Is there a list of personal strengths of character, and are there common virtues, that can be identified across cultures and throughout history? Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and founder of the modern positive psychology movement, and especially Christopher Peterson, professor at the University of Michigan since 1986 and member of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee, spent three years researching this.
Psychology's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) catalogs what's wrong with people - their psychological problems. Peterson and Seligman set out to catalog what's right with people - their psychological strengths, specifically contrasting it with the DSM. The result is what well-known Harvard professor Howard Gardner called "one of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half century," the 816-pageCharacter Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.
Through their research Peterson and Seligman discovered that personal strengths and virtues were more universal than they - or their colleagues - expected. One result was their list of two dozen character strengths, grouped within six broad areas of virtue.
What qualifies as a personal character strength, and how do you know if one is really yours? The researchers discuss many aspects of their methods and those of scientific psychology in the past. In A Primer in Positive Psychology (2007), Peterson explains:
I believe that people possess signature strengths akin to what Allport (1961) identified decades ago as personal traits. These are strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises. In our interviews with adults, we find that almost everyone can readily identify a handful of strengths as very much their own, typically between two and five.
Peterson goes on to present a list they used in 2004 summarizing their "possible criteria for signature...