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
Ryan, excellent summary of Character Strengths. I find points 4, 7 and 9 particularly useful for my coaching clients, and forwarded this article to several of them within minutes of it crossing my computer screen. Thanks so much for your work in this important area – and thanks again for teaching in MAPP this spring.
Most of this sounds like personality 101 to me – just a few exceptions.
Any resercah looking at the relationship of VIA to NEO facets?
I really like the curiosity goal aspect! The motivation and will component. That’s new to me – I hadn’t heard of this before.
It makes sense to use a strength as a motivator. Using bravery to find an unconventional way to go after a goal. Or using appreciation of excellence to find a masterful way to go after a goal. Fascinating!
Thanks Dan. Indeed, there is much excitement about the potential for character strengths to be developed as well as the consequences of employing them in our lives. I’d say there is reason to be optimistic about each of these points!
Coming from you, the fact that you see some “exceptions” in the article – I’ll take that as a plus! Thank you.
The article was not intended to be advanced personality theory. Many positive psychology folks have not taken a personality 101 class, as you suggest. That said, I’d guess that those who have would not have previously seen these points framed in this way. My rationale for this is I’ve taught this to hundreds of individuals (some new to PP, some not) from various disciplines and these principles are usually mostly new concepts for them to grapple with. Positive psychology needs frameworks like this to surround, deepen, and advance its most important concepts.
Regarding your question, see MacDonald et al., 2008, as well as the Peterson/Seligman (2004) text which discusses the links.
Ryan – I’m glad I gave your day a plus.
Enjoy your day.
Yes, that comes from taking a more philosophical slant on this. The will and thought are not mutually exclusive, however, there is something distinct that volition offers the discussion. I think of it as operating on a gut level of “I should be more brave” or “I’d like to be more loving”; and also on a goal-level of “I will take these steps to implement this strength behavior.” This level of volition is the least distinct and clear level but I like mentioning it because it forces people to think more deeply about the character strengths they are developing or helping a client with.
Thanks for the comment!
Ryan, great post. I agree with you that character strengths can be developed. I think that character strengths are supposed to be never-ending discoveries. We should not limit ourselves to what have now; we should develop these because one might discover other character strengths. This would help a person know more about himself, thus, allow a person to experience an engaged life.
I wonder about calling the VIA a measurement tool. It rank orders character strengths for a particular individual, but does it give measurements that are, say, comparable between individuals? Is rank ordering a form of measurement?
I know that people have different tendencies when it comes to Likert scales — some stick to the middle, some go for the edges. That’s made me wonder whether the raw scores are really comparable, individual to individual.
Can the VIA be used to see changes over time, over and above possible changes in the rank order?
Nice points, JM. Indeed, many practitioners connect the engaged life with their client’s use of character strengths. The character strengths most associated with the engagement pathway of authentic happiness are perseverance, curiosity, hope, and zest.
Yes, the VIA Survey is certainly a measurement tool; it reveals what’s referred to as ordinal data…qualities or objects that are rank-ordered but does not reveal an exact difference between qualities. An example of interval data (the next step up in terms of measurement tools) would be many temperature scales. 48 degrees Celsius is exactly 15 degrees higher than 33 degree Celsius. We cannot say that your curiosity strength is exactly “x” higher than your creativity strengths; we can only say that it is higher. And, when we look at raw scores for the strengths we can say more. We can note one strength is “a lot higher” or potentially a signature strength relative to a middle or lesser strength. Chris Peterson has found that a 1.0 difference in raw score between strengths is very likely to be a meaningful difference; a 0.5 difference b/n strengths is somewhat likely to be a meaningful difference; less than a 0.5 difference is unlikely to be meaningful. But, you can see that numerical differences mean something quite different here than with temperature.
The VIA Survey is used to make relative comparisons (comparing one’s strengths to oneself) and to look at the rank-ordering of strengths in groups of people. It is not an optimal fit to compare it one-on-one with others; while this can bring interesting results and can serve as a motivator for folks, people would need to be reminded that such comparisons are truly their perception of their strengths compared to another’s perception of their strengths and not an absolute measure of who is actually higher on gratitude or hope.
Some have looked at total raw score of the VIA over time and whether this might serve as a marker for an increase in virtuous or good behavior. One of the problems is the ceiling effect that many people start off high on total VIA score.
While the results are consistent over time (75% of users have 3 or more of the same strengths in their top 5 from one administration to the next, separated by 6 months or more), I think it is fabulous as a clinical or coaching tool to have clients take it every 6 months and then discuss the changes. What accounts for your teamwork rising from #15 to #6? What was going on in your life that may have affected your perseverance to drop from #4 to #18? Judgment is now at #3, how do you account for this change?, etc.
