Building Character Strengths – The Road to Wellbeing?
When we describe a friend or acquaintance, we often assess their personality disposition, describing him or her as introverted, easygoing, or friendly. These personality traits are usually stable over time and result in specific behaviors in an individual. Character strengths are the positive traits that underlie good behavior and are displayed through one’s emotions, cognitions, and behavior. As opposed to the personality trait of extroversion that describes an individual who is social, outgoing, and assertive, the character strength of leadership describes an individual who effectively organizes activities and makes sure that tasks are completed. Furthermore, character strengths, unlike personality traits, only include positive behavior traits of the individual. For example, an extroverted person may be aggressive or critical of others while an individual possessing the leadership strength is appropriately assertive and encouraging of others despite their setbacks.
The 24 character strengths are divided into temperance strengths, defined as the ability to control one’s behavior and attain goals (e.g. prudence, perseverance), intellectual or cognitive strengths that are related to an interest and enthusiasm for learning (e.g. curiosity, open-mindedness), transcendence strengths that are future and other-oriented (e.g. hope, love), and other-directed strengths which primarily foster good relationships within a community (e.g. kindness, teamwork).
There is not set of criteria or cut-off score to determine whether an individual possesses a certain character strength or not. Instead, character strengths are possessed in different amounts: some may have all, none, or some of the strength in question. The strengths can also change across the lifespan, depending on the context of the individual’s life at the time. Importantly, character strengths can be measured. The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths for Adults (VIA-IS) and for Youth (VIA-Youth) are self-report questionnaires that use a 5 point Likert scale and have appropriate internal consistency and reliability. The VIA results list the strengths in order starting from the highest score which corresponds to the strength that is most prevalent in the rater.
The Power of Character Strengths
The type of strengths that are most prevalent in adults differs from that of children. Children and adolescents tend to have more hope, teamwork, and zest, while adults tend to possess more honesty, appreciation of beauty, leadership, open-minded-ness, and forgiveness. Gratitude is absent in very young children, as gratitude may require more maturity in order to be displayed. However, very young children naturally tend to have more curiosity, love, kindness, and humor. This is the mark of a 3 year old — everything is new and exciting. Curiosity, more common in childhood, is associated with life satisfaction primarily in adults. Therefore, embracing your inner child may lead to lasting fulfillment.
Character strengths are found to be related to subjective well-being, which includes positive emotions and life satisfaction, which is how you perceive your life is going. In a cross-sectional study, hope, zest, love, and gratitude as one of the top five character strengths in Caucasian adults was associated with life satisfaction across analyses. With hope, adults can happily perceive a good future; with gratitude, a good past; with love, enjoyable reciprocal relationships; and with zest and curiosity, an enjoyable present. Adults with modesty and intellectual strengths (appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, and love of learning) as one of their top five character strengths were consistently associated with lower life satisfaction. While a passion and interest for learning is important for school and occupational success, it may not hold the key to life satisfaction in general.
In a longitudinal study, high school students possessing transcendence and other-directed strengths at the beginning of 10th grade scored high on subjective well-being at the end of the school year. In addition, students possessing other-directed strengths such as kindness and teamwork displayed fewer depressive symptoms at the end of the year than students low in other-directed strengths. Even in young children, ages 3 to 9, the strengths of hope, love, and zest were associated with happiness.
These findings suggest that transcendence and other-directed strengths, which are associated with the heart, are consistently related to higher life satisfaction than intellectual strengths, which are associated with the mind. Across all ages, academic achievement and occupational success may not allow for a satisfied life as much as having mutual close relationships with others. Life satisfaction may rest in simply spending time with your family and friends.
Practice makes Perfect
Aristotle believed that virtues can be taught and developed through practice. The next step is to find ways to teach character strengths and learn how to build on them in everyday life. You need not be a super hero to possess strengths. For example, for the “three good things” exercise, instructions are to write three positive events that happened during the day before bed and then how these events occurred. This can foster gratitude. If you write down that you devoured a delicious cake because your sister baked it for your birthday, then you will begin to feel grateful for her. While reducing psychopathology is important, simply the removal of anxiety or depression may not instill happiness or well-being. Focusing on character strengths as an adjunct to other interventions may aid in our goals of attaining the good life.
Gillham, J., Adams-Deutsch, Z., Werner, J., Reivich, K., Coulter-Heindl, V., Linkins, M., Winder, B., & Seligman MEP. (2011). Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 31-44 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2010.536773
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006). Character Strengths and happiness among young children: Content analysis of parental descriptions Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 323-341 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-005-3648-6
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Strengths of Character in Schools. In R. Gilman, E. S. Huebner & M. J. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in schools (65-75). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, MEP. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.23.5.603.50748