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What led to the development of Character Strengths and Virtues?

The first edition of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) American Psychiatric Association [APA]. (n.d.). DSM History.
was published in 1952, and heavily influenced by the Veterans Administration plea to better treat the servicemen and veterans who presented with mental disorders following World War II. Since then, the DSM has undergone numerous revisions, and the most recent edition, the DSM-5, was published in 2013. In essence, the DSM is a manual dedicated to determining what is wrong with people. Frustrated with the continued focus on disease and disorder, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman spearheaded a 3-year project in the early 2000s, to determine what is right with people and, specifically, the strengths of character that make a good life possible.

Their groundbreaking book,
“Character Strengths and Virtues”, VIA Institute on Character (n.d.). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.
“represents the most significant effort in history to review, assemble, research, and classify positive strengths/traits in human beings”. Spanning the last 2,500 years and considering the work of over 55 distinguished social scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders, “Character Strengths and Virtues” introduces a common language for understanding, addressing, and enhancing the core capacities of humans. In 2004, when “Character Strengths and Virtues” was first published, Peterson and Seligman shone a light on psychology’s unbalanced attention to illness and provided an avenue for change.

What are Character Strengths and Virtues?

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association.
define virtues as “the core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and thinkers”. There are six broad categories of virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These virtues are universal across all cultures and nations, and are defined below. For a person to be deemed of good character, all six of these virtues
“must be present at above threshold levels”. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association.


Character strengths Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association.
are “the psychological ingredients – processes or mechanisms – that define the virtues”. In other words, character strengths are distinguishable routes to displaying virtues. There are 24 recognized character strengths that each contribute to a specific virtue.


NOTE: Each character strength is linked to its according page on the VIA Institute on Character website where you will find a more in-depth explanation of the strength and ideas for how to apply the strength in your everyday life.

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Wisdom: Cognitive strengths that help you gather and use knowledge.
  • Creativity: You think of new, unique and productive ways of doing things.
  • Curiosity: You seek out opportunities to learn and discover new things; you are interested in many things.  
  • Open-mindedness/Judgement: You think through things thoroughly before making a decision and consider all sides of a situation (even those which conflict with your initial beliefs).
  • Love of learning: You enjoy learning new things, mastering new skills, and deepening existing knowledge.
  • Perspective: You use your knowledge and experience, and consider different perspectives to see the big picture; you are able to advise others.
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Courage: Emotional strengths that help you exercise your will to accomplish goals in the face of adversity.
  • Honesty/Authenticity: You are honest with yourself and others by presenting the “real you” and by taking responsibility for your actions.
  • Bravery: You act according to your beliefs and do not avoid challenges or difficult situations, despite doubts or fears; you speak up for what you believe in, even if others disagree with you.
  • Perseverance: You find ways to accomplish tasks despite obstacles, setbacks or disappointments; you finish what you started.
  • Zest: You approach life with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.
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Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that manifest in caring relationships with others and are most relevant to one-on-one relationships/interactions.
  • Kindness: You are helpful and empathetic and regularly do nice favours for others without expecting anything in return.  
  • Love: You enjoy close, loving relationships that are characterized by giving and receiving love, warmth, and care.
  • Social intelligence: You are aware of and understand your thoughts and feelings, as well as the feelings of those around you, and you use this awareness to act appropriately.
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Justice: Civic strengths that foster community connection and are fundamental to group success.  
  • Fairness: You treat everyone equally and give everyone a fair chance, applying the same rules to everyone.  
  • Leadership: You take charge and guide groups to meaningful goals, while also ensuring good relations among group members.  
  • Teamwork: You are a helpful and contributing team member, and feel responsible for helping the team reach its goals; You are loyal and reliable.
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Temperance: Strengths that help you manage habits and protect against excess.  
  • Forgiveness: You forgive others when they upset you or behave badly towards you, and you use that information in your future interactions with them (i.e. you give others a second chance and do not seek revenge).
  • Humility: You do not seek to be at the center of attention or to receive recognition for your talents and strengths; you see yourself as equal with others.  
  • Prudence: You act carefully and cautiously, looking to avoid unnecessary risks and planning with the future in mind.
  • Self-regulation: You manage your feelings and actions, and achieve balance in your life through discipline and self-control.
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Transcendence: Strengths that help you make connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence and/or skilled performance in the places and people around you.  
  • Gratitude: You notice and appreciate good things in life and take the time to give thanks to others.  
  • Hope: You are realistic (and optimistic) about the future, believe in your actions, and feel confident that things will turn out well.
  • Humor: You approach life playfully, can find humor in stressful times, and enjoy bringing a smile to other people’s faces.
  • Spirituality: You believe in a sense of purpose or meaning in life and see your place in the grand scheme of the universe.


