When we describe a friend or acquaintance, we often assess their personality disposition, describing him or her as introverted, easygoing, or friendly. These personality traits are usually stable over time and result in specific behaviors in an individual. Character strengths are the positive traits that underlie good behavior and are displayed through one’s emotions, cognitions, and behavior. As opposed to the personality trait of extroversion that describes an individual who is social, outgoing, and assertive, the character strength of leadership describes an individual who effectively organizes activities and makes sure that tasks are completed. Furthermore, character strengths, unlike personality traits, only include positive behavior traits of the individual. For example, an extroverted person may be aggressive or critical of others while an individual possessing the leadership strength is appropriately assertive and encouraging of others despite their setbacks.
The 24 character strengths are divided into temperance strengths, defined as the ability to control one’s behavior and attain goals (e.g. prudence, perseverance), intellectual or cognitive strengths that are related to an interest and enthusiasm for learning (e.g. curiosity, open-mindedness), transcendence strengths that are future and other-oriented (e.g. hope, love), and other-directed strengths which primarily foster good relationships within a community (e.g. kindness, teamwork).
Character strengths are found to be related to subjective well-being, which includes positive emotions and life satisfaction, which is how you perceive your life is going. In a cross-sectional study, hope, zest, love, and gratitude as one of the top five character strengths in Caucasian adults was associated with life satisfaction across analyses. With hope, adults can happily perceive a good future; with gratitude, a good past; with love, enjoyable reciprocal relationships; and with zest and curiosity, an enjoyable present. Adults with modesty and intellectual strengths (appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, and love of learning) as one of their top five character strengths were consistently associated with lower life satisfaction. While a passion and interest for learning is important for school and occupational success, it may not hold the key to life satisfaction in general.
Aristotle believed that virtues can be taught and developed through practice. The next step is to find ways to teach character strengths and learn how to build on them in everyday life. You need not be a super hero to possess strengths. For example, for the “three good things” exercise, instructions are to write three positive events that happened during the day before bed and then how these events occurred. This can foster gratitude. If you write down that you devoured a delicious cake because your sister baked it for your birthday, then you will begin to feel grateful for her. While reducing psychopathology is important, simply the removal of anxiety or depression may not instill happiness or well-being. Focusing on character strengths as an adjunct to other interventions may aid in our goals of attaining the good life.