When it comes to personal qualities, not all are made equal.
Some are a lot more useful when it comes to life.
More like superpowers than traits, the personal qualities I am talking about are the best kind of self-investments there are.
Developing these personal qualities in yourself isn’t about being better than others, but realizing your full potential. For that reason, cultivating these personal qualities is a gratifying exercise of itself.Some personal qualities - like courage - have pervasive benefits across life Click To Tweet
The personal qualities I include below have been drawn from the signature strengths (from positive psychology), in addition to various philosophical and spiritual traditions, including Buddhism.Personal qualities are entirely cultivable: you can develop them through systematically applied efforts Click To Tweet
Before we get to it, let’s look at the difference that having these personal qualities can make in your life.
balancing your personal qualities can really change your life
I wrote about before how we all have certain personal qualities more naturally developed than the others. And our tendency is often to double-down on the virtues that we already have, rather than developing complementary virtues.We tend to work at our strengths, and avoid dealing with our weaknesses Click To Tweet
For example, let’s say that I am good with motivating myself and at having discipline. In order to experience balance and harmony, I need to work on being flexible in order to balance that trait out.
Without balancing out our positive qualities with the opposing positive qualities, that produces undesirable results. For example:
- Tranquility without activity can make you too mellow and wishy washy;
- Kindness without wisdom can result in being taken advantage of;
- Detachment and equanimity without love can be ruthless;
- Courage without love is just blind power; and
- Integrity without kindness is uptight and annoying.
These are just a few examples of how our personal qualities can make us unbalanced. That’s why it’s a great plan to pay attention to the virtues we lack the most.
12 personal qualities to develop
Here they are! The 12 personal qualities which I’ve categorized into the more ‘yin’ traits and more ‘yang’. These refer to the two forces in the Universe, according to a Chinese theory: yin is the passive, negative force, and yang the active, positive force.
Let’s begin with yin.
Also known as: gratitude; optimism; cheerfulness; hope; humor; satisfaction; and appreciation.
If Joy could speak, she would say: ‘Life is good. It is great to be here and to be me. This is fun.’
Without joy, we are gloomy, negative, cranky, and stuck.
I have found joy to be a natural consequence of healthy living and self-awareness. Having a spiritual practice, which teaches you to be mindful and to let go of clinging, also helps. We also feel a sense of joy whenever we overcome obstacles and ourselves.
Book/practice that has helped me the most to develop joy: Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. Mindfulness/meditation/yoga practice.
Also known as: compassion; generosity; patience; service; warmth; and sensitivity.
If Kindness could speak, she would say: ‘I take your feelings and wellbeing as seriously as my own. You and I aren’t separate. We’re all in this together. How can I be of service to you?’
Kindness is true beauty. Offering a word of encouragement; listening without judging; helping; teaching; seeing the good in others; doing something for someone who can’t possibly repay you. Kindness rewards the helper as it avails.
At the deepest level, when you are kind, you are practicing non duality; seeing every being as an extension of yourself.
Without kindness, we cannot build any true human connection, and we fail to experience a happiness that transcends our own concerns.
Also known as: modesty; egolessness; simplicity; deference; and respect.
If Humility could speak, she would say: ‘I don’t know. Everyone has the ability to teach me something. It’s always possible to know more.’
In the words of C.S. Lewis, true humility is not about thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. In the deepest sense, humility is about transcending the personality, or the so-called ‘smaller self’.At a deep level, having humility is learning to transcend the demands of the ego Click To Tweet
Being genuinely happy with other people’s successes and accepting the uncertainty of life, and how small we are, are all aspects of humility exercised.
Also known as: peacefulness; temperance; patience; tolerance; acceptance; resilience; and fortitude.
If Equanimity could speak, she would say: ‘Although I am enjoying/not enjoying this, it is all temporary. I feel confident in handling life’s vicissitudes. The very moment is my teacher.’
At it’s heart, equanimity is deep un-messability. It is the ability to accept the present moment without emotional reaction, without agitation. It’s being imperturbable.Without developing equanimity, we are attached to the highs and lows Click To Tweet
Not going into despair when we miss an opportunity, or lose some money. Or feeling elated when praised, or discouraged when criticized. Not indulging in emotional reactions to gain or loss, whatever shape they take. Being modest in success, and gracious in defeat.
Without equanimity, life is an emotional roller-coaster. We are attached to the highs and we are uncomfortable (perhaps even fearful) with the lows.
Books/practices that have helped me to develop equanimity: basic reflection. Reminding myself that ‘this too shall pass’. Buddhist teachers (various) including Jack Kornfield.
5. Non attachment/Letting go
Also know as: non clinging; forgiveness; dispassion; non-attachment; forgiveness; and moderation.
If Non-attachment could speak, she would say: ‘I am the only reliable source of happiness. This is out of my hands. I can only control my own actions and reactions.’
Letting go is the most essential skill for overcoming suffering. At the deepest level, non attachment and letting go are a disillusionment with external desires and goals, and ceasing to attempt to holding onto any particular state.
It is also letting things and people go. Allowing things to flow as they will.
