Signature Strengths in Positive Psychology

By Molony, Terry; Henwood, Maureen | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Signature Strengths in Positive Psychology


Molony, Terry, Henwood, Maureen, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Positive psychology can be thought of as the scientific study of what is "right about people" as opposed to the traditional focus on the healing of psychological pain or trauma. The philosophical roots of positive psychology can be tracedbackto Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, as well as Islamic and Athenian teaching and other ancient scholars, philosophers, and spiritual leaders (Peterson 8c Seligman, 2004). Thus, positive psychology is an integrative framework that draws upon the enduring themes and values across time periods and Cultures tO test theories USing Scientific tools designed to diseover not only the elements of human well-being, but also the means by which that well-being can be experienced by all individuals.

In the quest for a comprehensive understanding of well-being, Peterson and Seligman (2004) set out to define and classify positive traits in people that could be examined, researched, diagnosed, and possibly used as interventions. If one considers the subjectivity of values, this mission appears to be a daunting task, if not simply undoable. Criticism included arguments that the classification system would not be universal (i.e., it would be culturally bound). However, the researchers developed a set of criteria to evaluate the characteristics to determine if ubiquitous virtues exist, despite cultural variations and historical time periods. They limited the search to ancient civilizations that are generally recognized as having had a lasting impact on humankind. Peterson & Seligman (2004) reported that indeed there was convergence across variables such as time, place, and culture and they delineated six characteristics that they called core virtues. These core virtues or ugnature strengths are listed and defined below.

* Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity

* Justice: Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork

* Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that involve "tending and befriending" others; examples include love and kindness

* Temperance: Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-control

* Wisdom: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective

* Transcendence: Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005, p. 205)

It is suggested that human beings have an evolutionary predisposition regarding these virtues, suggesting that these behaviors have emerged and been sustained because each one solves a problem related to survival (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005).

Peterson and Seligman (2004) used the core virtues to further develop a comprehensive list that delineates the components of the virtues, which they refer to as character strengths. These character strengths are defined as "positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.... and can be measured as individual differences" (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004, p. 603).

Character strengths are clearly distinguished from talents and abilities. For instance, the talent of strong social skills uses the character strengths of fairness, kindness, leadership, perspective, and social intelligence. However, the talent of exceptional people-skills can also be used in a negative fashion to manipulate or control others. The negative use of a talent does not tap into a related virtue.

Positive psychology researchers attempt to define and classify character strengths because this clarity can lead to further studies, which can either support or dispute the notions postulated. …

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