The fundamental premise of positive psychology is that personal fulfillment is constituted by more than the absence of problems and deficit. Although particular definitions of both happiness and good character may be subjective, their importance to personal and societal well-being is irrefutable (Park & Peterson, 2008).
Positive psychology therefore poses new questions from those of psychology as usual; rather than focusing on absence of disease and deficit, it asserts good character is something measurable – it exists. While previously considered value-laden and left to philosophy, positive psychologists are now attempting to empirically map good character, beginning with systematically identifying a multidimensional framework of character strengths with the aim of classification and measurement, as well as investigation into its relationship with the good life.
Research is in its relative infancy and falls into three main ‘camps’; the VIA (Values in Action Classification of Character Strengths; Peterson & Seligman, 2004), PersonalityStrengths Project (Linley, 2008) and Gallup’s Signature Themes of Talent (Hodges & Clifton, 2004). The latter has been developed within a professional context for application in business arenas, and as this article focuses on strengths and well-functioning in youth and education, due to space constraints the Gallup approach will not be discussed further.
All approaches share the fundamental notion that everyone has a personal strengths profile and regardless of weakness, an individual’s greatest opportunity for fulfillment, growth and success lies in the identification, development and application of their key strengths.
Peterson and Seligman (2004) present the VIA, a framework of 24 strengths that define six encompassing virtues – wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence – based on surveys of globally influential religious and philosophical traditions, which were finally reducible to these universally endorsed strengths (see Appendix 1). To qualify, each strength had to meet a checklist of criteria including being fulfilling, morally valued (unlike personality traits, which have no moral tone) and not diminishing others in their deployment. These strengths are posited as evolutionary, already observable from the age of three (Peterson, 2006a), trait-like and manifest in a range of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. As such they are measurable and generalisable across situations.
Character is measured via the VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), a self-report questionnaire of 240 items measuring the degree to which an individual endorses each strength, also adapted for application to youth (VIA-Youth; Park & Peterson, 2006).
Evidence supports the ubiquity of the 24 strengths, which are demonstrably endorsed across the US states, and from the Kenyan Masaii and the Greenland Inughuits to Japan (Park et al, 2006; Biswas-Diener, 2006; Shimai et al, 2006). The trait-like nature of strengths is supported by evidence from MZ and DZ twins, which demonstrates appreciable genetic influence in the VIA strengths (Steger et al, 2006). Supporting the notion these are not fixed or immutibly biogenetic, some strengths have a ‘corrective’ potential and may elevate, particularly post-trauma (Peterson et al, 2008).
As a note of caution, Osin (2009, in press) found some strengths are associated with social desirability and warns self-report measures may therefore be confounded by a desirability bias. Arguably, as strengths are as much reflected in thoughts and feelings as observable behaviour, there may exist no more valid measure than subjective report, whose validity is accepted in other arenas of subjective experience, such as personality and clinical psychology. It remains an area of controversy and the use of supplementary objective measures such as expert/peer ratings to demonstrate validity would be very useful (ibid.).
MacDonald et al (2008) question the construct validity of the VIA’s six core virtues, by demonstrating the 24 strengths are well represented by one and four factor solutions, not six. The VIA structure of virtues therefore lacks factorial robustness and needs adjustment. The authors also demonstrate the VIA strengths can be interpreted as representing higher order personality traits of Positivity, Intellect, Conscientiousness and Niceness, raising questions about the uniqueness of character strengths compared to personality traits. This point is addressed below in the ‘mechanisms by which strengths enhance wellbeing’ section.
MacDonald et al (2008) do however, emphasise the empirical robustness of the 24 individual strengths, and consistent links between these and well-functioning are demonstrated. All 24 strengths are associated with subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction and those most consistently related to life satisfaction are gratitude, hope, zest, curiosity and love (Park et al, 2004). Longitudinal evidence suggests a causal order whereby these strengths increase life satisfaction (Park & Peterson, 2006). As life satisfaction is critical for physical health, good relationships, success and wellbeing, these character strengths may be critical to the good life and are highlighted as targets for cultivation (Park & Peterson, 2008).
Evidence suggests some strengths may also buffer against adversity; bravery, kindness, humour, appreciation of beauty and love of learning show an association between elevation post-trauma and renewed life satisfaction, suggesting ‘corrective’ qualities for returning to well-functioning (Peterson et al, 2006).
In a study comparing five purported happiness interventions (plus one placebo), only writing about three good things that happened that day (gratitude intervention) and using character strengths daily in a new way had a lasting effect on happiness, as measured six months later (Seligman et al, 2005). This finding implies strengths-based interventions may make people lastingly happier.
While these findings are encouraging, Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003) present some conceptual objections. They suggest strength deployment requires flexibility according to context, demanding not just the strength itself but cognitive, social and behavioural processes in its strategic deployment. Further, strengths approaches should discover how both positive and negative may be interrelated. From this viewpoint, the VIA approach may overlook crucial information by conceptualising strengths as somewhat fixed, and focusing solely on strengths at the expense of weakness.
