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Character Strengths and Virtues is a groundbreaking handbook that was created built on reports from a prestigious group of researchers who have attempted to create a systematic classification and measurements of widely valued positive traits. The aim was to present a measure of humanist ideals of virtue in an empirical and scientific way.
This handbook intends to provide a theoretical framework that will help assist positive psychology practitioners in developing practical applications for the field. There are six classes of virtues that are made up of 24 character strengths:
- Wisdom and Knowledge
Researchers approached the measurement of “good character” based on different kinds of strengths: authenticity, persistence, kindness, gratitude, hope, humor, and so on.
This article contains:
- What Makes Us Strong and Virtuous?
- The CSV Handbook’s List
- Positive Psychology & Character Strengths and Virtues
- On What Strengths do Women Score Higher?
- On What Strengths do Men Score Higher?
- What Can We Learn From Both
- Development of Character Strengths in Children
- Character Strengths and Well-Being in Adolescence
- Videos on Character Strengths
What Makes Us Strong and Virtuous?
There has always been an interest in studying and identifying human strengths; obviously it was a huge interest for psychologists because it was something they could work with their clients on developing. Each culture values human virtues, with the difference being the way that is chosen to express or act on that virtue differs between societal values and norms.
Martin Seligman and his colleagues studied all major religions and philosophical traditions and found that the same six virtues (i.e. courage, humanity, justice, etc.) were shared in practically all cultures across three millennia.
Since these virtues are considered a bit too abstract to be studied scientifically, positive psychology practitioners focused their attention on the strengths of character by which was achieved by its virtues. They followed that by creating tools for their measurement.
The main assessment instruments they used to measure those strengths were:
- Structured interviews
- Informant Reports
- Behavioral Experiments
The main criteria for characters strengths that they came up with are:
- It should be a trait that is stable across time and situations
- It’s valued in its own right, even in the absence of other benefits
- It’s recognized and valued in almost every culture, is considered non-controversial, and is irrelevant from politics.
- Cultures provide role models that possess those traits so other people can recognize its worth.
- Parents aim to instill these traits or values in their children.
The CSV Handbook’s List
Virtue of Wisdom and Knowledge
- Strengths that accompany this virtue involve acquiring and using knowledge:
- Creativity (e.g. Albert Einstein’s creativity led him to acquire knowledge and wisdom about the universe)
- Love of Learning
- Perspective and Wisdom (Fun fact: many studies have found that adults’ self-ratings of perspective and wisdom do not depend on age, which contrasts the popular idea that our wisdom increases with age).
To simplify: The more curious and creative you allow yourself to become, the more you gain perspective and wisdom, and you will in turn love what you are learning because your developing a virtue of wisdom and knowledge.
Virtue of Courage
Strengths that accompany this virtue involve accomplishing goals in the face of things that oppose it:
To simplify: The braver and more persistent we become, the more our integrity will increase because we will reach a state of feeling vital; this will result in being more courageous in character.
Virtue of Humanity
Strengths that accompany this virtue include caring and befriending others:
- Social intelligence
To simplify: There is a reason why Oprah Winfrey is seen as a symbol of virtue for humanitarians: on every show she approaches her guests with respect, appreciation, and interest (social intelligence), she practices kindness through her charity work, and she makes sure she shows her love to her friends and family, something that has been reported on numerous accounts.
Virtue of Justice
Strengths that accompany this virtue include those that build a healthy and stable community:
- Being an active citizen, socially responsible, loyal, and a team member.
To simplify: Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. He led India to independence and helped created movements for civil rights and freedom by being an active citizen in nonviolent disobedience. His work has been applied worldwide for its universality.
Virtue of Temperance
Strengths that are included in this virtue are those that protect against excess:
- Forgiveness and mercy
- Humility and modesty
- Self-Regulation and Self-control
To Simplify: Being forgiving, merciful, humble, prudent, and under control of your behaviors and instincts will prevent you from being arrogant, selfish, or any other trait that is excessive.
