A small green plant emerging from the soil. Photo by Sushobhan Badhai on Unsplash

Values, Character and Well-being

How to cultivate your values to help you thrive

Values’ has become a buzz word in the leadership and personal development arenas and for good reason. Research has shown that some values correlate more strongly with a sense of well-being than others. Dr Martin Seligman and colleagues have done a lot of work developing and researching values and character and this has informed much of the positive psychology movement that is taking ground at the moment. In reality, it’s been taking ground for about 20 years but it seems that it’s recently started calling more loudly in the circles I move in.

It’s important, first of all, to understand that positive psychology is not what I once thought it was. I mean, it’s not about ‘being positive’ or only looking for positive things or denying the hard stuff of life. From the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, arguably the world’s foremost authority on positive psychology, we can draw a definitive, well, definition:

The scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

They further elaborate on this:

The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

Doesn’t that sound refreshing!

So much of what we do in therapeutic and ‘wellness’ settings is deal with a person’s pathologies or issues and yet here is a field of study that sees life as so much more than that. Certainly, when the issues need to be dealt with then it’s wise to do that, but what about the other times? And what about enabling people to do something — anything — even though they have those issues? What can a person do, not what can’t they do.

Are we doing things that can help us not just survive but thrive?

Values and Well-Being

The term ‘positive psychology’ embraces a lot of research and practise and it’s way beyond my scope here to cover much of it. So I will choose to focus on one tool that is out there and one area of research into that tool that I’ve come across. You may find it interesting and even life-giving!

Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey

This little beauty is full of questions related to character. What happened was, a few years back, Peterson and Seligman (2004) researched various classical religious and philosophical texts from various cultures and that still influence our world today. These include the Judeo-Christian texts, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism from South Asia, Islam and ancient Greek philosophers. They looked at these texts with a view to understanding what each of these writings said about being a person of character and virtue. At the end, they came out with 24 character strengths that typify a person of ‘virtue’ and developed an assessment tool that can tell you how much these things are values of yours in this moment.

Since then, a new version of the test has been released (you can access it here for free). I strongly suggest you have a go at it. It’s proven to be extremely robust and statisically reliable and valid. There’s also a children’s one for use with people who aren’t adults.

The data from this survey has been further correlated against measures of well-being — in other words, research has been done to show which of these strengths, if any, are most cloesly related to being ‘happy’ and having a sense of psychological ‘well-being’.

Well-being Strengths

What they found brings huge insight into our lives. The happiness strengths, if you want to call them that, have been found to be the following:

  • Hope
  • Zest
  • Gratitude
  • Curiosity
  • Love

When you cultivate these character strengths in your life, which is quite easy to do, really, then we discover, whatever your age, that you can improve your sense of well-being and happiness.

Let’s unpack each of these briefly so that you know what they all mean (I certainly didn’t know what zest means as a character strength) and we’re all on the same playing field. These deinfitions are all drawn from the Technical Report, The VIA Assessment Suite for Adults: Development and Initial Evaluation (McGrath, 2017, pp. 37–38).

Hope. 
You are optimistic, expecting the best to happen; you believe in and work toward a positive future; you can think of many pathways to reach your goals”.

Hope, you’ll notice, is about the future, and more to the point it’s about having a positive relationship with the future. It’s not just believing in some grand dreams (some may call that grandiosity) but believing in some future that is essentially possible and positive.

Notice here that it states explicitly that “… you believe in and work toward a positive future …”. The positive future is not something that just happens to you. It involves you picking yourself up and actively working to resource yourself and put in the effort to make that future happen. As you grow in confidence in your ability to make those changes — to be your own agent of change — you become more full of hope.

Curiosity.
“You are an explorer; you seek novelty; you are interested in new activities, ideas, and people; you are open to new experiences”.

This one is also about having a positive relationship with the present. It’s about seeing the world all around you and experiencing it — not just that, it’s about wondering openly what might happen if you try something new, stretch your boundaries beyond their usual place and venture into the great unknown that’s right here, now, before you.

Zest.
“You are enthusiastic toward life; you are highly energetic and activated; you use your energy to the fullest degree”.

This one is about what you do right now. It’s about creating a positive relationship with this moment and embracing what you are doing in the here and now with full abandon. It’s not about conjuring up a false sense of enthusiasm, though — you don’t have to go around pretending to be happy or full of energy, nor do you have to wear yourself trying to be enthusiastic.

Rather, this one is about fully immersing yourself in whatever it is that you’re doing and giving it your best shot with the resources — emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual or material — that you have at hand. When we immerse ourselves in this moment, we find that this moment gives us the energy to keep being in this moment.

Gratitude.
“You regularly experience and express thankfulness; you don’t take the good things that happen in your life for granted; you tend to feel blessed in many circumstances”.

This one is about having a positive relationship with the past. Notice that it’s not just a feeling. The definition is very clear: living in the strength of gratitude is one where you actively express that gratitude. This is a habit that you can develop. You can look for the things to be grateful for and express them as a blessing.

Love.
“You are warm and genuine to others; you not only share but are open to receiving love from others; you value growing close and intimate with others”.

This one is about being a social creature. It’s about how we live with people here and now. It’s about being a person in relationship with others, because really, that’s what being a person is! At one level or another, we only have a self because that self is not another. We somehow define ourselves by what we are not and that sense of self feels healthiest when it is warm to those who are not us, to those we are in relationship with.