PersonalityStrengths Project (Realise 2)
Linley (2008) addresses these potential shortcomings, building on the VIA theoretically and conceptually with The PersonalityStrengths Project. Strengths are defined as evolutionarily adaptive, biologically predisposed and manifested via neural pathways, presenting our most natural and psychologically energising opportunities for growth. A potential of over 100 strengths are posited to form a layered structure, blending in unique combinations according to contextual demands (see Appendix 2). An individual’s top strengths are therefore flexible. While the 24 VIA strengths form a ‘universal grouping’ of historically consistent socially adaptive values, additional more recently evolved strengths can be identified, which reflect ‘rapid evolution’ – the demands of the recent rapidly changing environment.
Measurement is obtained with an open-ended approach, the ISA, a semi-structured conversation with a strengths coach about great enjoyment and best successes. This approach highlights the energising nature of strengths as their hallmark (their authenticity promotes flow experiences and is psychologically energising), and therefore taps strengths on the basis of level of energy invoked, as well as quality of performance and frequency of use. Weaknesses are also made relevant; while they will never become an individual’s greatest asset, they are worthy of identification so they may be developed to a level of ‘good enough’ if they create obstacles in strengths deployment. Realise 2, the PersonalityStrengths Project assessment tool, therefore measures both strengths and weaknesses.
This extended approach introduces greater depth to the VIA via a clearer theoretical underpinning and recognition for the role of context and weaknesses in strengths deployment.
In its infancy, we await evidence demonstrating the robustness of theory and constructs, as well as their implications for well-functioning. As Linley (2008) outlines, research has only just begun, and must continue identifying, classifying and understanding strengths. Park and Peterson (2009) also sum up, “The VIA is a work in progress. Changes in classification and measurements are to be expected as empirical data accumulate.” (p.69)
CRITICAL RESEARCH AREAS FOR STRENGTHS & WELL-FUNCTIONING
Negative outcomes of strengths identification and deployment
Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003) caution that in some contexts, strengths may be a liability, and call for an understanding of when and why outcomes are negative. Research to date has focused solely on positive outcomes, leaving these questions unanswered.
For example, there exists some disagreement as to whether excess of strengths at an individual level could be damaging. While Linley (2008) notes strengths can be overused with negative consequences – excess of honesty, for example, could be hurtful to others – Park et al (2004) found strengths consistently related to life satisfaction, and conclude “the more the better” (p.615). However, Peterson (2006b) suggests exaggeration of strengths may in some instances constitute psychological disorder.
It is also unknown if some individuals might suffer negative experiences (self-consciousness, for example) as a result of strengths identification. Such investigation would be useful for ensuring a strengths based intervention is robustly beneficial.
Further, it’s feasible strengths could be deployed to negative ends. Those who successfully incite violence, for example, might score highly on strengths like ‘leadership’ and ‘future-mindedness’. It would be useful to examine such individuals’ strengths profiles, particularly if research is to be pursued with the aim of cultivating specific strengths. If strengths are absolutely virtuous, understanding which other variables or strengths interactions might influence the nature of their outcomes is key, as well as whether it’s possible to simultaneously cultivate ‘virtuous intention’.
Mechanisms by which strengths improve wellbeing
As yet, the mechanism by which strengths enhance wellbeing remains unclear or unsubstantiated.
The link between strengths identification itself and wellbeing deserves attention (Park & Peterson, 2009). Linley (2008) notes effects of strengths identification include a sense of validation and appreciation. Clearly it’s an uplifting process, and improved self-esteem or broader positive affect may contribute to wellbeing. Evidence suggests however, this is not fully responsible; the jobs, relationships and hobbies people identify as most fulfilling are those in keeping with their signature strengths, which were at the time unidentified (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Seligman (2002) argues that fulfillment is inherentin virtuous action, rather than a consequence of it. Supporting this idea, Davies and Boniwell (2009) found wellbeing was predicted by deployment of both an individual’s top five and bottom five strengths. Interestingly, the state of flow was predicted by deployment of the top five strengths only. This supports the notion that fulfillment is inherent in virtue, but also indicates the signature strengths are distinguishable by a subjective sense of engagement in their deployment.
These key findings associating deployment of signature strengths with personal fulfillment and flow mark character strengths apart from personality traits and support the conceptualisation of strengths as being energising via their authenticity (Linley, 2008).
Such findings also fit with Peterson et al‘s (2007) demonstration of a mediation of hedonism, flow and meaning in the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction. As only partial mediators, however, they are not sufficient to fully explain this relationship.
Linley (2008) emphasises a neurobiological basis underlying the authentic and energising nature of strengths, and to pursue this argument it is now crucial to obtain supporting cognitive neuropsychological evidence for understanding the neurological and cognitive underpinnings of strengths and their relationship to well-functioning.
On the basis that some strengths are more closely associated with desirable outcomes than others, researchers often conclude these strengths should be targeted for cultivation. The prescriptive nature of such conclusions seems somewhat premature until the robustness of constructs and the mechanism by which these enhance wellbeing can be demonstrated, which should be an empirical priority.
