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Virtue and Mental Health

January 4, 2023 15 min read
By Dr. Paul Vitz Professor, Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Divine Mercy University
Rev. Craig Vasek Pastor, St. Bernard's Catholic Church, Thief Rivers Falls, Minnesota
Standing on a peak

Paul Vitz, PhD, a professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University, joined Father Craig Vasek, former athletics chaplain at the University of Mary, to discuss the relationship between virtue and mental health.

Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): Dr. Vitz, thanks for joining me today! Before getting into it, I want to give a bit of a biographical sketch. You were born in 1935 in Toledo, Ohio, and are married to Evelyn. Together, you have six children and 22 grandchildren. You studied at Michigan and Stanford, where you got your PhD in psychology. Your teaching career has included time at New York University, the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences at Divine Mercy University, where I had the honor of being one of your students! Your research interests include the integration of Catholic anthropology with psychology, the psychology of hatred and forgiveness, and the psychology of the virtues. Two of your publications that I’ve paid a lot of attention to over the years are Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths, which you worked on with Craig Steven Titus and Fr. Romanus Cessario, and A Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the Person, which you worked on with Titus and William Nordling. You’ve done so much great work in Catholic psychology, so I’m excited for this conversation.

Dr. Paul Vitz (PV): Thank you, Father, I’m glad to be here. I wrote a book I think you would find interesting on the psychology of atheists called Faith of the Fatherless, published through Ignatius Press.

FVasek: And that’s a topic I hope we can discuss sometime in the future, because I know you grew up as something of a moderate atheist and moderate Christian before you experienced a deeper conversion to Christianity and ultimately Catholicism! I’m sure that’s given you great insights into that topic.

Today I wanted to discuss virtue and mental health. In my work with scholar-athletes, we focus on offering virtue-first formation. One thing that tends to get in the way when I’m interacting with these athletes and coaches is the question of mental health. When I’m speaking about virtues – let’s say prudence of the mind, or courage of the heart, or temperance of the body, or justice in my relationships with others – I often encounter objections like this: “This is all great, Father, and it’s important. But we have a more immediate and pressing concern – mental health. We need to talk about mental health now, and when we get that figured out we can talk about the virtues.” I understand the immediacy of these concerns, but at the same time, if we only look at the immediacy right in front of us without looking at the broader landscape of the development of the human person, we will always be stuck in that immediate task of digging people out of holes. But we want to give people tools that make them robust and free agents in their own lives! Could you speak into that and help me to understand the relationship between virtue and mental health?

PV: I’m all for people dealing with their mental health – I’m a psychologist! But oftentimes people can’t do that on their own. Normally, you have to go into therapy or something similar to really address mental health problems. And that can all be great and helpful. But more important is what you can do right now. The virtues aren’t abstract positives – they’re real things. There are real benefits to working to develop virtues. First, you can start working on them now by yourself. Second, any virtue that you develop strengthens you and makes you more able to resist trauma and mental problems in the future. Third, it gives you a serious goal to work toward in your life. A lot of the time, mental health problems are connected to an inability to leave things behind and say, “Okay, that happened when I was four years old, I can’t go back and fix that.” Having goals to work toward helps us to move forward in healthy ways. The strength and the ability to leave things behind that come with the virtues are a flourishing always open to you. You don’t just have to passively put them off on a therapist or something like that.

FVasek: So virtues are powers that are right in front of us that we can make use of in the present?

PV: Right, they exist in the present and make you stronger, and as you become stronger you can leave some of these psychological problems behind. I’m summarizing this, but Sigmund Freud said that the best psychoanalysis can do for you is return you to the normal level of human misery. So if you’ll be at the normal level of human misery even after your psychological problems are solved, let’s get beyond that! Let’s leave the normal level of human misery behind by flourishing, and the virtues are central to flourishing. Even more important to flourishing are the theological virtues and the call to closeness with our Lord. Focusing on the virtues allows you to get psychologically stronger and helps you to grow spiritually closer to our Lord, which means that you have a way of flourishing right now even without paying a psychologist.

FVasek: This is something I’ve heard you speak on before. Removing obstacles is not all there is. We can also look toward further strengthening ourselves. We can build habits of virtue, focusing on a future goal of flourishing. Christians look toward the ultimate goal of Heaven. This forward-looking approach to psychology matches well the Christion ideal of growing in virtue and holiness. Combined, these help us to go beyond that normal level of human misery to achieve these heights we maybe didn’t even know existed before.

