Author's Note: I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of Chris's sudden death. I immediately recalled the fond memories I had of him over the four short years that I knew him. I first met Chris in 2008 when I was a student in Penn's MAPP program and was blown away by his extraordinary teaching. While he was discussing the head and heart strengths, I remember asking him which strengths were most important in life. He paused, looked me straight in the eye, and responded in his soft and gentle voice, "The heart ones." Chris was unique in that he had a brilliant mind, but more importantly a big and beautiful soul which was evident to anyone who crossed his path. And he used his abundance of strengths primarily to help others. I had the fortunate opportunity to experience his wisdom, kindness, humor, and humility while working closely with him to help promote the First World Congress on Positive Psychology. When speaking with Chris, he always seemed to shift the attention to me, making me feel not only that I had something to learn from him, but also that he had something to learn from me. An exceptional teacher, and a life-long student – Chris was a rare gem.
Below is an interview I conducted with Chris for the IPPA June 2008 newsletter. The article is re-printed in its original form, so please note that some information may no longer be up to date.
Thousands of years ago, Aristotle argued the virtuous life as the path to happiness. Today, Dr. Chris Peterson, noted leader in the field of positive psychology and one of the world’s most cited psychologists, deems character strengths as the foundation of humanity, and strength-congruent activity as a key route to the good life.
Peterson defines character as "a family of individual differences...distinct strengths that people possess to varying degrees." He states that character is malleable, measurable and subject to numerous influences.
Like Aristotle, Peterson asserts that we can cultivate character. But there are no shortcuts. Only through regular practice can we make sustainable changes, create new habits, and improve our happiness. However, in order to mark our progress, we must be able to measure our character.
Peterson’s Values in Action (VIA) Classification is a conceptual and empirical tool that features explicit criteria for twenty-four universal character strengths. It is in the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics by emphasizing the moral excellence of the individual. The Classification has led to a family of assessment devices to measure character including theVIA-IS questionnaire, which provides feedback to respondents concerning their strengths of character.
The VIA-IS teaches people how to be virtuous by reminding them to focus on exercising their strengths, not their weaknesses. Once we become aware of our top strengths (dubbed "signature strengths"), we can craft interventions and apply them to our daily lives to further build good character and increase thriving. If love, gratitude, zest, and hope don’t already rank among our top strengths Peterson recommends we practice these strengths as well because they are most highly correlated with flourishing.
Peterson refers to personality as "the story we tell about ourselves" and asserts, "all too often, redemption is the narrative we tell." He suggests we change that by looking at our lives as a story of triumph and strengths. As William James argued, by shifting our attention we have the potential to create healthy habits, cultivate character, and improve happiness. So, why not focus on the good and celebrate our strengths?
Peterson provides more insight on the important positive psychology concept of character strength in our interview below.
Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, creator of the VIA Classification of Strengths, and author of numerous books and articles including Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification and A Primer in Positive Psychology.
Suzie Pileggi: What is the most important thing to keep in mind about strengths?
Dr. Chris Peterson: What I think is most important about strengths is the idea that they are plural. Character is not a single thing. Indeed, there are soft tradeoffs among certain strengths, like those of the head and those of the heart.
Suzie: What was an unusual or counter-intuitive research finding about strengths?
Chris: Only that modesty, at least as we measure it, does not contribute much to life satisfaction. It may even subtract (from it).
Suzie: What strengths are the easiest and – on the flip side – the most challenging to increase?
Chris: I assume the interpersonal strengths (gratitude) are the easiest, and the self-regulation strengths the hardest.
Suzie: Is it important for people to focus on practicing using some of their top strengths before working on some of their lesser strengths?
Chris: Top strengths are more comfortable, and they can be leveraged to work on lesser strengths.
Suzie: If you had to pick the one strength that was most critical to a flourishing life, what would that be?
Suzie: If practice makes perfect, do you think it’s possible for an individual’s weakest strength to become one’s top strength – and greatest asset over time – with the right amount of attention and effort?
Chris: In principle, sure, but the research has not been done.
Suzie: What are some useful tips you can provide people on using their strengths in their daily lives?
Chris: Be mindful of what I call strengths occasions, and rise to them. Also, practice, practice, practice.