Discover the power
of character strengths.
Unleash your inner potential
January 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team 

In 2004, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman began work on a ground-breaking reformulation of how we think about and describe what makes people different from one another. Rather than focusing on the many different aspects of distress, illness and dysfunction that many, if not most, individuals will experience in their lifetimes, this new approach emphasizes the positive qualities, characteristics and strengths that can be found in each and everyone of us, across all cultures.1   

Character strengths are the positive qualities in individuals that promote the well-being of themselves and others.  They are, by definition, fundamentally different from personality characteristics and traits that may be both beneficial or problematic (e.g., neurotic, disagreeable, closeminded).  They are different from innate talents and abilities, which are generally viewed as more innate and unchangeable. And they are different from the skills and know-how that can be acquired by most people with sufficient practice and training. Character strengths are different; more similar to qualities that we have, historically at least, valued in both ourselves and others, such as honesty, wisdom and courage.  

Extensive research and expert consultation identified 24 distinct characteristics which can be measured reliably through a single questionnaire and which were believed to be universally found in people in all nations and cultures.  Today, their questionnaire of character strengths and values has been completed by more than 500,000 people worldwide; and the results of research confirmed that these 24 characteristics can be found in all cultures.2

These 24 character traits can be grouped into six broad domains: 

  • Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
  • Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
  • Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  • Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance: forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
  • Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Your unique signature strengths 

According to Peterson and Seligman, every individual possesses all 24 strengths but to a different degree, and three to seven of these character strengths are more pronounced in each person. These are called signature strengths. These are the characteristics that make us who we are.  Signature strengths are the characteristics and qualities that are essential to who you are and define you as a person. These are the qualities that matter to you personally, that your friends and your romantic partner typically like about you most, and that your future employer may ask you to highlight during a job interview.

Signature strengths — the characteristics that are most pronounced in you — have three things in common. They are:

  • Essential:  The character strengths that are most pronounced in you will feel essential to who you are as a person.
  • Effortless:  When you put one of your character strengths into action (e.g., doing something creative, standing up for others, taking on a leadership role), it will feel natural and effortless.
  • Energizing: When you put one of your character strengths into action, doing so will uplift you, leave you feeling happy, and leave you feeling ready to take on more.

Discover your character strengths

Character strengths are assessed through the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which can be completed in less than 10 minutes. Although you are required to register, there is a free version of the survey. People generally report that they find out something new about themselves. After you have completed the survey, download our worksheet to help you get started on activity your signature, character strengths. 

Putting your signature strengths into action. 

The benefit from character strengths comes from participating in activities that allow you to utilize your signature strengths. If one of your signature strengths is justice, that means participating in activities (at work, in your community) that will promote fairness. If your signature strength is creativity or curiosity, that means participating in activities that will allow you to explore and try out new things. And if your signature strength is one of appreciation of beauty or excellence, that means finding an activity that allows you to experience beauty or excellence. 

What kind of activities count?  

Finding the activity that allows you to reap the benefit of your signature strengths may be a challenge if you are not already doing things that align with your signature strengths.  At school, it may mean taking a (new) course at university that you wouldn’t necessarily consider (e.g., if you are in math, take a course in sociology or art history). In the workplace, it may mean requesting to work on a (new) project, in addition to your primary job, that allows you to participate in (new) things that you don’t ordinarily do that align with your signature strengths.  In your free time, it may mean starting a new activity, spending more time with people who have similar signature strengths, travelling to new places, or even just spending more time reading about the people, the places or the activities that embody your signature strengths.   

Does it have to be a new activity?

Although it does not have to be a new activity necessarily, the best approach to extracting the benefit from utilizing your character strengths is to (a) increase or resurrect and previous activity and (b) add in a new activity. Research suggests that the most immediate benefit can come from a new activity.  

Does it have to be a ‘big’ activity?

The benefit of utilizing your character strengths can come from any activity. But, given that the most immediate benefit may come from adding in a new activity, it will be easier and faster to start with a small but new activity.  


Sources & Notes: 

1Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.itherby, A.E., & Tauber, S.K. (2019). The Current Status of Students’ Note-Taking: Why and How Do Students Take Notes? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 139–153. 

2 Park, Peterson & Seligman. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 1(3), 118-129.

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