Notice that it explicitly says that we “not only share but are open to receiving love from others”. This, I think, is an important point. Being strong in this character is about giving love and being warm to others and it is about allowing others to be warm to us and give us love. It must go both ways in order to optimise well-being.

Strengths as Constructs of Time

One final thought before moving on. Did you notice that these strengths all have to do with how we relate to time? Let me unpack it a little more.

Hope has to do with the future and the positive relationship we have with it. It’s about being positive toward what might happen and being open to working towrd that happening. When we have a healthy relationship with the future, when we are optimistic about the future (because it is realistically possible and it’s what we want to occur), then it feeds our sense of well-being.

Gratitude has to do with the past and the positive relationship we have with it. It’s about deliberately expressing the gratitude we feel about the past. This means it is a choice to build a positive reltionship with what’s happened previously. This doesn’t mean we ignore the painful things, no, but it also means we don’t ignore the delightful, positive things, either.

Curiosity and zest are both to do with the present. They encourage us to both be open to what the presnt may have in store for us — rather than close oruselves off to this experience, why not engage in it, discover from it, grow through it? — and they encourage us to live this moment fully immersed and enjoying it — rather than experinceing this moment grudgingly, perhaps finding the experience itself and what it may mean for us here, now, how it may feel or feed or inform us.

Finally, there is love. Love is a powerful one because it connects us to others, but more than that, it connects us to our past (our love grows with the number and quality of experiences we have with someone else), to our future (we want to remain in relationship with someone for as long as we can — our children, our partners, and our friends) and to our present (we can experience love and relationship here and now, be present with the people in this room in ways that are meaningful to they and us, give them love and receive love from them right now).

It’s easy to see from this that love is almost like a kind of adhesive. It leaks into time and space and brings it all together in this moment. We can be full of gratitude for our relationships, we can be full of hope for them, we can experience them with a zestfulness that enjoys every moment, and we can be curious about the new experiences this relationship could bring right now — and what we could bring to it right now. And all of this is done with a warmth and genuineness that fills and nourishes the soul

Some Important Notes About Character Strengths

The research (eg., Park, Peters & Seligman, 2004; Hausler, Strecker, Huber, Brenner, Höge, & Höfer, 2017) shows that you can’t have too much of a strength for well-being and that all strengths will improve well-being as they grow in intensity. This is important. How can you grow your strengths today? How you can you develop these things you value and apply them in new ways?

It’s just that the research seems to indicate that the five strengths explored above have the strongest carryover to well-being. For example, the more cerebral ones like judgment, appreciation of beauty, and love of learning — all correlate weakly with well-being. They still correlate with it, so will improve your sense of well-being somewhat, but it is a weak relationship. You won’t be as satisfied as you would if you cultivate hope, gratitude, curiosity, zest, and love.

I find it very interesting that the research indicates that modesty/humility (“You let your acomplishments speak for themselves; you see your own goodness but prefer to focus the attention on others; you do not see yourself as more special than others; you admit your imperfections”) is weakly related to well-being. How intriguing. Being self-effacing, while lauded by society, along with learning and judgment, are not as powerful at developing well-being. They still develop it, but our focus should perhaps be more on the elements of how we relate to events in our present, past and future and how we relate to others. Love will naturally induce humility, I suspect, because it only fully works when it carries with it personal vulnerability.

An open, lush, green valley full of life. Photo by shontz photography on Unsplash

Growing in Virtue

When we focus on these things, so the ancient writings apparently tell us, we grow in virtue. Here is a simple exercise that could help you to grow in these areas.

  1. Find a pen. Find some paper.
  2. Think about some key people who have had a positive impact in your life. Just two or three will do. Think about how they have positively impacted you: Where were you when they did those things, how did it make you feel after they did or said those things, what wholesome, positive behaviours or feelings did you have as a direct result of that person’s actions?
  3. Now, write down three things that you are grateful for about those people.
  4. Then, find a time when you can actually tell them you are grateful for them. Be specific. Tell them very precisely what you are grateful for. And if you can’t get in contact with them anymore, then maybe you can write them a letter or a poem expressing your gratitude. No one else has to read it. But be honest, be precise and express it to them from your own heart.
  5. Next, think about your future relationships, again, just two or three. Who are you in a positive, healthy relationship with right now that you would like to stay in relationship with? Or perhaps, who could you see yourself developig a healthy reationship with in the future? Write down three things that you can do — things you know are achievable — that will take a step toward growing that relationship a little more. Going out for a coffee together? Going for a walk together? Participating in sport together?
  6. Write down how you expect you will feel when your relationships do grow. What are three things you might feel and experience from those enriched, healthy relationships?
  7. Finally, have a look at your life right now, in this moment. What can you do next? How can you do that thing in a way that is different to normal? Can you sing while you do it? Feel the textures under your fingers and think about how they feel? Maybe you can see changes occur within you that bring a different sense of being in the world.
  8. Now, experience those things. Do them, feel them, live them. There is no moment like this moment do be curious about those things and there is no better way to experience those things than fully, completely immersed in the task at hand.

Continuing On

Thanks for reading my article. I really appreciate it. I hope you have a great time learning to grow your own strengths and experiencing a fullness in your life that is well and truly worth it. Remember it’s a process and a journey.


References

Hausler, M., Strecker, C,. Huber, A., Brenner, M., Höge, T., & Höfer, S. (2017). Distinguishing relational aspects of character strengths with subjective and psychological well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01159

McGrath, R. E. (2017). Technical Report: The VIA Suite for Adults: Development and initial evaluation. Cincinnati, OH: VIA Institute on Character.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603–619.

Peterson, C & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.