Embodied Virtues: A Review of Peripheral Physiological Associations with Human Strengths

Student Author(s)

Robert Henry

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Lindsey Root Luna and Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet

Document Type


Event Date



The theological and cardinal virtues have provided the traditional framework for understanding virtue. Within the past 20 years, researchers in positive psychology have developed a framework outlining six core virtues and 24 key human character strengths. Research within this domain has demonstrated that human health is related to positive psychological traits and states associated with these strengths. Specific autonomic nervous system markers of health include heart rate variability (HRV) as an indicator of self-regulation, heart rate (HR), and blood pressure (BP). In this project, we conducted a comprehensive search of the 24 strengths and peripheral physiology measures in established databases. We hypothesized that character strengths would have adaptive physiological associations (e.g., higher HRV, lower BP). Overall, our results indicated that character strengths tended to have healthy physiological associations. We specifically found that the literature is most heavily concentrated in the areas of forgiveness, religiosity/spirituality, love/charity, and humor. Concerning forgiveness, correlational studies found lower BP with higher forgiveness. Experimental work inducing forgiveness produced reductions in facial muscle tension, BP, and skin conductance, while also buffering HRV from the negative effects of rumination. Religiosity and spirituality appeared to reliably predict only lower BP, especially in the elderly. Most other parameters (e.g., HR, cortisol, skin conductance) had little or no association with religiosity and spirituality. Research on love/charity revealed one physiological association: having a new loving relationship predicted greater vagal activity in response to stress. Humor predicted a healthier immune response and illness protection. Overall, we found a general physiological benefit to demonstrating virtues, although these associations differed across specific traits and responses. Future studies will need to address the virtues that currently lack physiological research and experimentally assess virtues’ associations to create a clearer picture of embodied virtues and peripheral physiology.


This work was supported by a 2015 grant from Hope College’s Frost Research Center.

This document is currently not available here.