Virtue of Transcendence
Strengths that accompany this virtue includes those that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning:
Appreciation of beauty and excellence
Humor and playfulness
Spirituality, or a sense of purpose
To simplify: The Dalai Lama is transcendent being, as he never loses hope in humanity’s potential, always appreciates nature in its perfection, is frequently seen smiling, and is living out what he believes to be his intended purpose.
Positive Psychology & Character Strengths and Virtues
Positive psychology practitioners can count on practical applications to help individuals and organizations identify their strengths and use them to increase and maintain their levels of well-being.
They also emphasize that these character strengths exist on a continuum for positive traits are regarded as individual differences that exist in degrees rather than all-or-nothing categories.
In fact, the handbook has an internal subtitle entitled “A Manual of the Sanities” because it is intended to do for psychological wellbeing what the DSM does for psychological disorders: to add systematic knowledge and ways to master new skills and topics.
Research shows that these human strengths can act as buffers against mental illness. For instance, being optimistic will prevent the chances of one becoming depressed and it also has shown that the absence of a strength may be an indication of psychopathology. Positive psychology therapists, counselors, coaches, and other psychological professions use these new methods and techniques to help build people’s strength and broaden their lives.
It should be noted that many researchers are advocating grouping these 24 traits into just four classes of strength (Intellectual, Social. Temperance, and Transcendence) or even three classes (excluding transcendence), as evidence has shown that these classes do an adequate job of capturing all 24 original traits.
Others caution also that sometimes people use these traits to excess and it can sometimes become a liability to the person. For example, people use a lot of humor as a defense mechanism in order to avoid dealing with a tragedy or coma.
On What Strengths Do Women Score Higher?
There’s an interest in identifying dominant character strengths in genders and how it is developed. As Martin Seligman and his colleagues studied all major religions and philosophical traditions to find universal virtues, much of the research on gender and character strengths have been cross-cultural also.
In a study by Brdar, Anic, & Rijavec on gender differences and character strengths, the results showed that women scored highest on the strengths of honesty, kindness, love, gratitude, and fairness.
Life satisfaction for women was predicted by zest, gratitude, hope, appreciation of beauty/excellence, and love for women. Furthermore, a recent study by Mann showed that women tend to score higher on gratitude than men. Alex Linley and colleagues reported in a UK study that women not only scored higher in interpersonal strengths such as love and kindness but on social intelligence, too.
In a cross-cultural study in Spain by Ovejero and Cardenal , they found that femininity was positively correlated with love, social intelligence, appreciation of beauty, love of learning, forgiveness, spirituality, and creativity. The more masculine a man was, the more he negatively correlated with these character strengths.
On What Strengths Do Men Score Higher?
Brdar, Anic & Rijavac reported that men score highest on honesty, hope, humor, gratitude, and curiosity.
Their life satisfaction was predicted by creativity, perspective, fairness, and humor. Alex Linley and colleagues study showed that men scored higher than females on creativity.
Miljković and Rijavec ‘s study found sex differences in a sample of college students. Men not only scored higher in creativity, but also leadership, self-control, and zest. These findings seem to be congruent with gender stereotypes, as the study by Ovejero and Cardenal in Spain showed that men did not equate typical masculine strengths with love, forgiveness, love of learning, and so on.
In a Croatian sample, Brdar and colleagues found that men viewed cognitive strengths as a greater predictor for life satisfaction. Men saw strengths such as teamwork, kindness, perspective, and courage to be a stronger connection to life satisfaction than other strengths. There is an important limitation to this sample population, as most of the participants were women.
What Can We Learn From Both?
While there are differences of character strengths between men and a women, there are still similarities that they share. In terms of life satisfaction, both genders saw gratitude, hope, and zest related to higher life satisfaction.
Life satisfaction for both genders seem to be based on living in accordance with the strengths that are valued in their culture . Studies have been confirming that there is a duality between genders, but only when both genders identify strongly with gender stereotypes. It makes one wonder if men and women are born inherently with certain strengths or if it is the acceptance of exercising certain strengths that help to make one “stronger” than the other.