The need to fine-tune constructs however, does not undermine observed patterns of a distinctive agency of signature strengths deployment in personal sense of fulfillment, flow experiences and wellbeing.
The potential applications for strengths approaches for well-functioning are vast, ranging from executive coaching, youth development, offender rehabilitation and aging (Linley & Harrington, 2006) to clinical psychology, where the VIA is asserted as a starting point for an alternative DSM, with psychological disorder re-framed as the absence, opposite or exaggeration of character strengths (Peterson, 2006b).
The population for whom a strengths-based approach seems particularly invaluable is youth, who are at a critical development stage and making key choices about their future. An association between character strengths in youth and academic success, health promoting behaviour and life satisfaction have been reported (Park & Peterson, 2006; Ma et al, 2008; Lounsbury et al, 2009) and the literature consistently advocates cultivating specific strengths in youth to these ends. But there also seems to be a wider issue for consideration.
Youth: elevating strengths measures to recognised markers of educational success
The evidence that character strengths are ubiquitously valued, desirable in industry and society and associated with the ‘good life’ not only suggests strengths development has a place in education, but that solely academic measures of success are too narrow (Park, 2009). Beyond cultivating good character in schools, perhaps we should be posing deeper questions about societal recognition given to character strengths. Are education’s strictly academic measures of success sufficient for the individual, employers and wider society? What capabilities might society and industry miss from those individuals who slip through the academic net? And could strengths identification direct and empower those individuals currently branded ‘fail’ by the education system?
Evidence suggests academic failure may damage young people’s motivation to pursue their work and life potential, and that strengths-based measures of success may have a supplementary role in education.
For example, one specific yet relevant youth population worthy of consideration is the UK’s relatively high proportion of teenage parents. Cater and Coleman (2006) note repeated failed government teen pregnancy interventions may reflect a misconception that teen pregnancy is accidental, when evidence suggests it is often planned. What might motivate a teenager to plan a pregnancy? Evidence suggests poor academic performance and diminished self-efficacy play a significant role, and this is an example of where a strengths framework in education might prove uniquely valuable.
Low academic performance as a significant precursor (not consequence) to teen pregnancy has been replicated internationally (Wellings et al, 2001; Botting et al, 1998; Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Fergusson & Woodward, 2000; Yampolskaya et al, 2002), and has also been found as the only direct predictive risk factor, controlling for other risks such as parenting behaviour, parent education, deviant peers and risky behaviours (Scaramella et al, 1998).
Cater and Coleman (2006) found planned teen pregnancy is characterised by low academic achievement, poor self-efficacy beliefs and a desire to prove capability: “Bringing up a baby was perceived as providing a sense of purpose, one that provided a sense of capability and satisfaction, and was better than having a low paid, ‘dead-end’ job.” (p.65).
The importance of self-efficacy beliefs are generalisable to other students; Wilson and Michaels (2006) note poor self–efficacy beliefs are common in struggling students who react to frustration and failure by resisting academics, while Pajares (2009) notes academic achievement is positively associated with self-efficacy, which in turn is critical to the life choices students go on to make.
A hypothesis worthy of research is that students’ diminished self-efficacy might be tackled not only by aims at improving academic performance (the current role of the education system) but by broadening measures of success. Strengths-based measures seem uniquely appropriate for this task not only because they may enhance self-efficacy for all by identifying valued capabilities beyond a strictly academic framework, but because they offer direction, identifying those areas in which an individual naturally finds engagement while outlining a valued skillset relevant to the workplace.
Interestingly, Steen et al (2003) demonstrated an encouraging appreciation for strengths from young people; they not only believed character strengths were desirable and worthy of recognition, but were highly energised in discussion of the topic.
If psychologists believe every young person, regardless of academic prowess, has strengths worthy of contribution in life and work, this hypothesis warrants research.
The strengths research is in its infancy and robust construct development is a critical next step before great strides in its application can be made. The important groundwork for creating a vocabulary for strengths has however, begun.
Transcending barriers between groups, a universal language of strengths may identify pathways to a successful and happy life for all (Linley & Harrington, 2006). Where gaps in early knowledge inevitably exist, the diverse evidence of associations between strengths and personal engagement and wellbeing demonstrate the potential application for the strengths approach is broad, meaningful and worthy of ongoing pursuit.
In terms of educational application, if industry and society value character strengths, by giving them due recognition alongside academic achievement, strengths-based success measures might identify pathways where every individual can succeed in work and society, enhancing self-efficacy and motivating all young people equally (with or without academic success) to go on to flourish.
VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues
Peterson and Seligman (2004)
Wisdom and Knowledge
- love of learning
- social intelligence
- appreciation of beauty and excellence
PersonalityStrengths Project (Realise 2) Glossary of Strengths
The Realise2 is a tool available online at www.realise2.org. A small subset of strengths include:
- Emotional Intelligence
- Esteem Builder
- Relationship Investor
- Time Optimizer
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