Notes on Moderation, Balance, & Harmony

This post examines the virtues of moderation, balance, and harmony. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.

I also use this opportunity to go on a (related) tangent about the VIA Institute on Character, and its questionable focus on playing to character strengths over strengthening character weaknesses.

What are these virtues?

If you practice these virtues, you respect that each part of your life is meant to serve the whole of it, not the other way around.

Even with generally beneficial or neutral things, it’s possible to take them too far. Moderation means you are on guard against this. Take fitness, for example, the virtue I covered a few days ago. How can anyone complain about being more fit? But a compulsive focus on fitness as an end in itself can make you forget the whole point of being fit. “People who are always taking care of their health are like misers, who are hoarding a treasure which they have never spirit enough to enjoy” (Laurence Sterne).

If you are immoderate, you risk becoming a fanatic, an obsessive, a monomaniac. Such things in themselves might be mere eccentricities. But they are often accompanied by harmful neglect of other facets of life. Balance means that you have a good perspective on your life as a whole, and that you use this perspective to attend to the points that are most in need of attention, rather than letting habit or lack of moderation constrain your effort to where it’s less helpful. Work/​life balance, balance between focus on self and others, and balance between living-in-the-present, learning-from-the-past, and preparing-for-the-future are some common challenges.

Harmony is closely related to integrity. Pursuing the musical analogy, when your life is harmonious, the different parts of it are attuned to each other; they are different instruments but playing the same symphony. Harmony is also not mere melody or monotone: being a “Johnny One-Note” isn’t where it’s at. To everything there is a season, as the song goes.

Some related virtues include temperance (moderation in pursuit of pleasure), conciliation /​ cooperation /​ compromise (social harmony advanced through moderation in the pursuit of one’s priorities), perspective, and flexibility.

Aristotle made moderation a keystone of his virtue theory, in the form of the “golden mean.” In his theory, all virtues are to be found at a moderate mid-point balanced between opposite extremes. For example, you can be anxiously over-sensitive to fear, or recklessly insensitive to it; the virtue of courage is the sweet spot moderately in-between.

These virtues apply in the intellectual realm as well. Moderation keeps you from becoming dogmatic, too attached to your theories. Balance keeps you from being close-minded and getting stuck in ideological bubbles; it encourages interdisciplinary thinking. The pursuit of harmony keeps you hunting for ways in which your ideas conflict, for the contradictions and paradoxes that are sometimes the first clues that you’re mistaken about something.

How to strengthen these virtues

In investing, it’s expected that periodically you should rebalance your portfolio so that your investments continue to match your risk tolerance and goals as they change and as you change. Do you ever rebalance your life with the same sort of deliberate, rational attention you would give to your retirement account?

Which hobbies still give you a good return on investment, and which just take up space in your closet? Are there parts of your life that seem at cross-purposes to each other? What are you currently neglecting that you would be wise to devote more attention to?

Where ought you to be investing your time and energy for the best return on investment? Where are you currently investing that time and energy? The first question is difficult to answer precisely and confidently, but the second should be easier: you just have to observe closely and take notes. Then you can ask: Is my answer to that second question a plausible answer to the first one?

What might you learn (and what might you change) if you periodically took the time to do an audit of your life?

The VIA Institute on Character

The “positive psychology” movement aims to build a version of psychological intervention that is designed less to fix broken people than to help ordinary people become more extraordinary. One way of thinking about it would be that remedial psychology is to positive psychology as physical therapy is to personal training.

The VIA Institute on Character uses a virtue-oriented approach to positive psychology. It calls the virtues “character strengths” and has identified the following set as those with good cross-cultural and -temporal support:

The Institute says that each person has certain “signature strengths” — a small set of key virtues that they are especially strong in and that they adopt as part of their identity. The Institute has created a personality test that’s supposed to tell you what your signature strengths are (you can take the test on-line and, if you fork over your email address, you’ll get a summary of your strengths & weaknesses along with an offer to buy a more complete results report).

