Local strengths are not irrelevant just because they are not universal. They acknowledge and arise out of the unique circumstances of a particular culture and create solutions that work there, but might not apply anywhere else. One size doesn’t fit all – even with the VIA. So what I’m arguing for is that rather than picking a 25th universal strength, we should look to our own cultures and identify the local or culturally-bound strengths that have most shaped our culture.
The 1st World Congress of Positive Psychology highlighted the importance of context and culture in understanding well-being. Various presentations emphasised differences between what constitutes happiness and well-being even between European countries and between Europe and India. We learned that in South Korea character strengths may at times conflict with Confucian values, and that where this occurs, the latter will often win out.
Local strengths may need to evolve and change with the culture. While the VIA’s character strengths have enduring value, a local strength may outlive its sell-by date or become ‘over-developed’. Korean ‘filial piety’ is sometimes at odds with ‘modern’ values of justice and honesty creating moral dilemmas for young Koreans. US individualism untrammelled may undermine collective strengths of citizenship and belonging. As well as noticing our local strengths it may be useful to ask, ‘Are they still relevant and useful in dealing with the challenges we now face as a culture?’
It may be easier to identify a local strength when one is a foreigner. Outsiders may notice a ‘national strength’ that has disappeared.New Zealand’s pioneering history and geographical isolation gave rise to the strengths of ‘she’ll be right’ (every pioneer had to be prepared to turn their hand to any task), and ‘number 8 wire technology’ (almost any repair can be carried out using No.8 fencing wire). Both strengths reflect a rugged self-reliance and ingenuity born of necessity. While ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ is still apparent in some areas of technology, a younger generation brought up on cheap, readily available imported consumer goods is losing the ‘can do’ create or repair strengths of their forefathers. The strength of ‘showing up’ was highly valued in Ireland until recent years. Showing up was a strength of belonging: of respecting the group one belonged to and being there for the people who mattered in your life when it mattered to them. As a colonized country, respect for legal authority was scarce in Ireland and most institutions were regarded as illegitimate. Showing up suited the Irish context in that it blended loyalty and citizenship with the freedom to exercise one’s own social intelligence; it allowed for expressions of citizenship and belonging outside institutions (citizenship for the anarchy-inclined). As Ireland has modernized and become wealthier and more individualistic, this strength has broken down and matters less important to socially and geographically mobile younger generations.
The VIA demonstrates that there are universal strengths valued over time by all people. There are also local strengths which, for good or ill, have shaped our cultures. Perhaps we should take stock of our local strengths as well as our global or universal strengths and consider how they may help or hinder us in facing the future.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Two presentations at 1st World Congress on Positive Psychology, Philadelphia, USA, June 18-21, 2009.
- Antonella Delle Fave, Preclinical Sciences LITA Vialba, University of Milano, Milano, Italy. The Contents and Contexts of Happiness.
- Yong-Lin Moon, South Korea. The Role and Contribution of Positive Psychology to the Korean Context. See related article, Frames of Meaning for Life.
Positive influence courtesy of Art Makes Me Smile. The three images are Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank’s family, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa.
Kiwi Ingenuity courtesy of Sandy Austin
Wirelings in Dublin courtesy of Matt McGee