personal values, we can go through life barely recognizing how much we are acting on received or habitual values rather than those we choose. Also, in modern society most of us must continually ask ourselves, how do I survive, how do I get ahead, how do I succeed

We can’t stop asking those questions and, to some extent, living according to the answers we get. But consciously cultivating our personal values and thus our character can safeguard us against falling into living as if we value making money or gathering possessions more than any other aspect of life. 

Cultivating character can start with the question, “How could I be a better person—a person who treats others and myself better.” Next, you need to define what you mean by “better.” This is when it’s time to explore your values. A quick Google search of list of values, will bring up lists ranging from 30 to 400. 

Many values are neither inherently good nor bad, such as adventurousness. The gift of knowing it is your value is that you can ask yourself whether you are living according to it. For example, if adventurousness is your value and you haven’t done anything but sit in a cubicle doing the same thing everyday for years, a change (or even a vacation) could be a values-aligned, life-enhancing act.

On the other hand, a subset of values are virtues—values that are considered “good” because they can contribute to the wellbeing of others, leading to the common good of society and giving you a feeling of internal satisfaction for making a positive contribution. Examples include kindness and generosity.  

To turn a value or virtue into a habit, it’s great to choose one to three to focus on at a time. Then, one at a time, break the value down into behaviors that you can start engaging in.

For example, say you want to practice kindness. You might decide that one aspect of it is being a good listener. So then you break down the elements of being a good listener and what gets in your way. (For example, not getting clear what the other person wants, interrupting a lot, making the conversation about you instead of them. No shame—we all do this; that’s why we need to develop our character. Next you say, here are the behaviors I’ll practice doing less of and here are the behaviors I’ll practice doing instead (in this example, this could be asking more questions, repeating back to them to ensure you understand, etc.).

Cultivating character can sound like a relic from the ancient Greeks or the age of chivalry. But undertaken as a practice, it can greatly enhance the life of the mind, contribute to society, and create a sense of personal connection to some of history's greatest thinkers.