Their work in trying to make character strengths and character strength-based interventions more rigorous and measurable is at the core of a lot of ongoing scientific research into the virtues. Bully for that.

But here’s why I’m mentioning them today, in this post about harmony and balance: Having identified your signature strengths (and weaknesses), the VIA Institute then counsels exclusively that you play to your strengths. Here’s a quote from a book associated with the Institute:

“The newest research is showing that techniques for helping people boost their strengths can have important advantages over techniques that focus on correcting their deficits.” ―The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality, p. 18

No footnote, though, so I’m left wondering what this “newest research” might be. Some of the citations that I sometimes see mentioned in support of this idea are:

  • A study of workers in New Zealand found those who gave more positive answers to questions like “I know my strengths well” and “I always try to use my strengths” were more likely to be “flourishing” (using various measures of things related to lifestyle, health, psychology, and employment).

  • In The Elements of Great Managing (Wagner & Harter, 2006), the authors say that you’ll be more effective as a manager if you assign employees to tasks based on the employees’ existing strengths, rather than trying to mentor their weaknesses.

  • “The use of coaching principles to foster employee engagement” builds on that to assert that if an employee has a weakness in a certain area, rather than coaching that employee to become better there, you should encourage them to repurpose one of their existing character strengths to cover the weakness: “For example, if an individual has a strength in collaboration, but not in resilience, then the collaboration strength could be used to manage their lack of resilience by talking through their issues with their colleagues (ideally ones who have a strength in resilience).”

The examples I usually see deployed to support this idea tend to have to do with employee motivation, satisfaction, and engagement. (This may just reflect where most of the research is being done; practitioners of positive psychology struggle a bit to find a lucrative niche in which to practice their craft, and management/​employee motivation seems to be one.) It makes sense that if your job tasks match the character strengths you feel the most competence in, you will have more engagement and satisfaction at your job.

I take issue, though, with the VIA Institute’s seeming extrapolation of these results from the workplace to life in general. In life, you don’t have as much opportunity to specialize as you do on-the-job. In life, all of the virtues are important, not just the subset in your job description. Trying to patch a virtue you don’t have by repurposing one you do have can be an inefficient stop-gap solution, not a good long-term strategy.

There have been a few studies that directly compare people who try to extend the use of their existing strengths with people who try to strengthen their weaknesses, but the ones I have seen don’t support the VIA Institute’s claim that focusing on existing strengths is clearly superior. For example:

  • One study randomly assigned 76 students to groups in which they would either work on expanding the use of their existing “signature strengths” or would work on a combination of using existing strengths and strengthening existing weaknesses. The authors say that both groups reported higher satisfaction-with-life scores following the work they did, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. They conclude that “focusing on relative character weaknesses (along with strengths) does not diminish — and may assist in increasing — life satisfaction.”

  • A larger and better-controlled study (375 people assigned to either signature-strength work, strengthening-weakness work, or a placebo) also found that both styles of strengths-improving interventions were roughly equally effective (in this case, at increasing life satisfaction over a six-month follow-up period).

Another VIA-associated book, Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners, has an overview of the literature on character strengths that is more nuanced in this respect than what you’ll see on their website. (It’s a little pricey, so I don’t own a copy yet, but I’ve seen some excerpts.)

Future research may change my mind about this, and the published research I’ve seen so far doesn’t strike me as definitive, but my current best guess is that having a full, broad set of virtues is important to human flourishing, and that it’s short-sighted to concentrate on those virtues you’re already competent in while avoiding work on the ones that need improvement.

For example, if you’re not very courageous, you may have a strong sense of caution or prudence that you have already been using to avoid frightening situations. Further relying on your caution or prudence to avoid what frightens you, rather than working on your courage, is a way of playing to your strengths, sure, but it’s also a way of cementing your weaknesses. You would be more capable, and would be able to use your prudence and caution in more valuable (not merely compensatory) ways, if you tackled your courageousness directly.

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