The term “character” has numerous and widely varied meanings. It defines each of these letters and symbols I am typing. It can be used to refer to features of wines, and it captures fictional folks in movies in books. I often call funny or stand-out individuals “characters,” too. In psychology, however, “character” most often adheres to this definition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “the complex mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group or nation.”
People don’t talk about this type of character enough. To me, its importance lies in the realm of certain traits we pay homage to—kindness, perseverance, self-control—but secretly think might hold us back in life. We worry that gratitude is a waste of time, being generous will mean less for ourselves, that self-control is overrated and that having to work hard at something means we are less productive and less able. The video below, called “The Science of Character” by filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, combats those ideas. It debuts online and at more than 1,000 live events to promote the first annual Character Day, organized by Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change along with the U.S. Department of State, The Bezos Family Foundation, and The Aspen Institute, among other groups. The eight-minute film mentions an overwhelming 24 character traits worth cultivating, but I will speak to the virtues of just three.
Feeling and expressing gratitude bolsters wellbeing, and is something that we can practice, and get better at. Gratitude can have a powerfully positive effect on your relationships, particularly the one involving your significant other.
Perseverance, or grit, is a trait that is critical to success in school and in life. Quite apart from intelligence, those individuals who lack the ability to persist in the face of frustration or failure are the ones who most often present with learning issues. (For more on this topic, see “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control,” Scientific American Mind, September/October 2012.)
Self-control is that ability to keep long-term goals in mind and act to further them even in the face of temptation. It is related to persistence, but adds the challenge of also needing to avoid a more alluring activity. A person with self-control is the one who can say “no” to the movies to finish a project or who can cut back on desserts to get closer to her ambition of losing 20 pounds. But self-control also helps people handle their emotions, buffering them against mental health problems and bolstering their relationships. According to “The Science of Character,” the way to keep your emotions and impulses in check is “as simple as taking a moment, focusing your attention and asking yourself: Is what I am about to do a reflection of who I am and who I want to be?”
Character is not fixed, but something we can all burnish and develop. Working on certain traits can make you not only happier, but more successful. It isn’t really about altruism, because even if your improvements rub off on others—and they should—this process ultimately benefits everyone.
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