Character Strengths and Virtues: Let’s be Positive

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Character Strengths and Virtues: Let’s be Positive

A man’s character is his fate. (Heraclitus, On the Universe)

Positive psychology is the study of factors and processes that lead to positive emotions, virtuous behaviours and optimal performance in individuals and groups. Although a few psychologists were always interested in health, adjustment and peak performance, the study of happiness and positive emotions was thought to be unimportant, even trivial until the beginning of the millennium.

One of the major turning points in the field of positive psychology was the development of a classification of character strengths and virtues. This early classification work allowed researchers to organize what was known about these constructs in an empirical, rigorously scientific manner. Science begins with taxonomic work.

It was argued that character strengths could be defined as the ’psychological processes or mechanisms that define virtues’ (Park & Peterson 2006) and as satisfying various criteria: they are valuable, fulfilling and do not contradict each other.

Strengths are seen to be trait-like in that they are habitual patterns that are relatively stable over time. Some strengths are absent in some individuals. They tend to be nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

According to Peterson and Seligman (2004), two pioneers in the topic, there are 24 character strengths that are clustered into six ’core’ virtues developed on a theoretical basis.

Personal Strengths

1 Curiosity: interest in, intrigued by many things

2 Love of learning: knowing more, reading, understanding

3 Good judgement: critical thinking, rationality, open- mindedness

4 Ingenuity: originality, practical intelligence, street smartness

5 Social intelligence: emotional/personal intelligence, good with feelings

6 Wisdom: seeing the big picture, having perspective

7 Bravery: courage, valour, fearlessness

8 Persistence: perseverance, diligence, industriousness

9 Integrity: honesty, genuineness, truthfulness

10 Kindness: generosity, empathic, helpful

11 Loving: able to love and be loved; deep sustained feelings

12 Citizenship: team worker, loyalty, duty to others

13 Fairness: moral valuing, equality and equity

14 Leadership: able to motivate groups, inclusive, focused

15 Self-control: able to regulate emotions, non-impulsive

16 Prudence: cautious, far-sighted, deliberative, discreet

17 Humility: modest, unpretentious, humble

18 Appreciative of beauty: seeking excellence, experience of awe/wonder

19 Gratitude: thankful, grateful

20 Optimism: hopefulness, future-mindedness, positive

21 Spirituality: faith, philosophy, sense of purpose/calling

22 Forgiveness: merciful, benevolent, kind

23 Playfulness: humorous, funny, childlike

24 Enthusiasm: passionate, zestful, infectious, engaged

It is suggested that different strengths are employed to exhibit a particular virtue, although generally only one or two strengths would be exhibited from a particular virtue group. These virtues include:

1 Wisdom and knowledge (including creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning and perspective).

2 Courage (including bravery, persistence, honesty, and zest).

3 Humanity (including love, kindness and social intelligence).

4 Justice (including teamwork, fairness and leadership).

5 Temperance (including forgiveness, modesty, prudence and self-regulation).

6 Transcendence (including appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality).

Together, it is argued the strengths and virtues are the foundation of psychological health, which in modern day contexts is significantly reduced. People experience greater levels of stress and pressure that uses up their resources to cope. Numerous studies have shown that the strengths of character are positively related to subjective and psychological wellbeing.

Many consultants interested in positive psychology spend a lot of time trying to help people discover, and then ’speak to’ their strengths. They aim to help people discover what they are naturally good at so that they can exploit and explore their ’natural talents’. The aim is not to try to ’correct weaknesses’ but rather speak to natural endowments.

Furthermore, strengths such as gratitude, hope, zest, curiosity and most importantly, love have been demonstrated to be related to life satisfaction. For example, one study highlighted the importance of hope in maintaining workers’ motivation in an environment increasingly threatened by mergers, bankruptcies, new technologies and an uncertain global economy. Hope is a strength that allows people to overcome uncertainty. These findings have important implications for people involved in the promotion of positive development among society.


Pendleton and Furnham (2012) argued that, at work, we can distinguish between various kinds of strengths.

A natural strength where a person has a competency which is helped by their personal makeup: the idea is to WORK WITH this ability.

A potential strength where they do not have a competency but their personality would help them acquire and express it if they had it. They are therefore encouraged to WORK ON it.

A fragile strength where a potential leader has relevant competency but their personality hinders the expression of it. Again, the advice is to WORK ON this topic.

A resistant limitation where a person does not have a competency nor the personality profile to support it. They are advised to WORK AROUND the issue.

The overuse of strengths has now been identified as one of the causes of leadership derailment, as well as of diminished effectiveness. The basic premise of positive psychology is the focus on what makes life good and not what makes it unbearable, such as mental illness, which is the basic focus of mainstream psychology. It is ’strength-based’ and it aims to make leaders aware of their strengths in order to take advantage of them and effectively apply them in their workplace. Recently, however, it has become notable that doing too much of what is considered a strength, can result in harmful effects on the team and its efficiency and therefore on the overall productivity.


Biswas-Diener, R. (2006). From the equator to the north pole: A study of character strengths. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 293—310.

Furnham, A., & Lester, D. (2012). The development of a short measure of character strength. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 28, 95—101.

Pendleton, D., & Furnham, A. (2012). Leadership: All You Need to Know. London: Palgrave.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook of

classification. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.