One of the biggest topics in positive psychology is character strengths.
If you’ve given any positive psychology resources even a cursory glance, you’ve probably read about them in some capacity—what they are, how they fit into the field, how to improve them, and how to capitalize on them.
Their popularity as a topic of interest is driven by their applicability and their history in the field of positive psychology. It’s a concept that applies to everybody; unlike resilience or gratitude or optimism (constructs where you fall on a spectrum from “high” to “low”), everyone has character strengths, and everyone can use them.
It was also one of the first topics to fall solidly within the positive side of psychology. Personality characteristics and traits are topics that fit comfortably in traditional psychology, but the focus on strengths—uniquely positive characteristics—give the topic a firm grounding in the positive.
Character strengths have been a pillar of positive psychology since it was founded. In Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s 2000 introduction to the field, they write:
Prevention researchers have discovered that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for flow and insight, to name several. Much of the task of prevention in this new century will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people. (p. 7)
And it wasn’t long before this science of human strengths began to flourish, thanks in part to one of these founding fathers. Seligman’s groundbreaking work on character strengths with psychologist Christopher Peterson was published in 2004, and interest in the topic skyrocketed.
If you’re intrigued about this topic—a vital piece of positive psychology literature and an area ripe for action towards self-improvement—read on to learn about what you can do with your character strengths.
This article contains:
- A Brief Look at Character Strengths
- 6 Character Strength Examples
- What are Character Strength Interventions?
- Activities for Exploring Character Strengths
- 2 Character Strength Interventions
- 2 Useful Character Strength Worksheets
- VIA Survey and Questionnaire
- 4 Other Useful Assessments
- A Take-Home Message
A Brief Look at Character Strengths
Before we begin, let’s agree on what exactly character strengths are. An important distinction should be made between virtues and character strengths. I’ll let Peterson and Seligman make the distinction:
First, they define virtues as “the core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 13).
Next, they describe character strengths as “the psychological ingredients—processes or mechanisms—that define the virtues. Said another way, they are distinguishable routes to displaying one or another of the virtues” (p. 13).
Character strengths can be thought of as the ways and means we use to express our values and strive towards the virtues we find most meaningful.
When Peterson and Seligman were creating their classification system for character strengths, they identified ten criteria to help define a character strength:
- It has to contribute to fulfillments that constitute the “good life” for oneself or for others.
- It is morally valued in its own right, even without being attached to positive outcomes.
- The display of a strength by one person does not diminish those surrounding him or her.
- It does not have an obvious negative “opposite” to it (e.g., flexibility’s opposite can be good, like steadfastness, or bad, like inflexibility, meaning it can easily be viewed on a spectrum from “good” to “bad”).
- It must manifest in a way that can be assessed, and it must be at least somewhat stable across time and situations.
- It is distinct from other positive traits within the classification system and cannot be subsumed by another strength.
- It can be embodied in “paragons,” people who have the strength to a remarkable degree.
- A person can (probably) be a “prodigy” in it, meaning they have an instinct towards it.
- On the other hand, a person can potentially display a complete lack of it.
- There are “institutions and associated rituals” for cultivating it, meaning that it is considered a positive and encouraged in at least some areas of mainstream society (2004).
With these criteria in mind, the authors observed six main virtues that emerged in societies across the world and across time. Within each of these virtues is several characters strengths that relate to displaying or enacting the virtue:
- Wisdom and Knowledge
- Love of learning
- Social intelligence
- Forgiveness and mercy
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
6 Character Strength Examples
To get a sense for what these character strengths are and how they manifest, let’s consider one strength in each virtue.
Under Wisdom and Knowledge, we have curiosity, a trait that manifests as a preference for exploration and discovery. Someone with this strength asks lots of questions because they want to learn more about anything and everything.
For the virtue of Courage, let’s consider integrity. Those with this strength are generally committed to honesty and speaking the truth. They present themselves authentically, and they value being genuine and sincere.
Under the Humanity umbrella is social intelligence, a strength grounded in an awareness of the thoughts and feelings of other people. Someone with a strength in social intelligence is likely to understand why people do the things they do.
Fairness is a strength within the Justice virtue. Those strong in fairness believe that all people have value, and they are likely to approach situations with an objective and unbiased mindset and treat everyone with respect.
Prudence falls under the Moderation/Temperance category and is characterized by a focus on the future. People with this strength like to make careful and well-laid plans and follow through daily.
Finally, the appreciation of beauty and excellence is a character strength under the Transcendence virtue. It manifests as a tendency to notice the beautiful and wonderful things in this world and value them. People with this strength are unlikely to take things for granted.
What are Character Strength Interventions?