Books and practices that have helped me with non attachment and letting go: Letting go, by David Hawkins, Buddhist teachings; practice in real life.
Also known as: faith; acceptance; openness; willingness and hope.
If Trust could speak, she would say: ‘Even if this doesn’t make sense now, it will. Life flows better when I see purpose in random events. There is something larger and beyond my comprehension.’
It is the attitude that life is happening for you, not to you.
Without trust, we adopt negative interpretations. Trust tells us that there is something good to be learned or gained from any situation.
Without trust, life can feel lonely, scary, or unfair. We feel alone in a cold and uncaring universe.
Books/practices that have helped me to develop trust: Radical acceptance, by Tara Brach.
7. Calmness/ tranquility
Also known as: serenity; calmness; non-reactivity; gentleness; peace; and acceptance.
If Tranquility could speak, she would say: ‘All is well.’
Tranquility involves keeping your mind and heart calm. You take your time to perceive what’s going on and act purposefully, without agitation, without hurry, and without overreacting. On a deeper level, it means to reduce or diminish entirely rumination and useless thinking.
Taking a deep breath before answering an email or phone call, or before responding to the hurtful behavior of someone else. Being ok with the fact that things are often not going to go as we expect. Not brooding about the past or worrying too much about the future. Shunning busyness in favor of a more purposeful living. Not living in fight-or-flight mode.
Without tranquility, we expend more energy than what’s really needed.
Books/practices that have helped me the most with developing tranquility: The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.
On to the more yang style personal qualities.
Also known as: boldness; fearlessness; decisiveness; leadership; assertiveness; confidence; and magnanimity.
If Courage could speak, she would say: ‘Although the consequences of this action might be painful, I want to do it/ it is the right thing.’
Courage is the ability to place our fears and feelings to one side, and see something through. For a few, it is the absence of fear – for most, it’s the willingness to act despite fear.
Lots of things in life take courage. It takes courage to be our authentic selves, to try something new, to change directions, to take a risk, to admit we are wrong, to have a difficult conversation, to trust yourself. The manifestations are many.
Without courage we feel powerless, repeatedly taking the path of least resistance. It might feel comfortable now, but in the long term it doesn’t make us happy.
Also known as: energy; enthusiasm; tenacity; passion; vitality; zeal; perseverance; willpower; determination; discipline; self-control; resolution; mindfulness; steadfastness; tenacity; and grit. Also includes focus.
If Discipline could speak, she’d say: ‘However bad this gets, I’m committed to making it work.’
Having discipline is about making a decision once, in something that is good for you, and then keeping it up despite adversities and mood fluctuations.
Without diligence we can’t accomplish anything meaningful. We give up on everything too soon. We are a victim of circumstances, social/familial conditioning, and genetics.Without having discipline and focus, we can't accomplish anything meaningful Click To Tweet
Part of having discipline is developing focus. Focus says: ‘I will ignore distractions, ignore the thousand different trivial things, and put all my energy in the most important thing. I will tame my mind’.
Books/practices that have helped cultivate discipline: having a job. Exercise and healthy living. Practicing simplicity and minimalism.
Also known as: responsibility and self reliance.
If Autonomy could speak, she’d say: ‘Only I am responsible for my happiness and wellbeing.’
Without having responsibility and autonomy, we are the victims of others with a stronger will.
Having autonomy is about being independent and reliant on yourself and not others to feel good. At its deepest level, it is acknowledging yourself as the creator of your reality.
Books and practices that have helped me to develop autonomy: Teachings of Luke Rhinehart.
11. Wisdom/ discernment
Also known as: intelligence; discernment; insight; understanding; knowledge; transcendence; perspective; discrimination; contemplation; investigation; clarity; and vision.
If Wisdom could talk, she’d say: ‘Let me contemplate deeply on this. Let me understand it from the inside out. Let me know myself.’
Unlike the other virtues listed so far, wisdom it is not something that you can directly practice. Rather, it is the result of contemplation, introspection, study, and experience.
Without wisdom, we don’t really know what we are doing. Life is small, often confusing, and there might be a sense of purposelessness.
Books and/or practices that have helped me to develop wisdom: we each have our own unique path. I think it starts with basic introspection and self reflection.
Also known as: having honor; truthfulness; sincerity; honesty; responsibility; reliability; loyalty; and dignity.
If Integrity could talk, she’d say: ‘I will do what is right, according to my conscience, even if nobody is looking. I will choose thoughts and words based on my values, not on personal gains. I will be radically honest and authentic, with myself and others.’
Integrity is not about being moralistic, but about being congruent to our own conscience and values. It involves letting go of the ‘but I can get away with it’ thinking. And also, not promising what you know you cannot fulfill.
Without integrity, we are not perceived as trustable or genuine.
I wrote more about the importance of having integrity here.
Books and practices that have helped me to develop integrity: The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz.
Even if you have worked to develop half of these, chances are you’re already enjoying greater levels of life satisfaction. And the more the merrier, as they say.
Use this list as a snapshot summary of where you could do with investing your efforts. If you want, you could focus on a single virtue each week (or month), and look for opportunities to put that chosen quality into practice.