Blog #53 – Character strengths – Part 1
As positive psychology developed in its early years, one of the first areas it homed in on was that of cultivating character strengths.
This should not surprise, as it is logical that a movement with an explicit focus on what goes right in life, and cultivating happiness and well-being would identify this as an area of interest, as individuals who live in accordance with their signature character strengths and virtues would most likely be living lives defined by purpose and meaning, with these two points – as elaborated on in earlier posts in this series – identified as key to robust well-being.
Writing in the 2006 book A Primer in Positive Psychology, Christopher Peterson stated that the initial emphasis on studying character strengths began with one question: “How can we help youth to realise their full potential?” So, initially the focus was on young people, as opposed to the wider population. However, in the years spent seeking to provide a thorough answer to that question, Peterson stressed that the focus of the project shifted and broadened. Making this point, he wrote: “We remain greatly interested in positive youth development, but we now believe that our project has even wider applicability. It can guide programme design and evaluation not only in the youth development field but in any arena in which optimal development is the goal.” The logical implication of such a statement is that the character strengths project can be made applicable to everyone and all ages, as, after all, who among us isn’t interested in the idea of “optimal development” in the key parts of our lives?
As mentioned above, it took a number of years for Peterson and other researchers – most notably Martin Seligman – to get from the point of asking the initial question to the end point of producing an answer to the wider query they eventually set for themselves. This work began in earnest in 2000, with the creation of the Values in Action (VIA) institute, which was set up with a view towards developing ideas relating to positive youth development and then the practical means of seeking to cultivate it. Eventually, in 2004, these efforts led to the publication of the VIA Classification of Character Strengths, a resource which those involved hope will over time come to be regarded as a go-to resource for maximising human potential in the same way as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is nowadays regarded as the definitive classification of mental disorders.
During the four year process of creating the VIA classification, one of the foundation questions that needed to be answered before the work could proceed in earnest was this: What does ‘good character’ mean? At first glance, it may seem like an obvious question and therefore a classic example of the academic tendency towards over-complication, but that is not the case here. Those involved wanted to create a universally applicable classification, i.e., one whose contents were just as relevant for an audience in Ireland as in India, people in Belgium or Burundi etc. They weren’t interested in creating a document that would only be relevant to individuals living in, for example, the Western world. This would have represented a failure of sorts, or at the very least, falling short of the mission they set for themselves. Therefore, they had to think very carefully as they moved through the process, taking into account cultural contexts, whereby what is valued and respected in one part of the world may not necessarily be viewed with the same significance in another culture. So, if they were to achieve their goal, they could only include material that they were confident was applicable across the board, transcending borders and cultural boundaries.
With this in mind, Peterson and Seligman surveyed a number of historically influential religious and philosophical traditions early in the process, looking for core virtues endorsed across the board. In this trawl, they looked across time and geography, consulting Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, among other sources.
Arising from this trawl, they found near-universal praise and recognition for six virtues – wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. While it might be tempting to believe that their work was done at this point, they did not share that view. Instead, they felt that to merely go with these six core virtues would have been inadequate, as the concepts on their own are too abstract. Elaborating on this, they spoke about how people tend to refer to good character in more specific terms, whereas the above core virtues would be most useful if regarded as umbrella terms under which more precise individual character strengths might then be grouped.
And it is this process of further elaboration that we will look at next time.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.