3 Pathways To Better Relationships

New research calls attention to the human virtue of temperance.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 1, 2021

A new article appearing in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that a better understanding of the human virtue of temperance has the potential to unlock new treatments for a range of psychological issues such as depression, relationship conflict, impulsiveness, and anxiety.

"Temperance refers to the capacity to manage habits and protect against excess and is composed of forgiveness, humility, and patience," say the authors of the research led by Everett L. Worthington, Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University. "Specifically, we examined the current state-of-the-science in the conceptualization of temperance, the efficacy of temperance interventions, and what the future may hold in this research domain."

Conceptualizing temperance and its sub-components

The authors contend that temperance falls within the canon of human virtues that have been examined by scholars for millennia.

"Over the millennia, there have been many ways of dividing up the human virtues," says Worthington. "Aristotle named four cardinal virtues: prudence (being able to judge rightly and wisely), justice, courage, and temperance. Christianity named three Christian virtues: faith (confidence in that which is not necessarily observable), hope (the motivation to persevere when things are hard), and love (willingness to value and not devalue others)."

More recent work by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman argues that there are six core human virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. According to their model, temperance is composed of four distinct character strengths: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, and self-control.

Improving temperance through forgiveness, humility, and patience interventions

According to the researchers, improving temperance has the potential to smooth problematic relationships.

"Temperance is about moderation in action, thoughts, or feelings," says Worthington. "In the current polarized social climate, such moderation is often lacking. Its lack can lead us to react strongly to differences in political positions, race, religion, and even opinion."

Research suggests that interventions aimed to improve the sub-components of temperance can be effective tools to enhance psychological flourishing.

"The scientific studies of forgiveness have shown a couple of important things," comments Worthington. "First, they work. Second, the longer you seriously try to forgive, the more forgiveness you'll experience. Third, forgiving also increases hope and lessens both depression and anxiety. Forgiveness benefits both the one forgiven and the forgiver. In fact, it has relational, spiritual, and mental health and well-being benefits for the forgiver, and if it is practiced over time, it can yield lowered physical risks and better physical well-being."

Humility interventions also show promise for improving temperance.

"Humility research has shown that when people are humble it acts as a social oil, oiling the operation of relationships," says Worthington. "Also, humility is a buffer against relationship harms. It has mental health benefits for both the one who is humble but also for those in a relationship with that person."

Examples of effective patience interventions are plentiful. Most focus on strengthening self-control through practice or a complementary skill-building exercise. For instance, one multi-week study that included activities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and the promotion of character strengths yielded a significant increase in patience in a sample of university undergraduates. Another study utilized the SPACE model (S = Serenity, P = Patient listening and Perspective, A = Allow boredom, C = Comfort with delays, and E = Endure with perseverance) to produce a lasting improvement in patience, self-control, and forgiveness.

The authors hope that research on temperance will continue to grow in the future. In the meantime, they offer the following words of wisdom:

  • It is possible to build temperance.
  • Temperance is really important in smooth relationships.
  • The person who practices temperance enjoys many psychological and physical benefits as well as do relationship partners.

A full interview with Dr. Everett L. Worthington, Jr. discussing this research can be found here: Is the virtue of temperance the key to relationship happiness?