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September 11, 2001 to November 23, 1963 – A Character Strengths Reflection

By on September 11, 2007 – 6:05 am  6 Comments

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

It’s September 11, 2007, and for many it can feel just like that tragic day in 2001. Many of us will reflect through different lenses and filters the events that happened six years ago in New York City, Washington, DC and in Pennsylvania. Just ask a person where they were at the moment they heard or saw the news, and they will, most likely, evoke some level of emotion.

Ground Zero

The first images on the television screen were so graphic I was in a state of denial: “This is just another advertisement for a Tom Cruise or Kurt Russell “Save the World” from destruction movie.” Going through the stages of loss was quite a challenge for many of us. Fortunately, loss can eventually lead to a type of rebirth or reconnection with self and others – a type of shared identity.

Chris Peterson and Marty Seligman asked an important question in their 2003 research article in Psychological Science, entitled, Character Strengths Before and After September 11. “Did Americans change following the September 11 terrorists attacks?” Based on a cross-sectional sample of 4,817 on-line respondents of the Values in Action Inventory, they claimed that there were increases in seven specific character strengths: gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork. Almost one year after the attacks there were still increases in the aforementioned strengths, but their magnitude had decreased. Peterson and Seligman admit that they didn’t intend to, but found some interesting data surrounding the event after 10 months. They also admitted that a more a detailed longitudinal investigation was warranted.

What was most interesting to Peterson and Seligman were the increases in the “theological virtues” of faith (spirituality), hope, and charity (gratitude, kindness, leadership, love, teamwork) during this 10-month time period. These strengths are now categorized in the Humanity and Transcendence categories in the VIA. When I was in New York City for conference in 2002, I could sense a difference in people from previous visits before 911. Maybe, it was my own display of the “theological virtues” that provided this different perspective.

John and Jackie Kennedy

911 has vividly brought me back to November 23, 1963. As a ten-year old, I was sitting in Ms. McDonald’s fifth grade classroom in Framingham, Massachusetts, when the principal came on the loud speaker and announced that a terrible thing had happened in Dallas, Texas. He said that the details were confusing, but when I arrived home and walked in my back door and saw my mother sobbing, one level of confusion went away and one remained. I knew what happened to President Kennedy, but I didn’t know why somebody would do that to him.

My visual perspective of the assassination was and still is in black and white tones – the only colors of our 60’s television set. Were the “theological virtues” more “black and white” back then? My first visual perspective of 911 was the gray smoke that enveloped Ground Zero and metaphorically, our nation. It was like watching my old TV again, albeit a bit grayer, and much more confusing. On this anniversary, let’s continue to sift through the gray and aspire to make the strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality and teamwork come even more alive in ourselves and others.


Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science 14 (4), 381–384.

Ground Zero courtesy of renny67
President and Mrs Kennedy deplane from Air Force One courtesy of Marion Doss


  • Senia says:

    John, this is a magnanimous article, and to me such a fitting tribute. Thank you.

    I knew Chris and Marty had studied this, but I hadn’t remembered the conclusions. Thanks much.

    Those also sound like a lot of the strengths of the cadets at West Point from a different Chris Peterson et. al. study.

  • Joe Miller says:

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  • Scott says:

    Umm John, November 23 was a Saturday in 1963. Did you have school on the weekends back then? Also I thought that Kennedy was shot on the 22nd of Nov. in 63. If I am not mistaken Oswald was shot on the 23rd of Nov. 1963.

    The only reason I say this is because I was born in 1963 on Nov. 23rd.

  • michael mouskos says:

    Dear sirs, i am trying to contact the contributor SCOTT, as i was born 23/11/63
    is it possible to make contact , many thanks, michael

  • Senia says:

    Hi Michael!
    I’ve sent Scott an email with your contact info, and hope Scott connects.
    My best,

  • Scott says:


    WHo is this guy you sent an email to regarding my email. If I get murdered, I have printed this email for the police to find.


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