The idea of a relation between morality or character and human health arised a long time ago in ancient Greece. Aristotle was among the first ones believing that an excellent character, reflecting in the highest standards of morality and the desire to promote good, is essential in order to achieve a complete well-being . Since then, numerous theoretical and empirical studies have been conducted to discover if there truly are some scientific observations to strengthen such a belief.
Dorota’s Węziak-Białowolska research, which was carried out in a collaboration with an international team from Harvard University and VIA Institute on Character, is focused on the role of character strengths on health and well-being. Although it is commonly known that behaving according to society’s approved moral standards is good, beneficial and desired, such research findings add more absorbing details to the picture.
Why should I promote good?
Promoting good, which means having thoughts and taking actions contributing to the good of oneself and others, can improve both mental and physical health as well as human flourishing (simply speaking the ability to live a good life) . Additionally, it can reduce work-related stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness . These are the findings of Węziak-Białowolska’s study that in 2021 received the Paper of the Year award given by the American Journal of Health Promotion as well as The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) .
Such a paper summarizes two longitudinal studies that provide an insight into the role of character strengths for well-being and health over a long period of time (a year and three years) assessing two culturally different samples (employees from USA and Mexico). Observations were collected using the Well-Being Assessment, the Flourishing Index, the CDC Health-Related Quality of Life and the Job-Related Affective Well-Being Scale. These reports provided in-depth insights into one’s psychological, emotional and physical health as well as orientation to promote good – strength of character. The results were controlled for variables known to influence changes in emotional, physical and social well-being like demographics (e.g. gender, age), marital status, having children, taking care of an elder, BMI, home ownership and lifestyle.
In this study, orientation to promote good was found to improve life satisfaction and happiness, self-assessed mental health and physical health, social connectedness and purpose and meaning in life . People having consistent thoughts and taking actions to promote good were associated with having lower risks of anxiety, loneliness and depression . What is interesting, these outcomes were still observed even 1 year later.
In harmony with your morality
Another Węziak-Białowolska’s paper studied the role of strengths of moral character (reflected in five aspects: moral compass, orientation to promote good, use of strengths, kindness and delayed gratification) for physical and mental health . What is interesting, the study used both observational data (self-reported physical and mental health assessed through surveys) and medical insurance claims data (objectively measured health conditions e.g. diagnostic information) collected from more than a 1000 working adults in the US . The results were controlled for similar variables as in a previously mentioned study.
People who live according to their moral compass not only reported better physical and mental health but also had a much lower risk of suffering from mental health diseases . To be more specific, the research proved that people using their character strengths have significantly lower odds of depression at a follow-up (after a year) (by 21-51%) which may be associated with the brain responses connected to the moral aspects of decision-making . What is intriguing, the results showed that exercising delayed gratification (ability to give up some happiness now for greater happiness later) has a protective role against depression and possible anxiety .
Finding a purpose in life
Research claims that people who adhere to their moral standards and ethical behaviors report a higher sense of purpose in life at a follow-up after 4 years . Observations were independent from demographics, socioeconomic status, health conditions, social relations and psychological well-being. In this context ‘a sense of purpose in life’ refers to one’s urge to derive meaning from life events and to feel a sense of direction in life. Maintaining the purpose in life is thought to be very beneficial as it has been recognized as a positive health asset that contributes to human flourishing. In the recent Węziak-Białowolska’s paper , the subjects who scored higher on the adherence to the moral standards and ethical behavior scale also reported stronger feelings of a purpose in life after 4 years. As a result, the observations strengthen the prior evidence that being a good human can translate into a feeling of a higher meaning in life.
Volunteering and your well-being
Dorota Węziak-Białowolska’s research very often highlights the positive outcomes that people can get by engaging in altruistic activities like volunteering. For example, maintaining moral standards and contributing to the good of others may improve mental and physical health through protecting against cognitive impairment, depression, risky health-related conditions and mitigating the risks of limitations in mobility . People who act to promote and do good despite their own difficulties and problems in life as well as those who perform acts of kindness (altruistic behaviors) reported to feel better both in mental and physical aspects and had lower odds of depression by 38% . Even though the beneficial effects of altruistic behaviors on the emotional and mental health are clear, the influence of it on self-perceived physical health is quite impressive. Perhaps, it is the right time to try volunteering!