There are some practical examples I want to discuss with you regarding the virtues and mental health. One example that I frequently use is that of students coming to me saying they are feeling anxious or depressed. They obviously want to fix that and I want to help, so as we start digging into the situation it comes out that they’ve been doing something their coaches wouldn’t want them doing. Because they don’t want their coaches to know, they have to lie, and the lies start to compound and all of a sudden they’ve begun to isolate themselves, they’ve created a façade, and they’ve created a network of ways to navigate these lies that is taking a lot of energy to maintain. So they’re losing communion and gaining isolation, which leads to a heightened place of anxiety and stress, and now they’ve landed in depression. I know that’s an oversimplified version, but the point is that if they had been humble and honest from the start, they could have found a healthier way forward. So that’s an argument for how the virtue of justice can help with mental health.

Here’s a common example of how prudence comes into play: Students have to balance homework, social lives, and entertainment. So let’s say they have homework but their friends are going out, so they put off the homework to join their friends. Then when they get home, they binge Netflix or a video game. So now their homework has started to pile up, and then a test is coming up, and they find themselves buried and stressed. And then they probably don’t do very well on their test because of the stress and how far behind they are. So when they come into my office to talk about feelings of depression, one of the first questions I ask them is whether they’re doing their homework, how good their time management skills are, and whether they are able to do the difficult good right in front of them rather than put it off in favor of pleasure. The point is that the virtues – like temperance, prudence, and courage – would have helped them to avoid these pits. Developing these virtues now will help them to avoid those pits in the future.

PV: So let’s get into the virtue of self-control here. To make good decisions between doing your homework and the right amount of entertainment, you need self-control. And if you have work to do and have already been with your friends for a couple of hours and now you’re considering spending another five hours with them, you need self-control to guide you through that decision. The virtue of self-control is going to help you navigate those questions. That virtue is also going to come into play with addictions – so many people have addictions today. I’m thinking here of sexual addictions – pornography and masturbation – which are so common and are issues of self-control. If you can develop your self-control, you can see the temptations as a challenge rather than as something scary that you give in to, and each time that you control yourself you recognize it as growth. On the other hand, each time you give in to the temptation you recognize it as a part of the growth process. And the virtues are connected: we need self-control to grow in courage, for instance. Courage requires that we control our fear. Courage isn’t just the lack of fear. So again, these virtues are all connected.

All of the higher virtues require self-control, so when you develop self-control, you’re setting the table for having those other virtues. Athletes know all about self-control: they have to control what they eat, they have to control how much they sleep, and they have to control their anger and impulses on the field so they don’t get penalties. So developing self-control as an athlete is a no-brainer! It’s necessary. And for those who aren’t involved in athletics, I remember a wise priest once saying to me that God made sexual temptations for young men because not all of them would learn self-control through athletics! Sex and aggression out of control in public will get you in trouble in a hurry, and they’re the sorts of things you can only be sure you have under control publicly if you also have them under control privately. And I think we can apply that more broadly to struggles in the lives of young men and women.

FVasek: Could you speak to how self-possession is related to self-control? In Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths – which, again, you helped to edit – in the article “Tempered Desire,” J. David Franks writes that “without the virtue of temperance, one eventually loses one’s self-possession in a frenetic, narcissistic seeking for sensual stimulation and gratification.” He also writes that “temperance does not run counter to our desire, for we are meant for greatness, meant to be athletes of the human spirit. We are meant for self-gift, meant to communicate ourselves in self-sacrificial love, and this requires self-possession. To give oneself away, one must be free in human wholeness to so do.”

PV: Right, so as you can see, self-control is a component of self-possession and of being able to give yourself away. This idea of being able to give yourself away to someone else for someone else’s benefit means that you are able to lay down your life in a positive way. It means that you’re actually able to benefit them. That requires self-possession, which requires a significant amount of self-control.

FVasek: Another way of stating the relationship, I think, is that when I want to give myself away I have a goal, and when I have a goal it becomes easier to make little choices that lead to that goal throughout my day. It gives me a reason for self-control.

PV: And those little choices are so important. We can develop self-control in small ways. It’s easy to think of small ways of denying temptations in Lent, by denying our desire to have a Hershey bar or by setting our phone aside for 10 minutes. Even with things as small as that you’ll have a sense of self-control and will experience the pleasure of knowing that you’re not under the control of your desires. You yourself are in control.

FVasek: This all reminds me of the difference between freedom from and freedom for, which is something you’ve written and spoken about. Could you explore that distinction for us? It’s so crucial for understanding the virtues.

PV: Most Americans think of freedom as freedom from something. There’s some validity to that, because we don’t want to be controlled by outside forces. But then what? So you now have freedom, but what’s it for? And the reason we have freedom is to choose positive things: to choose to love God, to choose to love our neighbors. So once we have freedom from outside forces, we are faced with the question of what that freedom is for. The human person ultimately seeks freedom for loving God and neighbor, meaning that freedom is ultimately meant to bring you into relationships.

Keep in mind that the highest form of love is the freedom to give your life for your friend. That’s not about warm feelings. It’s about being free to give your life away for someone else – for something greater than yourself.

