Is there a list of personal strengths of character, and are there common virtues, that can be identified across cultures and throughout history? Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and founder of the modern positive psychology movement, and especially Christopher Peterson, professor at the University of Michigan since 1986 and member of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee, spent three years researching this.
Psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) catalogs what’s wrong with people – their psychological problems. Peterson and Seligman set out to catalog what’s right with people – their psychological strengths, specifically contrasting it with the DSM. The result is what well-known Harvard professor Howard Gardner called “one of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half century,” the 816-page Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.
Through their research Peterson and Seligman discovered that personal strengths and virtues were more universal than they – or their colleagues – expected. One result was their list of two dozen character strengths, grouped within six broad areas of virtue.
What qualifies as a personal character strength, and how do you know if one is really yours? The researchers discuss many aspects of their methods and those of scientific psychology in the past. In A Primer in Positive Psychology (2007), Peterson explains:
I believe that people possess signature strengths akin to what Allport (1961) identified decades ago as personal traits. These are strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises. In our interviews with adults, we find that almost everyone can readily identify a handful of strengths as very much their own, typically between two and five.
Peterson goes on to present a list they used in 2004 summarizing their “possible criteria for signature strengths”:
- a sense of ownership and authenticity (“this is the real me”) vis-a-vis the strength
- a feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
- a rapid learning curve as themes are attached to the strength and practiced
- continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
- a sense of yearning to act in accordance with the strength
- a feeling of inevitability in using the strength, as if one cannot be stopped or dissuaded from its display
- the discovery of the strength as owned in an epiphany
- invigoration rather than exhaustion when using the strength
- the creation and pursuit of fundamental projects that revolve around the strength
- intrinsic motivation to use the strength
The list of personal character strengths is not set in stone. Like other scientific theories it is subject to change as evidence is evaluated over time. Here are the 24 strengths of character at present, grouped in 6 categories of virtues:
Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
1. Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.
2. Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; exploring and discovering.
3. Open-mindedness [judgment, critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; weighing all evidence fairly.
4. Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally.
5. Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people.
Strengths of Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external and internal
6. Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; acting on convictions even if unpopular.
7. Persistence [perseverance, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.
8. Integrity [authenticity, honesty]: Presenting oneself in a genuine way; taking responsibility for one’s feeling and actions.
9. Vitality [zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated.
Strengths of Humanity: interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
10. Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated.
11. Kindness [generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, “niceness”]: Doing favors and good deeds for others.
12. Social intelligence [emotional intelligence, personal intelligence]: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself.
Strengths of Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
13. Citizenship [social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork]: Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group.
14. Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others.
15. Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same maintain time good relations within the group.
Strengths of Temperance: strengths that protect against excess
16. Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.
17. Humility / Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is.
18. Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.
19. Self-regulation [self-control]: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions.
Strengths of Transcendence: strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life.
21. Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful of the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.
22. Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.
23. Humor [playfulness]: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side.
24. Spirituality [religiousness, faith, purpose]: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose, the meaning of life, and the meaning of the universe.