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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

13 Overrated Virtues

After surveying the most pertinent qualities of worthwhile relationships, we must also consider the virtues we’ve been acculturated to believe are noble but are often overrated.

Loyalty. Yes, it is important to be loyal to loved ones, but loyalty alone is typically misguided and may even degrade your relationships by creating a smokescreen between rationality and reality. Being loyal is fine, but loyalty at the expense of integrity is detrimental to a relationship.

Honor. Yes, we want to honor our parents, neighbors, friends, and family. But to what extent? If your best friend becomes a violent criminal, should you still hold him in great esteem? While an appropriate degree of honor is crucial, barefaced honor can inadvertently tether us to the convictions and conventions that prevent us from living in accordance with our values.

Righteousness. We all want to be “right.” But if you constantly assert your correctness, it comes off as self-righteous or gloating, and that’s never healthy for a relationship. When in doubt, “I don’t know” are the three most freeing words we can utter.

Transparency. You want to be honest and open with others, but you needn’t let every thought that enters your brain spill out of your mouth unfiltered. If you aren’t careful, you can hurt the ones you love—and hurt your relationships with them in the process.

Pleasure. Pleasure isn’t “good” or “bad,” but the pursuit of pleasure is hedonism. Our relationships aren’t supposed to be vectors of perpetual delight. Although our interactions can be pleasurable, pleasure needn’t be the star by which we navigate our relational vessels. If we do, we’re likely to forsake many of the elements that make the relationship worthwhile.

Comfort. A close cousin to pleasure, comfort is tricky. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus argued that someone who tries to avoid all discomfort is less likely to be comfortable than someone who periodically embraces discomfort. Thus, if we seek discomfort, we have the ability to expand our comfort zone.

Lust. We all have impulses, but we often confuse our desires and passion with lust. And when lust takes over, we lose all our senses. Today more than ever, our lust extends well beyond sexual desire: we are consumed by a craving for cars and clothes and camera equipment, and, for some odd reason, a large swath of our puritanical culture has agreed that yearning for stuff is an acceptable alternative to sexual longing. But both desires, when not pursued with intention, lead to obvious deleterious consequences.

Agreeability. Most of us wish to be in harmony with the people we love. It seems the quickest route to this harmony is to agree with others as frequently as possible. Yet this impulse is misguided. If we placate people, it’s not only dishonest—it closes the door to individuality. It is possible, however, to disagree with someone tactfully, while keeping their point of view in mind. Ryan and I disagree all the time, but we almost never argue. If you can make that distinction, your relationship will improve, because when you do agree, the other person will know it’s genuine and not just an attempt to win their favor.

Empathy. Perhaps the most controversial of the overrated virtues. These days, we hear everyone from preachers to pundits proclaim the power of empathy. But most of these people are actually talking about compassion, not empathy. If that’s the case, I have no argument: compassion—that is, concern for the misfortunes of others—is useful, and we could use more of it. Empathy, however—that is, the ability to feel the suffering of others—is not a desirable outcome. The Yale researcher and philosopher Paul Bloom makes this point in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion: “We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. … Nothing could be further from the truth.” Bloom goes on to say that empathy is “one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. … Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty.” According to Bloom, “We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

Negativity. This one might be confusing at first. How is negativity an overrated virtue? Does anyone actually think negativity is a “good” thing? If we were to measure popular opinion, almost everyone would recognize negativity as being “bad.” Why, then, do we constantly bicker, complain, and gossip? Because it’s a perceived shortcut. If you complain about the same thing as someone else or gossip about another person, it increases your bond with your fellow complainer. There’s an old saying that “hurt people hurt people,” and that’s what’s happening whenever we walk around infecting the world with negativity.

Jealousy. The most wasteful emotion, jealousy is rooted in suspicion—suspicion that you’re not “good” enough, that you’re not doing enough, that the other person isn’t as deserving as you. Jealousy is a selfish emotion, one that does not serve the greater good in the slightest. The antidote to jealousy is a little-known virtue called compersion—the feeling of joy one has while experiencing another person’s joy, such as witnessing a toddler’s smile and feeling joy in response. When you experience joy based on the joy of someone else, no space remains for jealousy in the relationship.

Sentimentality. The Greek philosopher Zeno believed that people were designed to be reasonable, but he also recognized that we are human beings, and human beings are propelled by emotion. Thus, we needn’t shun reason or emotion, but we must avoid sentimentality—that is, excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia—because it crowds out reason in favor of overpowering emotions. When we’re feeling overly emotional, it is helpful to gain additional perspective by involving the reasoning of a grounded outside party.

Solemnity. Yes, we want to be taken seriously, and we want to approach relationships with dignity, but we must leave ample room for humor and levity. Otherwise, we’ll be burdened, and eventually buried, by our own self-seriousness. Ergo, make room for jokes, even in—especially in—the most trying times.

While some of these so-called virtues are best avoided altogether—jealousy, self-righteousness, and negativity are especially worth steering away from—most can serve you well when you find the individually appropriate amount.

“13 Overrated Virtues” is an excerpt from The Minimalists’ new book, Love People, Use Things.