Positive psychologists are hailing a new handbook of positive personality traits, called "Character Strengths and Virtues" and published in May by APA and Oxford University Press, as an important development in the science of positive psychology.

The book, compiled by psychologists Christopher Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan, and Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, classifies and offers measures of 24 separate strengths--including authenticity, persistence, kindness, gratitude, hope and humor--which fit into six broad categories of virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence (see box).

This new classification of positive characteristics is in some ways a counterpart to the DSM's classification of psychological pathology, says Peterson.

"We hope that we've provided a vocabulary for people to talk about and assess positive attributes," he says. "If you want to talk about the good, here's how you can do it. More concretely, therapists and their clients could become interested in building strengths through this classification. So instead of psychologists working only to help people change their bad habits, they can help inculcate good habits."

The book examines each strength--its meaning, measurement, causes, correlates and consequences--in a separate chapter by a prominent psychologist studying that area. For example, the chapter on creativity was written by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, whose work at the University of California, Davis, focuses on creativity in leadership. The book offers the theoretical as well as the practical, says Seligman.

"The most important thing the classification does for us is ask what interventions actually build these 24 strengths, but to do that, first you have to define them, which the book also does," Seligman says. "Those definitions will foster a new generation of research into what kinds of interventions and experiences enable and build these virtues."

Using the classification

Seligman's interest in positive psychology stems from his work as a psychotherapist, in which he often encountered the question from clients: "How can I be happy?" Seligman said he wound up treating these patients for depression, but that didn't necessarily increase their happiness because he didn't have specific tools to build positive traits.

"Clinical psychologists are going to be able to start using this classification right away to work to raise happiness in their patients," Seligman says. "It's meant to be another arrow in their quiver. We should keep treating disorders and add the arrows of positive psychology."

More specifically, says Peterson, psychologists could help clients develop the five key traits that seem to be most strongly associated with life satisfaction: hope, zest, curiosity, gratitude and love. The book suggests, for example, that people can build gratitude a number of ways, including by developing a broad perspective on life and by perceiving the good and bad moments in their lives and life itself as gifts. They can also:

  • Construct families and workplaces that encourage and foster gratitude in their members, as a way of training people to routinely experience gratitude.

  • Encourage marital partners to express gratitude to each other, as research shows expressed appreciation is one of the cornerstones of healthy marriages.

  • Incorporate training on expressing and inspiring gratitude into existing leadership and management training programs.

Research past and future

Seligman and Peterson based the classification system in the book on 20 years of research into positive traits and based the practical recommendations on case studies and fledgling intervention research. They and other psychologists have conducted randomized, placebo-controlled studies on six different strategies designed to build particular positive traits.

For example, in 2002 Seligman and psychologist Ed Diener, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published findings about the routine behaviors of very happy people in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 1). They found that happy people were highly social, had stronger romantic and other social relationships than other groups and reported themselves to be more extraverted, more agreeable and less neurotic than other groups. Seligman and Peterson found similar results in further research conducted largely through a Web site --www.authentichappiness.com--sponsored by the Values in Action Institute, a nonprofit organization directed by Seligman.

And the work is continuing. Indeed, there remains much to be studied about how and if people can learn to add particular character strengths to their personalities, Peterson says.

"In principle, all the strengths can be worked on," he says. "However, the temperance strengths, like patience, which are typically lower in most people, are hard to work on because they require skills we're not necessarily wired for. Something like kindness is easier, because you're not fighting against any programmed tendencies."

Further Reading

"Characters Strengths and Virtues" can be ordered online from APA Books at www.apa.org/books.