Park, N., Peterson C., Seligman M., Strengths of Character and Well Being (2004) Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 23, No.5, pp. 603-619
As a step towards an empirically based classification of positive character traits, the authors developed the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths. This study uses the VIA in order to test the relationship between various character strengths and happiness. In order to measure character strengths, the authors devised a self-report questionnaire (VIA Inventory of Strengths) with over 200 questions. For example, the character strength of hope was measured by items such as “I know I will succeed in life,” while gratitude was captured by such items as “At least once a day, I stop and count my blessings.”
Preliminary investigations have revealed that the 24 strengths of the VIA Classification have construct validity. For example in a study using a nominating procedure, people were asked to identify individuals whom they believed to possess a given strength to a notable degree. These individuals in turn completed the VIA questionnaire without being told why. Those who were nominated as having a given strength scored reliably higher than those not nominated (with r= .2 to.3).
The authors focus on life satisfaction, the cognitive component of Subjective Well-being (SWB). Life satisfaction reflects the individual’s appraisal of her life as a whole and has been shown to correlate highly with resistance to stress, less depression, good problem solving and better physical health. With this in mind, the authors set out to investigate which character strengths show a stronger link to life satisfaction than others. The idea is to empirically test which virtues are the most important and thus decide between various philosophers who have claimed certain virtues to be superior (e.g., Aristotle with practical wisdom, Confucius with humanity and Aquinas with the theological virtues of love, hope, and faith). The flip side of this question is to empirically determine which character strengths taken to an extreme diminish well-being. For example, is it possible to love too much? Or show too much gratitude? Note however that according to Aristotle it would be impossible for virtue to be an extreme, since it is defined as a mean between two extremes. So the way the authors set up this “problem” appears to be question-begging (for example, if one shows too much bravery than that person would be foolhardy and not courageous).
Study participants were three samples of adult volunteers recruited over the Internet in fall 2002 and winter 2003. Sample 1 (n = 3,907) was obtained from the Authentic Happiness Website, and Sample 2 (n =852) and Sample 3 (n = 540) were obtained from the Values in Action Website. In each sample, respondents on average were 35–40 years of age; 70% were females, and 80% were U.S. citizens. Except for gender, demographic variables did not relate to specific character strengths. Females scored somewhat higher than males on interpersonal character strengths such as social intelligence, kindness, and love, but these correlates never exceeded r = .20.
The authors found that hope (.53) and zest (.52) were substantially related to life satisfaction. Also related substantially to life satisfaction were gratitude (.43), love (.35), and curiosity (.39). Love of learning (.15), creativity (.12), practical wisdom (.16) and appreciation of beauty (.12) were only weakly associated with life satisfaction. There was no evidence that “too much” of a character strength was ever associated with lower life satisfaction. Rather, the more intense the strength, the more the life satisfaction.
The authors found the high correlation between zest and curiosity and life satisfaction to be “psychological tautologies,” meaning they were obvious. However they were surprised by the high ranking of traits such as love, hope, and gratitude. Gratitude connects one happily to the past, while hope connects one happily to the future. Zest and curiosity connects one happily to the present. Thus if we take happiness to be a matrix that connects us to the past, present, and future, it should be expected that gratitude, zest, and hope would be those strengths that connect most strongly to happiness. On the other hand, strengths which are socially valued like learning, creativity and practical wisdom do not translate into life satisfaction for the person possessing them. However, Aristotle would point out that without practical wisdom one will not be able to manifest any of the other strengths appropriately in a given context. Hence it is too quick to say that a strength like “practical wisdom” is not needed for life satisfaction. And of course, subjective reports of life satisfaction should not be taken as normative: it may still be the case that the intellectual virtues are the most “important” even if they are not correlated with life satisfaction.
Another concern with this study is the potential bias on the part of the participants. Not only were they are taken from the Internet (hardly a representative sample), the participants filling out the questionnaires were in many cases already familiar with Seligman’s research, particularly his 2002 trade book on positive psychology. The authors respond that Seligman had not yet made any claims about the association with strengths and happiness at that point and thus it did not contaminate the results. They also note that the study cannot conclude that certain strengths cause happiness. This is because happiness is not a result of applying a strength but is inherent in the very activity itself. For example, if one does not feel satisfied when helping another person, then one is not really displaying the strength of caring or loving. Thus we should not say “do x in order to achieve y” where x is a strength and y is happiness. Rather we should just say “do x for the sake of x.” Since displaying our strengths is intrinsically satisfying, all we need to focus on is our strengths and not on their outcomes, in order to obtain happiness.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2006) From the Equator to the North Pole: A Study of Character Strengths. Journal of Happiness Studies 7:293-310
The study of character strengths has become a major research interest of positive psychologists, and this study attempts to assess whether the Values in Action (VIA) Classification has construct validity by examining it across cultures. Do these character strengths capture something which is universal in human nature, or are they mere artifacts of a particular culture?
