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Strengths and Virtues


Ancient Chinese graph for De (virtue)

The top line: the work of positive psychologists like Martin Seligman appears to show that the happiest people are those that have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity or justice) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.

You may have had certain strengths that are so natural to you that you may not even consider them strengths.  Think about an episode in your life when you were at your very best.  What qualities enabled you to perform like that?  While there are numerous talents and strengths that humans can possess, Character Strengths and Virtues are ones that humanity universally values.  When Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson sought to discover and classify commonly held strengths and virtues across cultures, they created a classification of core virtues that humans morally value regardless of their cultural, racial, and religious differences. Take the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire to determine your top three signature strengths: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx (Note: you will have to register on the Authentic Happiness website first to take the test.  This is a short form that should take only a few minutes to complete).

In addition to the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire, there are also other strengths classifications, including: StrengthsFinder, the Virtues Project, and Realise 2.  Each classification is unique and is based upon different studies of talents, virtues, or strengths.

Current research indicates that you are most likely to value a job, relationship, hobby or institution that aligns with your core signature strengths and allows you to regularly utilize them.  In fact, research indicates that one of the best ways to boost your long-term happiness is to use your strengths in new ways and situations, rather than focusing on your weaknesses.  For instance, a 2010 study of college students found that individuals who used their signature strengths made more progress in reaching their goals (and improving their well-being) (1).  In addition, a seminal study in 2004 found that certain character strengths, including hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity, show a stronger link to life satisfaction (2).

The use of strengths and virtues is therefore well in keeping with the philosophy of positive psychology: to focus on the positive in your life, not the negative!

1. Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010).  Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists.  International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.

2.  Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23 , 603–619.

Learn More about Strengths and Virtues:

-Comprehensive Reviews of Key Studies

-Annotated Bibliography

-The Philosophy of Virtuous Use of Strengths

How were key studies on strengths and virtues selected?

Key studies concerning strengths and virtues were selected according to methodological rigor, type of investigation, and approach taken in understanding the relationship between the use of strengths and virtues and psychological well-being (or life satisfaction). A 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough was identified as a key study due to its emphasis on understanding the relationship between gratitude and subjective well-being through the “counting blessings” psychological intervention. A 2013 study by Linley, et al, was identified as a key study because it was one of the first to use a repeated measures cross-sectional model to demonstrate evidence linking the use of personal strengths to improved goal progress, fulfillment of psychological needs, and improved well-being. Additionally, a 2009 study performed by Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews was identified as a key study because it replicated the results with enhanced scientific rigor of the same seminal study conducted by Seligman, et al (2005). Niemiec’s 2013 systematic review was identified as a key study because of the vast breadth of perspectives provided in the review, including different strengths and virtues theories, diverse empirical evidence, historical perspectives, and both basic and applied research concerning strengths and virtues.

In addition, Park, Peterson, and Seligman’s 2004 study was identified as a key study due to its evidence revealing that particular character strengths (hope and zest) were positively associated with life satisfaction, while others (modesty and intellectual strengths) were least associated with life satisfaction. Peterson’s 2007 study was also identified as a key study due to its cross-cultural samples (American adults and Swiss adults). Quinlan, Swain, and Vella-Broderick’s 2012 study was identified as a key study because it investigates diverse strengths interventions, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the interventions. Seligman’s 2009 study was identified as a key study due to its focus on positive education programs for youth, particularly in regard to classroom-based interventions at the Geelong Grammar School. In addition, Seligman’s 2005 study was identified as a key study due to its cross-cultural research findings that indicate empirical evidence supporting well-being interventions. Finally, a 2011 study by Wood, et al, was identified as a key study because it quantitatively validates the Strengths Use Scale and additionally presents the results of a longitudinal investigation concerning use of strengths and the influence on psychological well-being.

One Response to "Strengths and Virtues"

  • Andrew Taggart
    October 2, 2011 - 6:24 am

    This website is a wonderful move in the right direction and a sign of progress with respect to our understanding and appreciation of human flourishing. So thank you for the good work you’re doing.

    It occurs to me that we’re seeing a renaissance in philosophy that is anchored in the concerns of everyday life. Here, I thought I’d mention some other useful sites that readers can peruse and explore.

    1.) Philosophical Practice. Since the 1990s, trained philosophical counselors (see, for instance, appa.edu) having been working with individuals and institutions on questions concerning the meaning and value of life. Since Freud, the focus has been almost exclusively on individuals who were suffering from mental illness. There’s much to be said for helping those who are suffering, but what about rational, intact individuals who would like to learn how to live better? What of those who are doing all right but find that there’s something in their lives that’s missing? Something left unfulfilled? How could our lives be optimized by coming to understand ourselves more completely?

    2.) Organizations: From GDP to Happiness. Among many others, Action for Happiness (actionforhappiness.org) and The Happiness Initiative at Sustainable Seattle (http://sustainableseattle.org/sahi) are seeking to change the topic of conversation from economic growth to happiness metrics. What would society be like, they ask, if we measured economic viability in terms of individual and group happiness?

    3.) Public Policy. The UK in particular has begun trying to implement Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into its schools. Jules Evans has been discussing this movement at his website (http://www.politicsofwellbeing.com).

    4.) Journals and Magazines. The Philosophers’ Magazine (TPM) and the recently launched Journal of Modern Wisdom (http://www.modernwisdom.co.uk) both seek to return philosophy to the public sphere. JMW is quite refreshing and very readable.

    5.) Schools. The School of Life and Idlers’ Academy, both of which are based in London, offer courses, seminars, and workshops on philosophy of life for individuals who would like to understand the modern world more clearly.