Character strength interventions are activities and exercises designed to help individuals apply their character strengths in their own lives. Depending on where they are in the process, the intervention might focus on any one of the following areas (or all of them):
- Identifying your strengths
- Prioritizing your strengths
- Improving or enhancing your strengths
- Applying your strengths
We’ll go over a few character strength interventions below, but if you’re interested in learning more about what they are and how they work, I highly recommend the book Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners by Dr. Ryan M. Niemiec.
It’s an invaluable guide for coaches, therapists, counselors, leaders, and anyone else who is interested in helping their clients or employees boost their strengths and reap the benefits. You can find it for sale on Amazon, but you can also get a free preview of the first chapter of the book.
Activities for Exploring Character Strengths
If you (or your clients) are at the beginning of your strengths journey, you may want to begin with activities designed to help you explore your strengths. The first step towards using your strengths more effectively is figuring out what those strengths are and how you tend to use them!
Use these two activities to get started:
1. Daily Strengths Awareness
The Daily Strengths Awareness tool is the perfect activity to begin your exploration. It is intended to help increase your knowledge of your strengths and acclimate yourself to regular introspection, giving you an in-the-moment understanding of yourself and your strengths usage.
Here’s how it works: Use a journal to take notes, or ideally, use the table provided in the Daily Strengths Awareness toolkit. Set the alarm on your phone for three random times throughout your day (or use an app to choose random times).
When the alarm goes off, follow these instructions:
- Note the day and time.
- Briefly describe the activity you were engaged in. Note the activities you performed or accomplished, and avoid writing about experiences you had due to the actions of someone else.
- Write down the emotions and feelings you experienced during the activity, being as specific as possible (e.g., “I felt happy and accomplished after presenting my new marketing campaign without stuttering.”).
- Note the extent to which you enjoyed the activity on a scale from 1 to 10.
- Note the amount of energy that you gained from this activity on a scale from 1 to 10.
- Take note of any strength(s) that you used during the activity.
Once you engage in this activity daily, you will notice that you have a better idea of what your strengths are, how often you use them, and how your strengths usage makes you feel.
2. Inward and Outward Strength Expression
The Inward and Outward Strength Expression activity is designed to help you think about how you express a social strength towards others and how you express it towards yourself.
The first step is to identify a social strength. This is a strength that involves other people, like fairness, forgiveness, or kindness. Take a few minutes to reflect on yourself and think about what you do well in relationships.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Am I forgiving?
- Am I open to other ideas and opinions?
- Am I a good listener?
If you’re having trouble coming up with a strength, think about any compliments you may have received in these areas from others.
Once you have identified the strength, move on to step two: identifying how you use it in your relationships. Consider the actions you take that demonstrate this strength. For example, if the strength is forgiveness, come up with some cases from your own life where you forgave others. Write down these examples.
Step three might be a little more complicated; come up with some examples of how you use this strength with yourself. Sticking with the forgiveness example, think about times when you have extended yourself forgiveness. Write these down.
Next, compare your examples. Notice whether you have an easier time expressing your strength inwardly or outwardly. If a discrepancy exists, think about why this might be; did your parents have trouble forgiving themselves for mistakes? Or perhaps they had trouble forgiving others, and you did not have a good model for extending forgiveness to others?
Finally, take some steps to restore the balance. Think of at least three actions you can take to bring your outward and inward expression in alignment. When your strengths usage is aligned, you will be able to use it more effectively and enhance your well-being.
2 Character Strength Interventions
There are tons of character strength interventions out there for you to explore, but here are two examples that can give you a feel for them.
1. Extracting Strengths from Problems
This exercise is a great way to get a new perspective and practice problem-solving, all while becoming more aware of your strengths and learning how to apply them best. Instead of having a problem-focused approach, learn how to use a strengths-focused approach.
In step one, use the Extracting Strengths from Problems tool in the Positive Psychology Toolkit or a blank page in your journal and describe a problem that you are currently struggling with. Include as much detail as you can so you get a good understanding of the problem.
In step two, identify the life domain that this problem is impacting you in. If it’s more than one domain, figure out which one is most significant. It could be work, family life, friends, your health, your hobbies, or something else.
In step three, think about what you are doing that is contributing to this problem. Is there something you’re doing too much? Too little? Write it down.
In step four, reframe your behavior from step three. Think of it in terms of a strength that you are underusing or overusing. While a strength is never a bad thing, sometimes we don’t use them in the best way. For example, you might notice that you are paying a little too much attention to detail or clinging too desperately to your plans instead of being flexible.
Finally, describe at least one actionable step you can take to solve the problem. This step should honor your strength but put a boundary on its use, keeping you from over- or under-using it.
2. Strength Regulation
On the theme of over- and under-using your strengths, this exercise can also help you identify potential issues and practice wise application of your strengths.
