What are strengths?

Strengths are positive traits that are ubiquitous in human culture and are often associated with remarkable people or heroes. Greek mythologies depict heroes possessing great courage and perseverance in carrying out grueling tasks, stories such as George Washington’s chopping down of his father’s cherry tree highlight the strength of honesty, and the Aesop fables, in addition to conveying moral teachings, describe numerous positive traits such as hard work, creativity, and kindness.

Psychology of StrengthsCredit: Grant Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Such virtues are also recognized and admired in ourselves and in others – they are what we look for in others and wish to cultivate in children and youth (Park, 2009). In recent years, attempts have been made to classify and study character strengths and the benefits accrued to individuals or organizations that utilize these strengths. Strengths have been associated with well-being (Linley, Nielsen, Gillett, & Biswas-Diener, 2010), academic performance (Cosentino & Castro Solano, 2012), and life satisfaction (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). Research has also provided a myriad of ways in which these strengths can be developed or consciously used (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui, & Fredrickson, 2006; Rust, Diessner, & Reade, 2009; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

Classification of strengths

However, such studies would be merely anecdotal if not for the identification of what count as character strengths and the operationalization of these strengths. One such classification is the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths, which is one of the main tenets of the science behind positive psychology (VIA Institute on Character, 2012). The result of a project led by Chris Peterson, the VIA classification is intended to complement the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (1994) by focusing on character strengths that permit the possibility of a good life as opposed to the DSM’s disease-model approach. Just as the DSM allows the description and measurement of what is wrong with people, the VIA classification provides a common vocabulary with which character and human strengths can be concretely described and measured (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

A total of twenty four character strength are documented in the VIA Classification. They are appreciation of beauty and excellence, bravery, citizenship, creativity, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness and mercy, gratitude, hope, humour, integrity, judgment, kindness, leadership, love, love of learning, modesty and humility, persistence, perspective, prudence, self-regulation, social intelligence, spirituality, and finally, zest (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

In order to identify strengths that are universal across cultures, the aforementioned characteristics were generated from an initial exhaustive list of virtues and strengths from a wide variety of sources – historical luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, messages in Hallmark greeting cards, and even popular cartoon series Pokémon, and highly-acclaimed Harry Potter novels (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 15), as well as literature from psychiatry, youth development, character education, religion, philosophy, organizational studies and psychology were used (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 30). The universality of these strengths has been examined by Park, Peterson and Seligman (2006), who found similar profiles of strengths across 54 nations. Similarly, Biswas-Diener’s (2006) study on Kenyan Maasai, Greenland Inughuit, and American university students also found high agreement on the existence, desirability and development of character strengths in the VIA classification across these diverse cultures.

The VIA Inventory

An inventory can be obtained by taking the VIA-Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) online for free. The test is scientifically-validated, consists of 240 items and takes about thirty minutes to complete (VIA Institute on Character, 2011a). The results show a list of the individual’s strengths arranged from the most prominent to the least prominent. It is important to note that the VIA-IS is a measurement of strengths and not weaknesses or problems and it measures an individual’s view of himself rather than facts about his character. Additionally, the results are a general description and it is likely to be unproductive for an individual to be preoccupied with minute details (Koya, 2012).

Especially notable are the signature strengths of an individual. Peterson and Seligman (2004) hypothesized that using one’s signature strengths is fulfilling, and proposed a list of possible criteria for them:

  • a sense of ownership and authenticity (“this is the real me”) vis-à-vis the strength
  • a feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
  • a rapid learning curve as themes are attached to the strength and practiced
  • continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
  • a sense of yearning to act in accordance with the strength
  • a feeling of inevitability in using the strength, as if one cannot be stopped or dissuaded from its display
  • the discovery of the strength as owned in an epiphany
  • invigoration rather than exhaustion when using the strength
  • the creation and pursuit of fundamental projects the revolve around the strength
  • intrinsic motivation to use the strength


Benefits of knowing and using your strengths

Finding out one’s strengths and using them confer numerous advantages. Rust and colleagues (2009) found that focusing on developing character strengths, even the relatively weaker ones, increased life satisfaction among undergraduate students. These findings are supported by Linley and colleagues’ (2010) study of college students, which found a correlation between strength use and goal progress. The students were asked to record their goals for a semester and those who reported using their signature strengths more also reported more progress in achieving their semester goals. This progress was in turn associated with greater well-being and need satisfaction. Additionally, a study by Wood, Linley, Maltby, Kashdan, and Hurling (2010) found that people who reported greater use of their strengths had less stress, greater self-esteem, vitality, and positive affect at a three and six month follow-up.

How to develop and use your strengths

There are a number of ways to develop or increase the use of strengths. For example, one can practice kindness by keeping track of kind behavior towards other people – a study by Otake et al. (2006) found that subjective happiness was increased when participants kept track of their acts of kindness. Another way is to practice gratitude is by writing down three things that went well each day and provide an explanation for their causes – this exercise increased happiness and decreased symptoms of depression for six months (Seligman et al., 2005). As mentioned in Rust and colleagues’ (2009) research, developing relatively weaker strengths was also correlated with an increase in life satisfaction. Hence, even if one’s signature strengths were not kindness or gratitude, it is still possible to benefit from these exercises. Other than kindness and gratitude, exercises which are not non-specific also exist. For example, one can practice using a signature strength in a new and different way every day for a week (Seligman et al., 2005). One can also describe an event when a signature strength was successfully used or come up with a plan for using a signature strength in the upcoming week (Rust et al., 2009). Finally, one can have conversations with others about one’s strengths, write about them in a journal, or simply monitor their usage (VIA Institute on Character, 2011b)


Biswas-Diener, R. (2006). From the equator to the north pole: A study of character strengths. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 293-310. doi: 10.1007/s10902-005-3646-8

Cosentino, A. C., & Castro Solano, A. (2012). Character strengths: A study of Argentinean soldiers. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 15(1), 199-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.5209/rev_SJOP.2012.v15.n1.37310

Koya, K. (2012). GDAPP04: Psychology of Strength-Workshop (DAY 1) [PowerPoint Slides]. School of Positive Psychology, Singapore.

Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects of goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.

Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361-375.

Park, N. (2009). Building strengths of character: Keys to positive youth development. reclaiming children and youth, 18(2), 42-47.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129. doi: 10.1080/17439760600619567

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rust, T., Diessner, R., & Reade, L. (2009). Strengths only or strengths and weaknesses? A preliminary study. Journal of Psychology, 143(5), 465-476.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

VIA Institute on Character. (2011a). Take a survey. Retrieved from https://www.viame.org/survey/Surveys/TakeSurvey

VIA Institute on Character. (2011b). Applying your character strengths. Retrieved from http://via.spotlets.com/content.jsp?articleId=20

VIA Institute on Character. (2012). Descriptions of every VIA character strength. Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org/VIAINSTITUTE/Classification.aspx

Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T. B., & Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 15-19.