Development of Character Strengths in Children
Peterson and Seligman’s, Character Strengths in Action: handbook and classification, published their theoretical speculation that it is not common for some young children to demonstrate gratitude, open-mindedness, authenticity, and forgiveness.
Park and Peterson’s study confirmed this theoretical speculation, concluding that these sophisticated character strengths usually require a degree of cognitive maturation that develops during adolescence. So although gratitude is associated with happiness in adolescents and adulthood, this is not the case in young children. Park and Peterson study found that the association of gratitude with happiness starts at age seven.
“Gratitude is seen as a human strength that enhances one’s personal and relational well-being and is beneficial for society as a whole” – Simmel
Although most young children are not cognitively mature enough for sophisticated character strengths, there are many fundamental character strengths that are developed at a very early stage.
The strengths of love, zest, and hope are associated with happiness starting at a very young age. The strengths of love and hope are dependent on the infant and caregiver relationship.
A secure attachment to the caregiver at infancy is more likely to result in psychological and social well adjustment throughout their lives. It is known that the nurturing of children plays a significant part of development, being a role model in an important aspect of teaching a child certain character strengths as they imitate the behavior, to then embrace the strength as one of their own.
“Character strengths are influenced by family, community, societal, and other contextual factors. At least in theory, character strengths are malleable; they can be taught and acquired through practice.” – Gillham, et al.
Character Strengths and Well-Being in Adolescents
The majority of the research today on character strengths focuses on adults, despite the known importance of childhood and adolescence on personal developmental character.
However, there has been research into which character strengths promotes positive development and prevents psychopathology.
Dahlsgaard, Park, and Peterson discovered that adolescents with higher levels of zest, hope, and leadership displayed lower levels of anxiety and depression in comparison to their peers with lower levels of these strengths. Gillham et al research findings suggested that adolescent character strength contribute to well-being.
The research suggested that transcendence (eg. gratitude, meaning, and hope) predict life satisfaction, concluding in the importance for adolescents to develop positive relationships and to have a sense of purpose and dreams.
VIA Character Strengths Youth Survey
Parents, educators, and researchers have requested the VIA: institute on character strengths to develop a VIA survey that is especially aimed at youths. Take the VIA psychometric data – youth survey if you are between the ages of 10-17.
Being a positive role model for children is important to the development of their character strengths. Most young children don’t have the cognitive maturity to display gratitude but have the ability to display love and hope.
Therefore gratitude must not be expected from a young child but must be taught. That is why mums always reminds their young ones to say ‘thank you’. “It takes a village to raise a child” – all external influences impact children, including community and society.
That is why positive education programs have been developed helped children and adolescents focus on character strengths. There are certain character strengths in adolescents that have a clearer impact on psychological well-being. These strengths must be fostered to ensure life long fulfilment and and satisfaction.
Videos on Character Strengths
To finish off, here are some helpful videos for you to enjoy if you want to learn more about character strengths and virtues:
Bowlby, J.(1969). Attachment and Loss, (Vol. I). Attachment . Basic Books, New York.
Dahlsgaard, K.K. (2005). Is virtue more than its own reward? Character strengths and their relation to well-being in a prospective, longitudinal study of middle school-aged adolescents (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,PA.
Gillham, J., Adams-Deutsch, Z., Werner, J., Reivich, K., Coulter-Heindl, V., Linkins, M., Seligman, M. (2011). Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(1), 31-44.
Jolly, M., & Academia. (2006). Positive Psychology: The Science of Human Strengths. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/6442081/Positive_Psychology_The_Science_of_Human_Strengths
Kochanska, G. (2001). Emotional development in children with different attachment histories: The first three years. Developmental Psychology 72, pp. 474–490.
McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127, 249−266.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006, a). Character strengths and happiness among young children: Content analysis of parental descriptions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 323-341.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006, b). Moral competence and character strengths among adolescents: The development and validation of the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth. Journal of adolescence, 29(6), 891-909.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues a handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Simmel, G. (1950). The sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). Measuring Your Character Strengths | World of Psychology. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/01/05/measuring-your-character-strengths/