We are all people of character. Each of us has in us, to varying degrees, certain traits that are admired and respected by others. It is the sum of those aspects of who you are as a person that leads others to see you as a person with integrity, a person who contributes, a person who can be trusted. These traits are called ‘character strengths’.
Modern research sponsored by the VIA Institute on Character has discovered that there are 24 central character strengths in human beings, each falling under larger categories called virtues. These character strengths are the positive parts of our personality, qualities like kindness, curiosity, and perseverance that are a vital part of who we are, and that are considered valuable by other people and by society as a whole.
As research on character strengths has flourished, a hierarchy for understanding the layout of the VIA Classification has become clearer. Consider the layout below.
Character strengths are seen as routes towards our virtues. We apply our virtues and character strengths in different contexts with different themes. For example, a student may display the virtue of courage and the character strengths of bravery and perseverance at school while delivering a speech in front of the class.
When we express these character strengths through our thoughts and actions, research says we tend to feel happier, more connected, and more productive. What is particularly remarkable about character strengths through our thoughts and actions is that they contribute to your personal wellbeing, to the quality of your relationships, and to your community as a whole.
Why do character strengths matter?
When things are going well, we can use character strengths to help us see what is best in ourselves and others. When things are going poorly, we can use character strengths to give balance to the struggles we face, to shift our focus from the negative to the positive, to avoid becoming overly self-critical by thinking about our strengths rather than what’s wrong with us. We want to amplify and grow the positive aspects of character and learn from and reframe the negative aspects.
These 24 Character Strengths gives us a shared or common language for talking about what’s best in people. Now as easy as speaking the same language, we can describe the bravery and perseverance of a colleague, we reinforce the creativity and kindness of a student, we deliberately use our social intelligence when helping others in need, and we tap into gratitude and hope for personal sustenance.
Character is plural – that is according Christopher Peterson that character can’t be captured in a single concept such as honesty or integrity, but rather people express a variety of character strengths, and almost always expressing multiple strengths at the same time.
Interestingly, no one has the same profile of strengths from 1 to 24. There are over 600 sextillion possible combinations (that is the number 6 followed by 23 zeros!) of the 24 character strengths, so profiles are rarely exactly the same. The unique aspect is that no one expresses those character strengths in the same way. Every situation of your life, you express your own combinations of character strength and that expression changes from situation to situation.
Nowhere is our uniqueness clearer than with our signature strengths which are the strongest or most prominent part of our profile. They hold great potential. Ultimately, they are likely to be the strengths that matter most to you, that they are central to your identity.
There are three key features that are common in signature strengths, explained as the three ‘E’s’.
Essential: They feel essential to who you are as a person.
Effortless: When you enact that strength, it feels natural and effortless.
Energising: Using the strength energises and uplifts you.
Our aim is for students to unpack their signature strengths and explore new ways to express them at home, in the classroom, in the playground, and with their friends or teammates. We want students and staff to notice, explore, appreciate and express their top strengths in most situations.
Character strengths can be developed. While your character tends to be consistent over time, many factors can cause it to change. Consider the metaphor of discovering 24 seeds, each a different colour and size. You plant them side by side, not knowing what will bloom. You make sure each seed gets sunlight, rich soil and lots of water. You watch each seed carefully, noticing a few that sprout quickly while others bud slowly. Over time some grow into beautiful flowers, others into tall, leafy trees or hardy bushes. Others remain modest, just producing unremarkable but hardy plants. ‘Each is important to attend to, because what it becomes is a product not only of its internal makeup and the environment, but also to the attention you give it. And each contributes it part to the local landscape.
Some of your character strengths may grow in an obvious way – flourishing and easily noticed by your friends and family. Others can be overshadowed by your more dominant strengths, like a small flower attempting to grow underneath a leafy tree. You’ll find some of your character strengths have been dormant, unnoticed and unappreciated for months or years. Others strengths are rough around the edges like a prickly rose bush. And some will appear weak like a plant drooping without water. In any case, for each of your character strengths, remember this adage: what you attend to grows.
Excerpt from The Power of Character Strengths (2019), R Niemiec & R McGrath. VIA Institute on Character
VIA Character Strength Survey
Character Strengths are the positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel and behave. Scientists have identified 24 character strengths that you have the capacity to express. The VIA Survey will help you discover your unique character strengths profile. Knowing and applying your highest character strengths is the key to you being your best self.
Souce: VIA Institute on character