Character Strengths for Adults
What Are They?
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 characteristics to different extents, in general, character strengths are what we aspire to in ourselves and what we appreciate in our friends, family, colleagues, and students.
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 enhance positive qualities and thriving.
Research on character strengths tends to use the Values in Action (VIA) Classification, a framework that identifies 24 character strengths, often organizing them 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 a set of positive traits that may each be evident to different extents in different people. Regardless of how they compare to others, each person has a unique profile of strengths, with some strengths being more developed and others less so.
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.
Why Are They Important?
Research with adults has found that character strengths relate to multiple aspects of well-being, including happiness, emotional/psychological health, and performance and satisfaction at work.
Having character strengths 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.