Virtues To Live By

Most religions, spiritual practices and schools of philosophy traditionally have a set of virtues that adherents can cultivate as part of their practice. By definition virtue means moral excellence, but in reality virtue is what actually makes up our character. When we choose to practice certain virtues we can direct our actions in a way that is in alignment with the kind of life we want to be living.

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Over the years I have read about and explored many different approaches to living and their associated virtues. I have my own personal philosophy which is always changing and evolving as I grow and learn new things, and this philosophy usually includes a list of virtues which I aim to cultivate. The list of possible virtues is endless….integrity, compassion, justice, humility, moderation, persistence and on it goes. Currently I have a ‘working set’ of four virtues which I aim to live by, and that I think are conducive to living a life less busy. They are acceptance, simplicity, benevolence and wisdom.


“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” ~ Chuang Tzu

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within your control. And some things are not.” ~ Seneca

If one is to achieve anything even approaching a sense of happiness then it is important that we develop the virtue of acceptance. The Stoics are famous for teaching that it is not external events that impact us but rather the way we view them. They spoke of fate and how we needed to accept the things we have no control over. Taoist philosophy teaches that the universe is constantly changing and that we need to accept the way things are and go along with them, rather than fighting against the current. Taoism teaches the concept of wu wei, which translates as action without action. In the context of modern life, it is about going with the flow, accepting the current moment and trusting in the process of life. Once we begin to accept the true nature of reality, we can let go of the worries and anxieties we feel over things we can’t control. Accepting what is and trusting in the process of life can give us a sense of freedom which allows us to enjoy what actually is.


“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“See simplicity in the complicated, seek greatness in small things. In the universe, the difficult things are done as if they were easy.” ~ Lao Tzu

There is a long list of traditions which hold simplicity to be a central virtue. Many religions and philosophical traditions encouraged followers to give up material possessions and live a simple life. Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous book Walden about his time living a simple life in the woods and the benefits of simplicity for a joyful life. It is so easy to get caught up in the desire for material possessions at the expense of our time. We need to consider what will have mattered more when we look back at the end of our lives, what we had, or what we did. Modern writers such as James Wallman (Stuffocation) and Carl Honore (In Praise of Slow) ask us to reconsider what has become the norm and to take a simpler approach. Much of the anxiety of modern life is due to having too much; too much to do, too much stuff, and too much choice.  The simple living and minimalist movements are a response to the materialistic focus of modern life and encourage people to prioritise doing over having, caring over competition, and taking time to reflect rather than rushing forward aimlessly. When we remove the excess from our lives we are able to focus on the essentials, the things that really matter. Only then will we discover the freedom to have a life that matches who we really are.


“Give, even if you only have a little.” ~ The Buddha

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” ~ The Dalai Lama

There are many writers who talk about true happiness only being possible if we are helping or being of service to others. Often when we focus too much on our own happiness we end up rather miserable. Western society puts a high priority on the individual rather than the collective and I believe this has been to our detriment. Being able to help others is a meaningful and rich source of true joy. The virtue of compassion is closely linked to benevolence, but with benevolence we take it a step further and actually live our lives in the service of others. Parenting provides a daily opportunity to put others before oneself as do many of the helping professions such as education, health care and other social service fields. It is important to always look for small ways that we can do things to make others feel good. Helping someone cross the road, giving up your seat on a bus or letting someone pull in front of you in traffic are all examples of everyday benevolence. And for those who subscribe to Buddhist teachings you’ll know that each small act of compassion is creating positive karma. And if you don’t, you’ll soon realise that helping others feels good regardless of whether you receive any rewards or not.


“Wisdom begins in wonder.” ~ Socrates

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~ Aristotle

Unfortunately living a very busy life is not conducive to the development of wisdom. Especially in the age of technology when we have a constant flow of information coming our way, and with so much information and so little time, we can find that it is all going in one ear and other the other. It is important to consider the different between knowledge, understanding and wisdom. The latter involves more than just taking in information, but also reflecting, contemplating and considering what it means and how it can be used to live a better life. It was Socrates who said that the un-examined life is not worth living. Wisdom of the self, or self-awareness, often appears to be seriously lacking in our selfie-obsessed modern world. It is so important to create space in our life to think and to reflect. When we understand our own motivations and responses we can begin to live a wiser and more meaningful life. Without curiosity and wonder we are like lost souls floating through a meaningless world. We should all be encouraged to be curious, open-minded, reflective and contemplative if we are to develop wisdom. And if you are a parent or a teacher, these are such important skills to inspire in young people.

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Developing your own personal philosophy including a set of virtues can be a meaningful way of keeping focused on the kind of life you want to be living. Feel free to use the four virtues I have just mentioned or choose some from a spiritual or philosophical tradition that you find meaningful. I particularly like Taoism’s Three Treasures which are compassion, moderation (or simplicity) and humility. Rather than rules about what you can’t do, virtues become qualities that we can aspire to as we live our lives.

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