Great post and discussion. I use the VIA with every client in a myriad of ways. Every client has found it valuable. It adds immeasurably to their goal setting and action planning. Best of all, it is so user-friendly and such a pleasantly real eye-opener. Personally, it blew me away the first time I took it. It opened up my eyes in a unique way and helped me understand my whole life modus operandi. Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence? What? I thought, “How shallow am I?!” Later when I studied the VIA, it hit me square between my eyes, “Art and beauty and doing a job well-done make my often over-scheduled life manageable.” No matter what my stress, seeing art was my treat. Whenever I would travel, I wanted only one souvenir, a piece of local art. It would make me smile, remember that all my diligent work had allowed me money to travel, etc. I think the VIA stands for personal victory. I could care less if it is perfect, as I know like each one of us, it is a work/play in progress.
Great testimonial, Judy. I like your analogy of the VIA as representing a victory, a victory for the individual in self-awareness and insight.
Thanks for the list, very interesting.
“Character strengths are stable but can and do change. ”
Kind of an unfalsibiable statement. How much do we know about this? For example, is it a similar scenario to well-being with the idea of a set-point that we return to? How stable are these changes?
“Character strengths can be measured.”
I still have a few problems about how the list of VIA strengths was devised. It wasn’t empirically based, and to my knowledge it hasn’t been tested against a ‘placebo’ set of strengths.
“Character strengths are universal.”
Yes the correlations between cultures are surprisingly high.
As I’ve said before though, I still think there’s a massive lack of experimental research, particularly considering the extent that the research has been disseminated though articles and popular books.
Fair enough on the first point; it’s a difficult thing to capture briefly. Character, like personality, is consistent over time but not to the level of being immutable. And, we know there are many things that impact character – genetics, predictable changes in life role, atypical life events (e.g., trauma), deliberate interventions, to name a few….thus it can change…and often does to a degree. We need longitudinal studies on character to help this part of the science progress.
Moreover, to this point, and to the other points, the study of character and character strengths has just scratched the surface; there is so much more to learn. The VIA was developed with scientific rigor and unprecedented analysis and collaboration over years, thus it is the perfect foundation and starting point giving researchers a nomenclature to work from and expand our knowledge (rather than groping in the dark and ultimately making less significant contributions).
Warren and Ryan,
I think Todd kashdan has done some factor anlaysis that has questioned the structure of the VIA. see http://psychology.gmu.edu/kashdan/publications/Brdar%20&%20Kashdan%20VIA%20strengths%20JRP.pdf
There have been at least 3 published factor analytic studies. All which slightly vary from one another and from the classification. There will be some differences because the VIA is a classification not a rigid taxonomy and not something rooted in stone. As Chris Peterson has said to these points: the classification structure holds up quite well.
Ryan – given what you said, how can the VIA justify istelf in the science called PP.
Todds concluding articles are quite valid
“Due to the wide use of this particular measure in basic and applied settings (Duckworth, Steen,& Seligman, 2005; Rashid & Ostermann, 2009), we believe it is paramount for other researchers to examine the psychometric properties
of the VIA-IS. This includes how ‘‘positive psychology” research on character strengths provides information beyond existing personality science on adaptive traits.”
With all due respect, I’m not going to act as the “defender” of the science of VIA, other than what I’ve already said. I think the 800-page manual (Character Strengths and Virtues), the development process involving 55 top scientists, what some estimate as 150 peer-reviewed publications, and emerging studies from various research camps speaks for itself.
Like any science, we must be open to what continues to emerge. As I (and everyone at VIA says), we have much yet to learn. Indeed, it is very exciting. Thank you for your interest.
Ryan – with due respect people once believed that the world was flat – sorry expert opinion without science doesn’t cut it.
Very interesting post and a great discussion 🙂
I would appreciate if anyone can share their thoughts on “Character strengths are universal”. If character strengths are universal, then there is high probability that these character strengths can be inherited by birth and might not be developed during course of the person’s life.
In response to an earlier comment, “expert opinion” is very different than “peer review science.” Expert opinion is limited to the experiences/knowledge of one or more experts and is better than nothing. Peer-review is very different; it means that scientists have had their studies scrupulously critiqued and challenged by other researchers (usually double-blind) before publication. The publications have been vetted – some journals being more thorough and rigorous than others. The VIA Survey is the only peer-reviewed survey of strengths; there are many others put forth by independent, for-profit companies that conduct their own “internal” (usually unpublished) researched. For brief summaries and citations of over 180 studies of character strengths in recent years (mostly peer-reviewed), go to this link here:
Hi Anant…the word “universal” is perhaps not the best word as physicists remind me that this would be character strengths are found on every planet…and at this point, we don’t know much about human life on other planets! A better word might be “ubiquitous.” The point of the statement is that there are common characteristics in people across cultures, countries, etc., no matter how remote.
Yes, there is a strong genetic component to the 24 character strengths. See an initial study of character strengths among twins by Michael Steger and colleagues (take a look at the link above for the citation). They also found that there was room, in addition to the biological loadings, for important environmental influence of the character strengths….this would be to the point of developing character strengths deliberately and through interventions over the lifespan.