What is the difference between a talent and a strength?

One of the biggest differences between talents and strengths is that talents are innate and cannot be acquired. Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, or behaviour that can be applied productively. On the other hand, strengths are developed through deliberate practice and can be willfully acquired. Another primary difference is that strengths are inherently moral (i.e. good), whereas talents can be good or bad (i.e. neutral).

What is a Strengths-based Approach?

Taking a strengths approach involves finding a balance between what is right and what is wrong. A helpful analogy involves thinking of yourself (or your life) as being a sailboat, with the sails representing your strengths and holes in the boat representing your weaknesses. Solely focusing on weakness would patch up the holes in your boat without raising the sails. This approach prevents the boat from sinking, but also fails to move the boat forward. Alternatively, only focusing on strengths is like raising the boat’s sails without patching its holes – an equally ineffective strategy. A strengths-based approach is a successful sailing strategy, where you raise the sails and patch the holes. Contrary to what many people think, a strengths-based approach does not ignore weaknesses. Instead it simply emphasizes that, in order to flourish, you need to recognize and utilize strengths in addition to addressing weaknesses.

Why should I take a Strengths-based Approach?

The benefits of taking a strengths-based approach have been thoroughly researched with regards to relationships, parenting, education, happiness and wellbeing, professional growth, and so much more. Overall,
Dr. Ryan Niemiec Niemiec, R. (2019, March 24). Research Points to Two Main Reasons to Focus on Strengths. VIA Institute on Character.
highlights two main reasons to focus on strengths:

  1. Focusing on strengths helps you amplify and grow the positive – specific benefits of character strengths have been linked to each of the main elements of wellbeing (positive emotions, engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment) and are present across all four facets of health (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual).
  2. Focusing on strengths helps you learn from and reframe the negative – negative experiences are necessary for personal growth but the negativity bias (the tendency for negative experiences to stick like glue and positive experiences to wash away) prevents constructive learning. Focusing on strengths creates greater balance and reminds you of your ability to face adversity, manage distress, and experience growth.
For youth in particular,
a strengths-based approach is known to Waters, L. (2019, May 13). Why It’s Important to See and Nurture the Best In Your Child. VIA Institute on Character.
help kids reach their full potential, build their wellbeing, enhance their learning abilities, and foster stronger relationships.

How do I take a Strengths-based Approach?

In the article, “Principles of Strength-Based Practice”, Dr. Wayne Hammond identifies nine core principles for guiding and implementing a strength-based approach:

  1. Everyone has potential: It is your unique strengths and capabilities (not your limitations) that define who you are and what you can accomplish.
  2. What you see is what you get: Where you focus your attention and what you choose to see influences who you are and eventually becomes reality (focus on strengths and choose to see challenges as learning opportunities).
  3. Watch your language: The language you use creates your world and shapes the world of people around you.
  4. Change is inevitable: Accept change as part of a natural evolutionary process.
  5. Authentic relationships: Genuine, bidirectional and unconditional support is fundamental for positive change.
  6. Write your own story: When you own your story, you can write the ending.
  7. Start where you are: Take small steps towards a dream by building upon what you already know.
  8. Run a marathon, not a sprint: Capacity building is a life-long, dynamic journey that requires dedication and deliberate practice.
  9. It takes a village to raise a child: Collaboration is essential and must be an inclusive, participatory process, where diversity is valued.

Where can I learn more?

VIA Institute on Character

Greater Good in Education – Character Strengths for Students

Psychology Today – Making Sense of Character Strengths

Positive Education with Character Strengths – Short Documentary on Character Strengths in Elementary Schools

VIA Institute on Character – A list of research studies on character strengths in children, adolescents, and schools

KIPP – Focus on Character (A school that is at the forefront of implementing character education)

PositivePsychology.com – What is a Strength-Based Approach (Including Activities and Examples)

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Clearly describe what a character strength is and identify the 24 different character strengths
  • Understand the importance of a strengths-based approach
  • Recognize their signature strengths and how to apply these strengths to everyday life
  • Support each other by spotting and encouraging strengths
References
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American Psychiatric Association [APA]. (n.d.). DSM History.

Hammond, W. (2010). Principles of strength-based practice. Resiliency Initiatives, 12(2), 1-7.

Niemiec, R. (2019, March 24). Research Points to Two Main Reasons to Focus on Strengths. VIA Institute on Character.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association. VIA Institute on Character (n.d.). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.

Waters, L. (2019, May 13). Why It’s Important to See and Nurture the Best In Your Child. VIA Institute on Character.

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