FVasek: And this brings us back to the beginning of the conversation, where we said we don’t just want to be free from pathology, but want to flourish and pursue higher goods. And that gives context for pursuing self-control: it frees us to pursue higher goods in life.

As we’re talking, I’m realizing that we’ve focused primarily on how virtues help us to avoid future problems. Perhaps we could speak to how virtues can serve as potential interventions in psychotherapy?

PV: That’s something that has been proposed but still needs to be worked out. So in cognitive-behavioral approaches, we can introduce the virtues. And what still needs to be worked out is which virtues can be applied to particular problems. Let’s say you have somebody who’s a little bit depressed – what virtue should we turn to? We’re discovering that the virtue of gratitude is often helpful in these cases. So you could have that person write or speak to express their gratitude to someone once each day. Being grateful to God for the things you have is also important. But we’ve found that gratitude starts to diminish depression.

Another virtue that has been shown as a worthwhile intervention is altruism. This actually works for narcissists – who are often bad at diagnosing themselves – and for people who are just feeling lonely: Do an unanticipated positive thing for someone every day. The reason this works both for narcissists and for those dealing with loneliness is that it gets you out of yourself and forces you to imagine the needs and hopes of someone else. This makes you focus on other people’s needs and gets you to stop focusing on your own needs. So altruism is another one of those virtues that you can develop to deal with your own mental problems right now, and it doesn’t cost you anything!

FVasek: Along those lines, I came across a study recently that pointed to forgiveness, humility, and patience as three elements of self-control. Forgiveness, they found, increases hope and lessens my depression and anxiety. Humility acts as a buffer against relationship harms and has mental health benefits for both the individual and the relationship. For patience, they used the acronym SPACE: serenity, patient listening and perspective, allowing boredom, comfort with delays, and endurance with perseverance. This acronym gives such a great insight into how patience can be lived out, but it also goes against everything modernity tells us about how we should live.

PV: And by the way, forgiveness is another aspect of virtue. If you’re interpersonally angry with someone, forgiveness is a good way to go from a mental health standpoint. But I would also point out that even if you’re not willing to forgive that person, interpersonal hatred is harmful to you. So even if you can’t yet forgive them, let go of the hatred, period. Otherwise you’re going to sit there in a pity party, which isn’t good for you, or you’re going to focus on revenge and spend your whole time with it – and at the end of the day you’ll still have it and won’t know what to do with it! So if you recognize that you have hatred, let go of it. It preoccupies you with moral superiority, revenge, self-pity, and with having friends who hate the same people you do – but friends are people who love the same things, not people who hate the same things!

FVasek: In our final moments, these two words might be synonyms, but perhaps there is a distinction to be made: vice and addiction. When a person identifies something as an addiction – pornography, gambling, and so on – I think they often release themselves from responsibility: “It’s not me, it’s the addiction.” And I’m not trying to oversimplify that. But stuck in the idea of vice is the idea that even if I am no longer free, my repeated bad actions led me there. Does the concept of self-control act as a buffer not only against vice, but against addiction?

PV: Absolutely. Self-control prepares us to make good choices when we’re faced with inevitable temptations. But remember that another name for vice is bad habit. You can change a bad habit. You can change a vice. Addictions can be almost out of your control. So it’s helpful often to think of them as challenges you can address. So whatever it is, think of it only as something you don’t like! You don’t have to call it an addiction or a vice. Recognize that it’s something you don’t like, that’s causing you harm, and that you want to be free from. And that’s where self-control and your decisions start making a difference. When it gets all the way to the level of addiction, you might need social support and help. When you’re waking up in the gutter or something like that, you need more help. Until then, it’s something you can still take steps to deal with. You often have to develop little baby steps, you know? Maybe it’s just “I’ll be off my cell phone for 5 minutes.” But those little steps can help you slowly deal with it.

FVasek: I was reading a spiritual classic called Spiritual Combat, by Lorenzo Scupoli. He wrote that when you’re not being tempted, induce the temptation in order to conquer it. And he promotes that for a lot of things. He doesn’t promote that for sexual temptation – that’s too powerful, so we shouldn’t do it for that. The point is that those small victories can really add up to address and avoid developing vice.

Could we say a word about emotion in all this? Self-control and emotion? Psychological well-being requires a sustained experience of well-regulated and properly balanced emotions. So we’ve talked about the mind and different actions, but can we have self-control with emotions?

PV: Emotions are signals – they’re telling you something. If your emotions are pointing you in harmful directions – if they’re pointing you to short-term pleasures you know will harm you in the long run, for instance – self-control is needed. The emotions are not good or bad on the surface, but they’re informative. So self-control is needed to navigate those emotions.

FVasek: Dr. Vitz, there’s a lot more I wish we could discuss, but we’re coming to the end of our time so perhaps I should practice some self-control! Thank you for your time.

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