Character Strengths and Virtues

Seligman

Character Strengths and Virtues‘ (CSV) is a 2004 book by psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman that presents humanist ideals of virtue in an empirical, rigorously scientific manner. Seligman describes it as a ‘positive’ counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). While the DSM focuses on what can go wrong, CSV is designed to look at what can go right.

In their research they looked across cultures and time to distill a manageable list of virtues that have been highly valued from ancient China and India, through Greece and Rome, to contemporary Western cultures. Their list includes six character strengths: wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each of these has three to five sub-entries; for instance, temperance includes forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation. The authors do not believe that there is a hierarchy for the six virtues; no one is more fundamental than or a precursor to the others.

CSV identifies six classes of virtue (i.e., ‘core virtues’), made up of twenty-four measurable ‘character strengths’ that are: fulfilling; intrinsically valuable, in an ethical sense (gifts, skills, aptitudes, and expertise can be squandered, but character strengths and virtues cannot); non-rivalrous (they don’t decrease anyone else’s virtue); not the opposite of a desirable trait (a counterexample is steadfast and flexible, which are opposites but are both commonly seen as desirable); trait-like (habitual patterns that are relatively stable over time); not a combination of the other character strengths in the CSV; personified (at least in the popular imagination) by people made famous through story, song, etc.; observable in child prodigies (though this criterion is not applicable to all character strengths); absent in some individuals; and nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

The introduction of CSV suggests that these six virtues are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history and that these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism and suggesting that virtue has a biological basis. These arguments are in line with the science of morality. Each of the twenty-four character traits is defined behaviorally, with psychometric evidence demonstrating that it can be reliably measured. The book shows that ’empirically minded humanists can measure character strengths and virtues in a rigorous scientific manner.’

Practical applications of positive psychology include helping individuals and organizations correctly identify their strengths and use them to increase and sustain their respective levels of well-being. Each trait ‘provides one of many alternative paths to virtue and well-being.’ Therapists, counselors, coaches, and various other psychological professionals can use the new methods and techniques to build and broaden the lives of individuals who are not necessarily suffering from mental illness or disorder. Finally, other researchers have advocated grouping the 24 identified character traits into just four classes of strength (Intellectual, Social, Temperance, Transcendent) or even just three classes (without Transcendence). This, not just because it is easier to remember, but rather because there is evidence that these do an adequate job of capturing the components of the complete list.

The virtues presented to some extent mirror the ‘cardinal virtues’ (the ideals of Classical Antiquity, particularly those of Aristotle and Ancient Greece) and ‘theological virtues’ (Christian philosophy) of Thomas Aquinas: hope, faith, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and their respective parts. Advice columnist Ann Landers wrote that perspective and wisdom were the coordination of ‘knowledge and experience’ and ‘its deliberate use to improve wellbeing.’ Many, but not all, studies find that adults’ self-ratings of perspective/wisdom do not depend on age. This stands in contrast to the popular notion that wisdom increases with age.

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