Character Strengths and Virtues

Character strengths and virtues are valued among all cultures. The difference in how these virtues are expressed depend on societal norms. 

Clinical psychologist and president of the Mayerson Foundation Dr. Neal Mayerson and Positive Psychology founder Dr. Martin Seligman used social science to explore what is best about human beings. Unlike traditional psychology, Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what is right with you, rather than what is wrong with you. In the science of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman and his colleagues found that characteristics are essentially what define what is best in people. They also found the same six virtues present in practically all cultures, after studying all major religions and their traditions.

There is vast and ongoing interest in studying and identifying human strengths and psychologists look to help their clients develop these strengths. With the support of the Mayerson Foundation and the leadership of the Dr. Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson, the VIA Classifications of Character Strengths as well as Character Strengths and Virtues, VIA’s handbook, was written. The goal of the handbook Character Strengths and Virtues is to provide a framework for positive psychologist practitioners to develop practical applications in their fields.

Character Strengths and Virtues and Judaism

Human virtues and character strengths have their place in Jewish thought. In Religion and Spirituality Across Cultures, Eliezer Schnall, Mark Schiffman and Aaron Cherniak discuss the link between virtues in Positive Psychology and Jewish texts in Chapter 2. They found that Judaism connects to all traits of transcendence which involves connecting to something greater than ourselves. A cornerstone of Jewish belief is seeking and cultivating a connection with G-d.  Peterson and Seligman (2004) look at transcendence as a virtue, because connection brings meaning to life. Feeling connected to a Higher Power reminds us of how small we truly are but can simultaneously lift us up out of our sense of insignificance.

Appreciation of beauty and excellence is another virtue connected to transcendence. In Judaism, we are taught to notice and appreciate G-d’s creations down to the smallest of details.  Maimonides explains, “When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him…” (Mishneh Torah , Laws of the Basic Principles of the Torah, 2:2). Praising G-d’s creations is a catalyst to developing a strong love for Him.

Gratitude is also connected to transcendence. Practicing gratitude showers us with goodness. As recipients of good, we acknowledge and recognize that we have benefitted from others. In Judaism, practicing gratitude is seen as an ideal trait. Practicing gratitude towards a Higher Power can result in positive outcomes and can reduce levels of stress (Krause, 2006).

There are many other characteristics which connect Judaism and Positive Psychology. Finding our character strengths and virtues as well as those of others can teach us how to see the best in people and understand why some people complement or clash with each other. As practitioners, educators, and leaders, we can then decide who should take charge in any given situation and offer appropriate advice and direction that is well-suited to each person. We each have our own individual character strengths and virtues that are waiting to be realized.