While positive psychology itself is only 30 years old, it benefits from hundreds of years of psychology research and tens of thousands of years of philosophy research. One aspect of positive psychology that has particularly benefited from this long history of research is that of character strengths. Character strengths, according to the VIA Institute of Character, are a “common language” of personality traits that (Niemiec, 2018):
- reflect our personal identity;
- produce positive outcomes for ourselves and others;
- contribute to the collective good.
The importance of character strengths is evident in the definition alone – impacting our personality, our relationships with others, and overall benefit to the world’s well-being. There are 24 character strengths in total, classified into six distinct virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The complete list of character traits and their definitions can be found in Appendix 1.
Before diving into the application side – how to determine and leverage character strengths in everyday life – it’s important to cover a few definitional points (Niemiec, 2018):
- Character strengths are multi-dimensional. This means that character strengths should be viewed in degrees (i.e. it makes sense to consider how much of a character strength you have) as opposed to categorical (i.e. it doesn’t make sense to ask whether or not you have a character strength). You have all 24 character strengths, though you likely over index on some more than others.
- Character strengths are plural. This means that you have multiple character strengths that you express interdependently and in unique combinations. For example, while thinking through a complex project at work, it is possible to simultaneously express ‘leadership, ‘perspective,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘prudence.’ With 24 character strengths, individual differences, and varied contexts, that are many unique combinations of expression.
- Character strengths are contextually dependent. This means that you may express more or less of a character strength depending on the context you are in at any given time. For example, you may find it easier to express kindness at a family dinner than in a stressful work environment.
Martin Seligman (2011), the founder of modern day positive psychology, defines well-being using a multi-pronged approach known as PERMA which stands for Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Accomplishment (A). Seligman’s research suggests that the 24 character strengths underpin all five of these elements of well-being. He goes on to explain that deploying one’s top strengths can lead to improvement in each element. In other words, identifying and leveraging your character strengths can make you happier across a bunch of different domains.
Importantly, while character strengths are somewhat stable, research demonstrates they have the capacity for development (Niemiec, 2018). Perhaps most exciting is that deliberate focus on improving a character strength can yield empirical changes in personality. While this is not a new concept – Aristotle in 4 BCE emphasized that virtues could be acquired through practice – we now have empirical evidence to support the idea of developing character traits through sustained deliberate practice and effort.
A natural reaction to learning that character strengths can be developed and that developing character strengths leads to improved well-being is a desire to understand our “weakest” character strengths and devise a strategy to improve them. While not inherently a bad strategy, evidence suggests that deliberate use of one’s signature strengths may actually provide a more significant increase in well-being (Niemiec, 2018; Seligman & Peterson, 2004). Seligman and Peterson (2004) define signature strengths as the character traits that you most frequently exercise and appreciate of yourself. They tend to be one’s top character traits.
Ok, ready to uncover your character strengths and start putting them to use? It’s as easy as taking the free character strengths questionnaire on the VIA Institute on Character website. Feel free to post your top strengths in the comments section and reach out with questions. Here’s to your improved well-being!
Appendix 1: Character Traits
(Source: 2018 VIA Institute on Character)
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. New Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.