This is my reference for the concept of character strengths, from the VIA Institute on Character website that has far more information. However, it doesn’t have everything I have here, and some content is not focused or organized as I have here that I prefer. The test to get your relative character strengths, that is how they stack up among each other rather than against anyone else’s results, is free to take on the VIA site.
What are Character Strengths?
This video covers more than a definition, including how Character Strengths can be used for a happier and more meaningful life, among other things, but I thought it did a great job to answer the question.
If you want a more concrete definition, there is one below by Martin Seligman, as quoted and summarized by Professor Laurie Santos at Yale, in her Science of Well-Being course on Coursera, Video 1 of Lecture 5 at 3:45. Some of the content compiled in that post also came from that lecture.
“A desire, a disposition to act, or a feeling that involves the exercise of judgment that leads to a recognizable human excellence or instance of human flourishing.”
(i.e. virtues in the way that we act)
Features of Character Strength
- Ubiquitous – widely recognized across cultures.
- Fulfilling – leads to fulfillment, satisfaction.
- Morally valued – in most systems of the world.
- Unable to diminish others – don’t make other people feel bad, and that might actually bring people “up” in spirit.
- The opposite of a negative trait
- Trait-like – stable individual difference.
- Measurable – can identify and track.
- Distinctive – not redundant with other strengths.
- Paragons – some people really seem to have the characteristics, probably through practice.
- Prodigies – some people precociously (naturally) seem to have it, like kids.
- Select absence – some people really seem devoid of it.
- Institutionalized – society, and most societies, value these characteristics.
Martin Seligman, after defining these features, set out to identify these character strengths. He came up with 24, which are grouped into 6 categories with their own descriptions. The categories and their associated character strengths are presented simultaneously below to show their interrelations.
Character Strengths and their Categories
These character strengths, their categories and links to their descriptions are from the VIA Institute on Character site. They also have some great graphics and summaries downloadable as PDFs in that link. I am showing here as text with more specific links.
Wisdom deals with strengths that involve the way we acquire and use knowledge.
|Creativity||Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.|
|Curiosity||Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.|
|Judgment||Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.|
|Love of learning||Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.|
|Perspective||Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself/ others.|
Courage describes strengths that deal with overcoming fear. These strengths can manifest themselves inwardly or outwardly as they are composed of cognitions, emotions, motivations and decisions.
|Bravery||Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what’s right even if there’s opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it.|
|Honesty||Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions.|
|Perseverance||Finishing what one starts; persevering in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks.|
|Zest||Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.|
Humanity describes strengths that manifest in caring relationships with others. These strengths are interpersonal and are mostly relevant in one-on-one relationships.
|Kindness||Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them.|
|Love||Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.|
|Social intelligence||Being aware of the motives/feelings of others and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick.|
Justice describes strengths that make life fair. They are broadly interpersonal and describe the best interaction between the individual and a group or community.
|Fairness||Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting feelings bias decisions about others; giving everyone a fair chance.|
|Leadership||Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same time maintain good relations within the group; organizing group activities and seeing that they happen.|
|Teamwork||Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group; doing one’s share.|
Temperance deals with strengths that protect us from excess. It is the practiced ability to monitor and manage one’s emotions, motivation and behavior in the absence of outside help.
|Forgiveness||Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.|
|Humility||Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is.|
|Prudence||Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.|
|Self-Regulation||Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions.|
Transcendence describes strengths that provide a broad sense of connection to something higher in meaning and purpose than ourselves.
|Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence||Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.|
|Gratitude||Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.|
|Hope||Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about.|
|Humour||Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes.|
|Spirituality||Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.|
As the word strength implies in the character strengths name, not all of them will be equal for anyone. We will be stronger in some than others, whether by nature, practice, or both. Signature strengths, then were introduced as those character strengths that are most essential to who we are.
The theory with signature strengths is that if you recognize and employ them, you will do your best, find the most meaning and virtue, and find yourself “flourishing” the most. References and summaries of research supporting this can be found here on the VIA Institute on Character.
What qualifies as a signature strength is a character strength that is in your Top 5 or 7. There doesn’t seem to be anything definitive here. However, the Top 5 concept seems to be more out of popularity for how people like to cut off the top of some lists, while the Top 7 concept is more practical for exercises given like use one per day of the week, and for flexibility to identify jobs that might feel more like a calling for you (coming in a future post).
To see more posts related to the Science of Well-Being course, please click here.
And click here if you want to register for the Science of Well-Being course, by Professor Laurie Santos, free on Coursera!
A little something demonstrating the Character Strength of Perspective…