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Signature strengths

Traditional, disease focused psychology has revolved round the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM).

I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths. 

Martin Seligman, 2002 


Traditional, disease focused psychology has revolved round the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. (DSM)  It is here that we can find everything that can go wrong with the human brain and personality. Positive Psychology's answer to the DSM is the VIA (Values in Action) Classification of Strengths. This is work undertaken by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman which lists 'character strengths' and 'virtues'. Seligman sometimes refers to the VIA as the Un-DSM or the 'classification of the sanities'. Peterson argues that the point of the VIA is to focus on 'what is right about people and, specifically, about the strengths of character that make the good life possible.' 

The VIA outlines 6 core virtues:

  • Wisdom
  • Courage
  • Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

Seligman and Peterson argue that these 6 virtues consistently emerge from historical and international surveys of what people have always valued about one another which is defined as an interpersonal strength involving 'tending' and 'befriending' can be displayed via the character strengths of 'intimacy', 'kindness', and 'social intelligence'. There are 24 strengths in all. 

Seligman and Peterson admit that many other thinkers have articulated what makes good character but what is different about their work is their attempt to define and measure these strengths. Their VIA Inventory of Strengths is a self-report questionnaire of 240 items which can be completed on-line for free at:


An individual gets immediate feedback on his/her top five strengths. A children's version is also available.  

According to Peterson, the VIA project is the 'first major project explicitly inspired by positive psychology'. 

The importance of signature strengths

Seligman's formulation of 'the good life' is simply using your signature strengths on a daily basis in your everyday life and activities. And his formulation of 'the meaningful life' is to use these strengths in the service of others, particularly to advance 'knowledge, power or goodness'. In other words, using your signature stengths for the common good is Seligman's ultimate recipe for happiness. More information on identifying signature strengths is found in the tools, tips and techniques section.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

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