The VIA was developed by psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman to be the positive counterpart to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The VIA Classification has already shown potential for application in youth development: in a study of 459 Michigan high school students, it was found that VIA strengths is an important and engaging topic for teenagers. Furthermore, it has been shown that certain strengths such as zest, hope, and love are highly correlated with life satisfaction (see study above).
In their attempt to come up with the classification, Peterson and Seligman reviewed more than 200 religious and philosophical texts ranging from the Hebrew Bible to the Klingon Code from the Star Trek television series. They found six common virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, love and spirituality. Although they did their best to guard against cultural bias, it is still unclear how universally applicable the VIA is. For instance, there might be little agreement across cultures about what behaviors are virtuous, how each virtue is developed and manifested behaviorally, and about which virtues are most important. Punctuality, for example, appears to be highly desirable in some societies while virtually ignored in others. Theories of moral development have been shown to vary as well across cultures, with Kohlberg’s higher stages favoring a Western view of individuality. In addition, the cross-cultural literature shows variations in attitudes toward specific behaviors such as marijuana use, personal characteristics such as race, and psychological characteristics such as schizophrenia.
This study seeks to analyze attitudes across cultures towards the virtues contained in the VIA classification. Three different cultures were chosen for their wide variation in language, technological development, cultural and spiritual practices, geography and history. They included the Kenyan Maasai, a traditional group of pastoralists who live without electricity or running water; the Inughuit, a group of Inuit in Northern Greenland who still retain many aspects of a hunting lifestyle; and university students from the University of Illinois, representing individuals from a Westernized and industrialized culture.
The participants included 123 members of the Kenyan Maasai, 71 Inughuit, and 519 University of Illinois students. Individual participants answered a series of questions related to two or more VIA virtues: They indicated whether the virtue existed as a concept in their society, rated the importance of the virtue to society, indicated whether they would want their child to have the virtue, indicated the existence (or lack thereof) of established cultural practices on institutions that engender the virtue, and reported whether children, elders, men, and women could each exhibit each virtue.
For all three cultural groups, there was widespread recognition of the existence and importance of each of the 24 strengths of the VIA classification, except possibly for the case of forgiveness. The vast majority of participants from each culture indicated that they thought all 24 strengths were highly desirable for their children. The Inughuit and Maasi samples indicated that they believed that while anyone could possess one of the 24 strengths, the majority of them were only evidenced by “elders” and not by children.
The author maintains that this study provides initial evidence for the ubiquitous nature of the VIA classification. There was some variation, however, in the importance of the virtues depending on the culture. Only 13.6% of the USA sample believed that the virtue of “modesty” was “very important” while 44% of the Inughuit believed it was very important. The author theorizes that there is some evolution in terms of how important a virtue is given specific social and historical circumstances. For example, directly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, a study found that several strengths including leadership, hope, and kindness, were elevated in the US population.
Only two strengths differed by gender by at least ten percentage points for the Inughuit, ‘‘kindness’’ (women were rated higher) and ‘‘self-control’’ (men were rated higher). The Maasai, by contrast, differed by 10 or more percentage points for their gender beliefs on four strengths: honesty, fairness, leadership (all of which favored men), and self-control (which favored women). This might reflect the extreme gender divisions found in Maasai society. Americans rated both men and women relatively equally, and quite highly. Only the strengths of ‘‘industry’’ and ‘‘attachment’’ (both of which favored women) differed by more than 10 percentage points.
The author concludes that despite these differences, the study confirms that the strengths and virtues of the VIA classification are not mere artifacts of western culture, and that applications based on the VIA should have widespread appeal and utility for happiness interventions.
Seligman M., Sheen T., Park N., Peterson C. (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist July-August, pp. 410-421.
This study sought to do two things: 1) summarize some of the research supporting the ubiquitous nature of the strengths and virtues as outlined in the VIA classification system; and 2) provide some empirical basis for the success of intervention based on the VIA classification. As to the first, the authors refer to several studies which presumably show that there is a remarkable similarity in the endorsement of the 24 character strengths by adults around the world and within the United States. The most commonly endorsed strengths from Azerbaijan to Venezuela, are kindness, fairness, authenticity, and gratitude, while lesser strengths consistently include prudence, modesty and self-control. Among youth, U.S. adolescents show less agreement, but hope, teamwork and zest have emerged as the most commonly endorsed strengths. Furthermore, although all character strengths contribute to fulfillment, “strengths of the heart” such as hope, zest, gratitude and love, are more robustly associated with life satisfaction than more cerebral strengths such as curiosity and love and learning.
In the second part of the paper, the authors presented evidence to support the idea that one’s happiness level can be increased by actively performing an “intervention” based on applying one’s signature strengths and virtues. The participants were taken from the Internet: over the course of one month, 577 adults were recruited: 42% male and 58% female. Almost two thirds of the participants (64%) were between the ages of 35 and 54 years. Of the participants surveyed, 39% had a degree from a four-year college and 27% had some graduate school education. Approximately 75% classified their income level as “average” and 77% were white.
