Most of us, at some point in our upbringing, learned about the importance of individual character. By and large, we learned that someone either has character or they don’t, or that someone is of good or bad character. And there is a hypothetical bar that is set, hard to discern, about who has this good character and who does not, which can be a cause for consternation when we self-reflect. In fact, someone I know and love, who is a wonderful person, recently said she was reluctant to learn about her character because she wasn’t sure if what she discovered would be flattering. Good news: we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief, because what we are talking about here are character strengths.
Character strengths are a way to think about what is good and right in people. In the language of positive psychology, character strengths provide a common vocabulary for talking about the positive traits of human beings. Think of it as asking, “what makes you unique in how all your goodness is put together?” This conception of character as a unique set of individual strengths originated just two decades ago, when psychologists Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson set out to create a complementary vocabulary to that of mental disorders. As experienced researchers, they were tired of looking for psychiatric diagnoses, for what was wrong with people, and for how to fix these problems. So they turned the question upside down, and asked “What is right with people, and how do those assets help them to function?”
After some initial brainstorming about how to answer this question, the researchers looked at ancient cultures to discover how people have thought about human virtue through the millennia. From this effort, they identified the six core virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Then they comprehensively reviewed the research in psychiatry, psychology and philosophy including, for example, the work of Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson and Howard Gardner. They looked at popular culture for language about character strengths in places like greeting cards, personal ads, graffiti and kids’ games. And from their rigorous study, 24 character strengths emerged.
One of the coolest things that they discovered is that we all possess some of each of these 24 character strengths, which they grouped into the six virtues, as follows:
Wisdom: Creativity, Curiosity, Judgment, Love of Learning and Perspective
Courage: Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty and Zest
Humanity: Love, Kindness and Social Intelligence
Justice: Teamwork, Fairness and Leadership
Temperance: Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence and Self-regulation
Transcendence: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor and Spirituality
So this is a really different and positive way to think about character. As Peterson & Seligman said, “character is plural.” Character strengths vary in order and magnitude across individuals, and as such, there are a mind-boggling number of possible combinations of the 24 character strengths – sextillion possibilities – making each of us one of a kind.
By now, I hope you are wondering about your own strengths. If you are, that is great, because it is so easy to get your personal character strength profile. Just visit the Values In Action (VIA) Character Institute at www.VIAcharacter.org to take the free survey. And feel free to email me with your results. I would love to talk with you about all the goodness that makes you you!
To learn more about the story of character strengths, read Dr. Seligman’s The Hope Circuit. And to dive deep into your strengths, try The Power of Character Strengths, by Dr. Ryan Niemiec