A Matter of Strengths

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Multiple Classes | It took the late Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman Gr’67, and a high-powered group of scholars and clinical practitioners three years to assemble and refine the initial “basic tools” of Positive Psychology. But by 2004, they had created a classification of 24 character strengths, organized into six groups of time-tested virtues. That and other aspects of their work provided an intellectual base for the discipline, as well as another book for Peterson and Seligman (Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification). It has also yielded a massive database on character strengths for the Values In Action (VIA) Institute on Character, whose online survey has been taken by some 3 million people.

The origins and explosive growth of Positive Psychology—including the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at Penn—have been well chronicled in the Gazette and elsewhere. The chapter in question began when Seligman, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, recommended Peterson (a psychology professor at the University of Michigan) to lead the project at Penn. The result was what Neil Mayerson, head of the VIA Institute, calls “an intellectual foundation, a nomenclature of key variables for inquiry, and tools for measuring these key variables.”

Peterson died in 2012, and now two graduates of Penn’s Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology program, Shannon Polly G’09 and Kathryn Britton G’06, have honored his work with a book: Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life (2015, Positive Psychology News), which serves as a kind of self-help introduction to the sub-field of character strengths. Many of the authors who contributed to the book graduated from the MAPP program, and the proceeds from its sales and from a fundraiser go to the Christopher Peterson Memorial Fellowship at Penn, which helps financially needy students attend the program. So far, they’ve raised more than $21,000.

As Polly and Britton write in their introduction, every person has a “particular configuration of the 24 character strengths, some overused, some underused, and some used in just the right amount.” After steering readers to the online survey to determine and explore their signature strengths—as well as those that do not come easily—Character Strengths Matter shows ways to put those strengths to good use in a variety of situations.

—S.H.
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