Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
Articles by Ryan are here.
With the publication of Character Strengths and Virtues in 2004, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman ushered in a renewed focus on the science of character. They defined character strengths as the pathways to the virtues valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers over time.
Character strengths are manifested in our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior. Take curiosity as an example:
- Curious thoughts: That new teacher has some interesting ideas. I wonder what she thinks of ___? Maybe I can collaborate with her on a project.
- Curious emotions: I feel interested in something new; I feel excitement about the possibilities; I feel fear of the unknown and the teacher’s potentially negative reaction to my ideas.
- Curiosity behavior: I approached the teacher; I asked the teacher questions; I expressed a level of interest via my body language.
- Will or motivation: Some scholars in this field add a fourth category, that a character strength can be manifested through motivation. The will serves as the bridge between our thoughts/emotions and behavior. Thus, I want to go speak with that teacher; or I’d like to set a curiosity goal to talk with two new people per week.
Building from this structure, here are ten principles emerging from the science of character:
Character is plural. Chris Peterson coined this sentence that has become an adage in positive psychology. This expands one-dimensional thinking that character means only honesty or integrity. People are not simply kind and humble, brave and hopeful, or wise and fair. An individual’s character is better understood as a unique profile of strengths with varying highs and lows.
- Character strengths are stable but can and do change. Character strengths are part of our personality, which we know is quite stable. At the same time, our character strengths can change based on predictable life events such as starting a family, unpredictable life events such as a trauma, and deliberate changes in lifestyle.
- Character strengths are elemental. Neal Mayerson has referred to character strengths as the basic building blocks of goodness in the individual. They are our true essence – the core parts of our personality that account for us being our best selves.
Character strengths can be measured. It is groundbreaking science to have a tool that measures many of the positive traits found in human beings. The VIA Survey, like any measurement tool, is imperfect, yet serves as a signpost pointing to what is potentially strongest and best in individuals. The measurement is dimensional, not categorical. We do not either have a character strength such as creativity or not have it. Rather, we have degrees of creativity, fairness, zest, and so on.
- Character strengths are expressed in degrees. Individuals will likely express their character strengths in different ways and to a greater or lesser extent based on situation. Depending on the context, one individual might call forth his or her social intelligence and curiosity when with friends; use self-regulation and prudence when eating; draw on teamwork and perseverance at work; and use love and kindness with family. The degree of kindness and love the person expresses may differ depending on the personality of the other family members present: the restrained mother, jovial father, warm brother, or unemotional sister. Moreover, the situation – a funeral home, an amusement park, or a public lecture – will also affect the way a character strength is expressed.
Character strengths are interdependent. It is difficult to be creative without some level of curiosity, or to be kind without some amount of bravery. It is likely that in virtually any situation, individuals will express a combination of character strengths, rather than one character strength alone. In a given situation, interactions among strengths may enhance the expression of some but hinder the expression of others.
- Character strengths can be developed. Character can be affected through deliberate intervention. People can learn to be more curious, more grateful, more fair, or more open-minded. The key is practice to break old habits and form new ones. For many character strengths, there are specific interventions that have an impact, such as journaling, emulating exemplars, and goal-oriented planning.
Character strengths can be overused, misused, or under-used. It is striking that character strengths can be quickly forgotten or expressed in unbalanced or harmful ways. The misuse of creativity can readily be found in email spamming; the overuse of curiosity can lead someone into a dangerous part of a city; and the under-use of fairness can lead to conflicted relationships. Character-strength balance and dexterity are the keys.
- Character strengths have important consequences.The outcome of expressing one’s character strengths, especially one’s signature strengths – high-ranking strengths used across settings, readily noticed by others, that feel energizing and authentic when expressed – is likely connected to many benefits, such as increased happiness.
Over time, research may also reveal that each character strength has unique consequences. For example, perseverance seems to be linked with achievement more than most character strengths.
- Character strengths are universal. What a marvelous finding to remember: that these strengths can be found in the most remote cultures and lands, and are shared by people with differing beliefs, religious affiliations, and political preferences. This makes work on applying character strengths more a matter of synthesis (i.e., gathering and bridging what is best in us) than analysis (i.e., picking ourselves apart).
Biswas-Diener, R. (2006). From the equator to the North Pole: A study of character strengths. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 293–310.
Borghans, L., Duckworth, A. L., Heckman, J. J., & ter Weel, B. (2008). The economics and psychology of personality traits. Journal of Human Resources, 43(4), 972-1059.
Lounsbury, J. W., Fisher, L. A., Levy, J. J., & Welsh, D. P. (2009). An investigation of character strengths in relation to the academic success of college students. Individual Differences Research, 7(1), 52-69.
Mayerson, N. (2010). Character jazz. Article available from the VIA Institute on Character
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of College and Character, 10(4), np.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.
Curious Roy courtesy of fazen
Aloe polyphylla Schönland ex Pillans courtesy of brewbooks
Gold coated wall details courtesy of articotropical
Palms leaning courtesy of unincorporated
Glorious Sunsplashed Morning courtesy of jurvetson