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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


VAN EEDEN, Chrizanne  and  WISSING, Marié P.. Character strengths rediscovered in psychology. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2008, vol.48, n.1, pp.78-94. ISSN 2224-7912.

In this article, we analyze the constructs "character" and "character strengths" as important concepts in psychology in general and positive psychology in particular. The character concept has had a long history in psychology since the 1920's, but lost its theoretical and empirical importance some decades thereafter in favour of the concept of personality. The (moral-philosophical) concept "character" has evaded empirical scrutiny in the early years of psychology as a discipline and this has led to its exclusion from mainstream psychology. The emerging perspective of positive psychology however, has resurrected the character concept and operationalized it in terms of character strengths. The character strengths model of Peterson and Seligman (2004), introduces 24 manifestations of character, clustered into six groups of virtues namely, wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Peterson and Seligman (2004), developed the Values in Action Classification of Strengths as a system in which distinctions are made between virtues, strengths and enabling themes. Virtues are core characteristics valued by moral philosophers universally and strengths are less abstract psychological characteristics that serve as routes for achieving virtues. Enabling themes are factors that lead people to manifest given character strengths in given situations and hence contribute to virtues. Talents and abilities (e.g. intelligence) and characteristics not valued across cultures, were excluded from the classification system (Carr, 2004). The 24 strengths associated with 6 virtues can be assessed with the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) or the VIA-IS for youth (VIA-Y), both self report questionnaires. The VIA-IS can be accessed at The character strength subscales of the VIA-IS all have good reliability in USA-studies, and the inventory is in further validation. The character strengths idea plays an important role in the new domain of positive psychology, and holds much promise for practice and research aimed at understanding and promoting psychological well-being and fulfilment of individuals and communities. According to Peterson and Seligman (2004), their research found a remarkable similarity in the relative endorsement of the 24 character strengths by adults around the world and from the USA. The most commonly endorsed strengths in 54 countries are kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude and open-mindedness, and the lesser strengths consistently include prudence, modesty and self-regulation. The correlations of the rankings from nation to nation, are strong (0.80+), - indicating more cultural, ethnic, religious and economic similarities than differences, and seemingly points to a universality of human nature as manifested by character strengths. In South Africa however, a more emic factor pattern emerged indicating an African collective-cultural system. Further research on this model and validation of measures thereof, is necessary in the South African context that includes cultural diversities not previously taken into account. As far as practical application is concerned the character strengths model could enhance the practice fields of developmental- and child psychology, clinical- and therapeutic psychology, educational psychology, industrial- and organizational psychology, health psychology, geriatric psychology, forensic psychology, pastoral- and community psychology and social psychology. Of the three pillars of positive psychology namely, positive subjective experiences (happiness, pleasure, gratification, fulfilment); positive individual traits (strengths of character, talents, interests, values) and positive institutions (families, schools, businesses, communities, societies) (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), the second one presents the application context for the development and enhancement of character strengths. Constructs included in the character strengths model, for example gratitude, hope, self-regulation, etc. are being applied in various contexts, phases of life, type of interventions, as well as for remediation of pathology and for promotion of flourishing and research in this regard is ongoing. Further empirical studies in this regard are necessary, specifically in the South African context.

Keywords : Virtues; character; character strengths; positive psychology; psychofortology; Values in Action; VIA-IS.

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