Testing Your Strengths and Virtues

“We have repeatedly found that those who pursue all three domains—pleasure, engagement, and meaning—have by far the most life satisfaction, with engagement and meaning far and away the biggest contributors to fulfillment.”

-Martin Seligman

For most of its history, the field of psychology focused on identifying and treating mental disorders. While an incredibly worthy and important pursuit, when newly elected as President of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, Martin Seligman hoped to persuade members of his profession to also explore the factors that enable individuals to feel fulfilled, engaged, and happy.  He reasoned that mental health should be more than the absence of mental illness. Seligman wanted to know how to help people flourish.

In the intervening years, Seligman’s goal has been realized and the study of positive psychology has flourished.  Increasing numbers of researchers have investigated the elusive realm of happiness, and their contributions have been both extensive and enlightening.

In particular, Seligman’s efforts have focused on identifying human strengths and virtues and studying how they relate to happiness and well-being.  Working with Christopher Peterson, Seligman developed a list of strengths and virtues essential to well-being, including six leading virtues (each with sub categories). The six, emphasized as having no hierarchical order, are: wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Additionally, Peterson and Seligman created a questionnaire that helps individuals evaluate themselves in regard to 24 “Signature Strengths” and to identify their top five strengths/virtues. Fortunately, this unique assessment is available to everyone free of charge on Seligman’s web site, www.authentichappiness.org.

This online questionnaire will provide a summary of your top five strengths and an overview of all 24 signature strengths/virtues (see right column on this page).  It takes about 30 minutes to complete, and will be time well spent in light of Seligman’s research which demonstrates a link between personal strengths and living a more engaged and meaningful life.  As Seligman explains:

“The central skill to having more engagement is to identify your signature strengths and virtues, and recraft your life to use them more often.  By deploying your highest strengths and talents, you can have more intense absorption in more areas of your life.”

To the engaged life, Seligman recommends adding the element of “meaning.”  This is usually accomplished through “transcending self.”  Therefore, when asked the age old question, “How does one pursue a meaningful life?” Seligman offers this sage advice:

“The central skill is to identify your signature strengths and virtues and use them to belong to and to serve something that you believe is larger than you are.”

Sources:”The New Science of Happiness” by Claudia Wallis; Time (January, 2005). “Positive Psychology Progress” by Martin Seligman, Tracy Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson; American Psychologist (July-August, 2005). Web site: www.authentichappiness.org.

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