Relation between character strengths and physical health
As mentioned previously, the ongoing research proved many times that there is a relation between character strengths/positive personality and physical fitness or self-reported physical health . As an example, people who use their strengths of moral character to help others bear lower risks of cardiovascular disease . However, these are not the only benefits of being good and promoting it. A recent Węziak-Białowolska’s study showed that people who adhere to moral standards and behaviors (e.g. practice honesty and integrity) had a 18% lower risk of lung disease at a 4-year follow-up according to the objectively measured data obtained from the Health and Retirement Study . These people also reported lower limitations in mobility and less difficulties while performing daily physical activities . Additionally, middle-aged and older adults who report a higher sense of purpose in life usually possess better physical health, lower risk of unhealthy behaviors, physical impairments, cardiovascular diseases and more . That is why having strong moral principles and doing good might be an important factor for promoting healthy aging and reducing risk of physical diseases .
How to improve your character strength
Character strengths and positive personality many times have been theoretically argued to help people being and doing good.
Węziak-Białowolska’s team highlighted four well-tested behavioral exercises that can improve your character strengths .
- practice gratitude – for example, give an appreciation letter to someone kind to whom you have not properly thanked yet
- write down three good things that happened each day for a week supported by a short explanation
- use character strengths in a novel way e.g. be kind/honest – these actions were found to have a similar effect performing in Internet and in real-life 
- volunteer – at least 100 hours/year of volunteering was found to reduce the risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations 
By addressing the results of Dorota Węziak-Białowolska’s research, policymakers and practitioners should consider an orientation to promoting good and adherence to moral standards as relevant factors for enhancing population mental and physical health, protecting from work-related stress and promoting healthy aging . By implementing policies that promote the use of character strengths, the society’s well-being and mental health may improve.
This research was supported by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation under the grants 74275 ‘Building a Culture of Health: A Business Leadership Imperative’ and 4322 ‘Engaging Business in A Broad Impact Community-Based Well-Being’; by Well-Being Research Program A33796 Aetna Inc., by the Levi Strauss Foundation under the grant No. 44057265 ‘The Impact of new work designs on worker wellbeing—Plock, Poland Factory Workers’ and ‘Follow up of Well- being measures in Mexico, China, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka’, by the John Templeton Foundation under the grant No. 61075 ‘Advancing health, religion, and spirituality research from public health to end of life’, and by the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014–2021 under the grant UMO-2020/37/K/HS6/02772.
- Pakaluk M. Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press; 2008. (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts).
- Weziak-Bialowolska D, Bialowolski P, VanderWeele TJ, McNeely E. Character Strengths Involving an Orientation to Promote Good Can Help Your Health and Well-Being. Evidence From two Longitudinal Studies. 2021 Mar;35(3):388–98. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0890117120964083
- Weziak-Bialowolska D, Lee MT, Bialowolski P, Chen Y, VanderWeele TJ, McNeely E. Prospective associations between strengths of moral character and health: longitudinal evidence from survey and insurance claims data. 2022 Aug 2;1–14. Available from: https://search.proquest.com/docview/2697366408
- Weziak-Bialowolska D, Bialowolski P. Can adherence to moral standards and ethical behaviors help maintain a sense of purpose in life? Evidence from a longitudinal study of middle-aged and older adults. 2022 Aug 19;17(8): e0273221. Available from: https://search.proquest.com/docview/2704227875
- Weziak-Bialowolska D, Bialowolski P, Niemiec RM. Being good, doing good: The role of honesty and integrity for health. 2021 Dec;291:114494. Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114494
Dorota Węziak-Białowolska, Wiktoria Bulik