The respondents answered a series of basic demographic questions and completed two questionnaires, the SHI (testing for happiness or Subjective Well Being) and the CES-D (testing for depression). They were blindly divided into five groups, one being a placebo control group. Each day they were assigned an exercise and were instructed to return to the Website to complete the follow-up questionnaire after completing their assigned exercise.
The five groups were divided as follows:
- Placebo control exercise: participants were asked to write about their early memories every night for one week.
- Gratitude visit: participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.
- Three good things in life: participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week.
- You at your best: participants were asked to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on the personal strengths displayed in the story. They were told to review their story once every day for a week and to reflect on the strengths they had identified.
- Using signature strengths in a new way: participants were asked to take the inventory of character strengths online at www.authentichappiness.org and to receive individualized feedback about their top five signature strengths. They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.
The results proved interesting: in two of the exercises—using signature strengths in a new way and three good things— there was significant increase in happiness and decreased depressive symptoms even after six months after their exercise. The gratitude visit causes large positive changes after the first month but then tailed off to return to baseline by the six month. The two other exercises and the placebo control created positive but transient effects on happiness and depressive symptoms. Not surprisingly, the degree to which participants actively continued their assigned exercise beyond the prescribed one week period mediated the long term benefits.
In this paper the authors do not give any theoretical explanation for why the signature strength test proved to be most effective, but elsewhere the authors note that signature strengths are those that the person feels most intrinsically satisfying when applying to life. Thus, it should be no surprise that finding new ways to apply these strengths would have an impact on momentary and lasting happiness.
The authors do point out a limitation to their study: first of all, all of the participants were familiar with the Internet and already motivated to increase their happiness by logging onto the website and taking the test. Secondly, the sample was taken from largely well educated, white and financially comfortable individuals from within the United States, and it is difficult to see whether these results could be generalized to other populations. Despite these shortcomings, the authors believe that this was a randomly controlled experiment that showed that interventions can be effective in producing positive changes in momentary and long-lasting happiness. This counters the idea that happiness is some “fixed” genetic point that cannot be changed.
Steen, T., Kachorek, L., Peterson, C. (2002) Character Strength among Youth. Journal of Youth and Adolesence, Vol. 32, No. 1., pp. 5-16
This study proposed to investigate the relationship between good character and various strengths and virtues in a youth population. Four hundred and fifty-nine students from 20 different high school classrooms in Michigan participated in focus group discussions about the character strengths included in the Values in Action (VIA) Classification. The subject matter of each class ranged from English to psychology to Spanish. Students from the 9th to 12th grades were represented, ranging in age from 14 to 19. The students were 52% female, 80% white and mainly from the middle class. The focus groups were conducted during a single session of regular class time, from 45 to 90 minutes and were led by 1 or 2 female graduate students in clinical psychology.
The main focus of the discussion was what the students themselves thought about character strengths. They were instructed not to ponder how others would want them to respond but to answer honestly and spontaneously. Students were asked to contribute to the discussion by jumping in whenever they had an opinion to express. All discussions were audiotaped and later transcribed. To guide the discussion, the group leader asked a leading question for each of the character strengths under discussion. For example, one such question could be: “Would someone give an example of people they know or have heard about who are particularly courageous? What are they like? How do you know that they are courageous? Give an example when someone showed a lot of courage?”
Approximately 95% of students returned assent and consent forms and actively participated in the focus group discussions. They appeared to enjoy the discussion and the fact that their ideas were being solicited and valued. Many students described the groups as “fun” and “cool” and welcomed the change from their usual classroom activities. Students generally believed that while some people naturally possessed more or less of a given strength, all of them could be learned or developed through life experience, though not as a matter of formal instruction (this by the way jives well with Aristotle’s view that the virtues must be learned through practice and not in the classroom).
The strengths that resonated most with students were love of learning, social intelligence, and spirituality. Although a majority stated that they were people who loved to learn, they were quick to add that they did not enjoy school and enjoyed learning by watching educational television, reading, and other extra-curricular activities. The authors were surprised by how many students claimed spirituality as their signature strength, though many students maintained an important distinction between “being religious” and “being spiritual.” Not all of the virtues were praised without reservation: the strength of prudence/caution stood out as particularly unappealing to most high school students. The virtues of curiosity and kindness were also mixed, as students listed a number of examples of situations where these virtues could be bad or even dangerous (this by the way jives well with Kant’s view that the virtues are not unreservedly good but are context-dependent).
Students cited an almost complete lack of contemporary role models exemplifying different strengths of character. The students discussed different ways of quantitatively assessing the positive traits, as well as various character education programs that could be devised to help foster the strengths. While the study was largely qualitative, based on focus discussions and case studies based on students’ personal experience, the study did suggest that students can be highly motivated to discuss the issue of character strengths and that they consider it to be very important in their lives, despite the lack of role models in the media to help them pursue their own signature strengths. In a more quantitative analysis conducted by researchers Nansoon Park and Chris Peterson (2006), it was found that consistent with previous research with youth and adults, the character traits of love, zest and hope were most highly correlated with happiness, while the strength of gratitude was highly correlated with happiness for older children.