The Court of Virtues

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” 

– Melody Beattie, Author

Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology and author of the book THANKS! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, states that gratitude is the “queen of the virtues.”  That being the case, the “king” of virtues has to be empathy (see February 2013 blog).

The “king” and “queen” oversee a “court of virtues,” such as respect, responsibility, compassion, courage, perseverance, citizenship, self-discipline, gratitude, honesty, trust, and empathy.

We should include in the “courtyard” Martin Seligman’s “character strengths” list:

  1. Wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective)
  2. Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)
  3. Humanity (love, kindness, social-emotional intelligence)
  4. Justice (social responsibility, citizenship)
  5. Temperance (forgiveness and mercy, humility/modesty, self regulation)
  6. Transcendence (gratitude, hope, humor)

Our homes, schools, communities, and society, should be fostering and promoting these character strengths and virtues among the young; one might make a case for adults as well.

Let’s focus on the “queen and king” –gratitude and empathy.

Emmons defines gratitude “as affirming a benefit and giving credit to others for that benefit.  In other words, gratitude, when properly understood, leads to an active appreciation of others.”

An article appeared in our local newspaper last month authored by Erinn Hutkin and titled “Gratitude has Positive Effects on Health.”  The article’s sub-head highlights the point: “Counting one’s blessings leads to greater well-being and optimism.”  Several studies demonstrate relationships between gratitude and physical health.  Why?  Say the researchers, because of the “positive emotions that it fosters, the influence it has on relationships, and at the ‘heart of joy’.”

What can be said about empathy?  I like the way a Teacher of the Year from South Carolina described it:

Who am I? What have I done to become Teacher of the Year?  I am an empathetic teacher who tries to stand in my students’ shoes.  I teach my students to stand in each other’s shoes.  I practice the teaching of empathy.  This is my greatest achievement, my greatest contribution to public education and to my world.

Another educator says:

Empathy starts with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – a key step in understanding perspectives that differ from your own. This isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s an essential, active skill.  It’s foundational to embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective, conducting richer and deeper analysis, and communicating more effectively. This skill is about as 21st Century as we can get.

“Empathy helps us improve the lives of others, as well as our own”, say a leadership expert.

Two questions:

How do we teach our young (and ourselves for that matter) to learn, practice, and demonstrate what it means to be grateful, to be empathic, to be trustworthy?

How do we get our kids into the “courtyard of virtues” and out of the mire offered by the media, the Internet, video games, and other sources that degrade, destroy, denigrate, defeat and entice the young to leave the “courtyard of virtues?”

We start by teaching them, at a very early age and continue during their formative years, the behaviors that are encompassed in each virtue by having moral conversations at home and at school.  We can serve as role models; engage them in reading and writing about characters in literature and in today’s media.  We react/redirect when they leave the “courtyard.”  We give them a voice, we encourage them to be of service to one another and others, and we hold them accountable.

Michele Borba, internationally known speaker and authority on parenting, would answer the “how” question by suggesting five steps to teach youth specific character strengths/virtues.

  1. Accentuate a character trait.
  2. Tell the value and meaning of the trait.
  3. Teach what the trait looks like and sounds like.
  4. Provide opportunities to practice the trait.
  5. Provide effective feedback.


Two resources for teachers and others


On gratitude:

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California ( offers several video presentation on the this topic including “making gratitude viral,” “cultivating gratitude in the workplace,“ “how can we cultivate gratitude in schools,” and “how parents can foster gratitude in kids.”

On empathy:

Suggest a reading of Lee Child’s book, 61 HOURS, which notes that teachers and parents need to learn that “empathy is the key.”  It helps adults think like their children do, see what they see, feel what they feel, understand their motives, circumstances, goals, aims, fears, and their needs.

Past blogs: