What are Character Strengths?

Character strengths are the positive qualities individuals have—as reflected in their thoughts, feelings, and actions—that promote the well-being of themselves and others. Though people may value different strengths to different extents, in general, parents and educators across cultures value these qualities and try to cultivate them in children and youth.

The idea of desirable character traits has existed since ancient times, but research on them is more recent, spurred by the rise of positive psychology—a movement that endeavors to use the tools of psychology not only to identify and fix problems, but also to recognize and foster positive qualities and flourishing.

Research on character strengths in both adults and youth tends to use the Values in Action (VIA) Classification, a framework that identifies 24 character strengths, which are often organized under six core virtues. The virtues are broader characteristics that have been valued in philosophical and spiritual traditions across time and place, while the character strengths function as components of or pathways to the virtues. The six virtues and their corresponding character strengths of the VIA are:

  • Wisdom (creativity; curiosity; judgment; love of learning; perspective)
  • Courage (bravery; perseverance; honesty; zest)
  • Humanity (love; kindness; social-emotional intelligence)
  • Justice (teamwork; fairness; leadership)
  • Temperance (forgiveness; humility; prudence; self-regulation)
  • Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence; gratitude; hope; humor; spirituality)

In this view, good character is not a single attribute, but is multidimensional, a “family” of positive traits that may each be evident to different extents in different people. Each student has a unique profile of strengths, with some strengths being more developed and others less so, regardless of how they compare to other students.

One student may be particularly strong in curiosity, love of learning, and perseverance, while another may be strongest in kindness, humility, and fairness; yet another could have zest, social-emotional intelligence, and teamwork as top strengths.

During a professional development session, school staff members take the Values-In-Action survey to determine their character strengths. After finding out their top five strengths, they plan to do at least one thing a day that demonstrates their strengths. They also choose one other strength to cultivate and discuss with a partner how they might do so.

To effectively put character strengths into action requires social-emotional skills and mindfulness. For example, a student who is tempted to cheat on an important exam chooses to uphold her commitment to honesty by mindfully recognizing the battle raging within herself and practicing the SEL skills of deep breathing and positive self-talk to help her win the battle.

Why Are Character Strengths Important?

Research with young people and/or adults has found that character strengths relate to multiple aspects of well-being, including happiness, mental/emotional health, social relationships, academic achievement, and performance and satisfaction at work.

Character strengths help make kids happier.

  • Many character strengths are associated with higher satisfaction with life. In one study, for young children (ages 3-9), the strengths of love, hope, and zest were particularly associated with happiness; for older kids, happiness was most related to these same strengths (love, hope, and zest), plus gratitude.
  • Strengths relating to transcendence and temperance generally relate to higher life satisfaction in children and youth.
  • Adolescents who participated in character strength-based exercises at school showed improvements in life satisfaction compared to other students.

 

Character strengths in youth promote better psychological health.

  • Studies have shown that certain character strengths are associated with fewer psychological problems among youth, both internalizing (e.g., hope, zest, and leadership associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression) and externalizing (e.g. perseverance, honesty, prudence, and love associated with less aggression).
  • Other-directed strengths such as kindness and teamwork predict fewer symptoms of depression over time among youth.

 

Kids with character strengths get along better with peers.

  • Students rated as more popular by their teachers tend to rate more highly on leadership and fairness, as well as on temperance strengths such as self-regulation, prudence, and forgiveness.
  • Other-directed strengths such as kindness, teamwork, and social-emotional intelligence are associated with better social functioning at school.

 

Character strengths increase academic adjustment and success.

 

Having character strengths as an adult is associated with happiness, and getting to use them makes us even happier.

  • Research has shown that character strengths overall—and particularly hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity—are consistently related to greater life satisfaction and positive emotions. Similar results have been found in various cultures around the world, and for peer ratings of strengths as well as self-ratings.
  • People who report using their strengths more also tend to report greater well-being.
  • When people identified their top strengths and were then asked to use those strengths in new ways, they became happier and less depressed six months later, especially compared to people who didn’t do the exercise.

 

Character strengths relate to physical health and well-being, and help us make it through difficulties.

  • Both intellectual and emotional character strengths are associated with physical fitness, feeling healthy, and health behaviors (such as eating healthy and having an active lifestyle).
  • People with many character strengths are less likely to have a history of illness.
  • Character strengths also help buffer the effects of health challenges that do occur: physical health problems take less of a toll on life satisfaction among those with the character strengths of kindness, bravery, and humor; and psychological health issues reduce life satisfaction less in people whose strengths include appreciation of beauty and love of learning.
  • People higher in character strengths show greater resilience, above and beyond the effects of other factors related to resilience (such as self-efficacy and social support).

 

Character strengths boost not only our performance at work, but also the satisfaction and meaning we find in it.

  • Character strengths are associated with better job performance, whether self- or supervisor-rated.
  • Though the importance of various strengths to satisfaction at work differs by occupation, certain character strengths (e.g., curiosity, gratitude, zest, hope) are linked to work satisfaction across occupations.
  • Character strengths also help people cope with stress at work, and lessen the negative effects of stress on work satisfaction.
  • For volunteers and paid workers alike, having more character strengths is associated with finding more of both meaning and well-being at work.
  • The more people feel able to apply their character strengths at work, the more positive experiences and well-being at work they tend to have.

 

Certain character strengths make teachers more effective.

  • Teachers who demonstrate the character strengths of social intelligence, humor, and zest have been shown to be more effective over time, in terms of their students’ improvements in standardized test scores.

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“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”
–Anne Frank
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