Use the Strength Regulation tool in the Positive Psychology Toolkit or some blank pages in a notebook to work through these steps:
- Select a strength that you want to use more or that you know you tend to over- or under-use in your life.
- Identify an example of when you have overused this strength. Describe what you did and what the consequences were. On a spectrum from “too little” to “too much” with “optimal” right in the middle, figure out where your strengths usage in this scenario fell.
- Next, think of a time when you underused this strength. Again, describe what you did and what happened. Figure out where your strengths usage fell on the “too little” to “too much” spectrum.
- Finally, think of a time when you used this strength optimally—not too much, and not too little. Describe what that looked like, and what the outcome was.
- Reflect on your experience with this exercise. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you tend to misuse this strength in your day-to-day life? If so, is your tendency to overuse or underuse it?
- What triggers you to misuse this strength?
- What could you do to use this strength more optimally in the future?
2 Useful Character Strength Worksheets
Worksheets can also help explore your strengths. The two examples below show you how a worksheet can benefit your strengths practice.
1. A Family Tree of Strengths
A family tree of strengths worksheet can be found in the Positive Psychology Toolkit, and it requires you to take the VIA inventory of strengths beforehand. It is a great way to get everyone in the family involved in the discussion of the strengths.
Once you have your strengths, draw a family tree on a piece of paper. Use circles for females and squares for males, and have each family member choose a unique color for themselves. Under each person’s name in the family tree, list his or her top three strengths.
Once you have your family tree drawn, discuss the following topics as a family:
- Any specific patterns of strengths in your family.
- Any unique strengths in your family, and how they could be utilized to benefit the family as a whole.
- Any missing strengths in the family, whether that has a negative impact, and how it could be managed.
- Examples of when each member used one of his or her strengths to benefit the family.
- Challenging times the family or a member went through that was improved through the use of a strength.
- Who has helped others in the family to develop their strengths.
- Examples of strengths being under- or over-utilized.
- How you could use your strengths together to make your family stronger.
- What you learned from this exercise.
2. Core Quadrants
This worksheet is for individual use and guides you through examining your strengths and considering how it influences your relationships with others. Find the Core Quadrants worksheet in the Positive Psychology Toolkit and follow the steps below to give it a shot.
Step one: identify a core quality (aka a strength). If you need help determining your core quality, ask yourself these questions:
- What is a natural ability of mine, something that requires little effort to express?
- What attributes do other people appreciate in me?
- What attributes do I look for or expect in others?
Put the core quality in the first quadrant on the worksheet.
Step two: identify your pitfall, or tendency to overuse your strength. Ask yourself these questions to figure out what your pitfall is:
- What does too much of this core quality look like? What have others noticed? What do I get blamed for?
- What do I tend to justify about myself to myself?
- What do I tend to forgive in others, perhaps too much?
Put your pitfall in the second quadrant.
Step three: identify a challenge to your pitfall, that is, a positive quality you want to show or use more. Consider these questions to help you figure it out:
- What is the opposite of this pitfall? What behavior do you wish you display instead of the behavior associated with the pitfall?
- What do I admire in others?
Write the challenge down in the third quadrant.
Step four: identify your “allergy” or what happens when you experience too much of your own challenge in someone else. Ask yourself these questions to determine your allergy:
- What does too much of this challenge look like?
- What have others suggested to me to put into perspective?
- What is the opposite of my core quality/strength?
- What do I despise in others?
Write this down in the fourth quadrant.
Finally, reflect on your completed core quadrant worksheet to learn more about yourself and your strengths/weaknesses and pitfalls. Think about how you over- and under-use these qualities and aim to find a balance.
VIA Survey and Questionnaire
If you’re wondering how to find out what your strengths are, there’s a simple, free, and easy way to find out.
The Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey is a 15-minute test based on the scientific work of experts Dr. Neal H. Mayerson, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, Dr. Donna Mayerson, and Dr. Ryan M. Niemiec.
The test will result in a list of the 24 strengths, organized in order from greatest strength to least strength. There are also reports available for purchase that will dive into your character strengths in greater detail.
4 Other Useful Assessments
Although the standard VIA is the most well-known and widely accepted measure of character strengths, there are other similar assessments on strengths and character traits available. Here are some of the most popular assessments:
- VIA Strength Survey for Children
- VIA Character Strength Inventory (mini-survey)
- IPIP Big-Five Factor Assessment (general personality test)
- Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Assessment (MBTI; general personality test)
A Take-Home Message
Hopefully, this piece has given you a greater understanding of character strengths, how to identify your strengths, and how to put them to better use in your own life.
Check the reference list for more resources on character strengths.
Thanks for reading!
- Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions. [PowerPoint Presentation]. Retrieved from https://pubengine2.s3.eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/preview/99.110005/9781616764920_preview.pdf
- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.5