Superman’s résumé is pretty impressive. He’s got superhuman strength, X-ray vision and enough stamina to fly around the globe, sans plane. His weakness, famously, is Kryptonite. But here’s a crazy idea: What if everything about you contained strengths, and there is no Kryptonite?
That’s the perspective taken by the VIA Institute on Character. Based in Cincinnati, the nonprofit is dedicated to understanding and improving human experience, via studying character traits. Its work is based in the positive psychology movement, which seeks to identify and boost mental assets, instead of focusing solely on problems. Positive psychology is used by a variety of professionals — therapists, teachers, coaches, counselors and other practitioners — with the goal of helping people thrive. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me,” positive psychology flips the script and asks, “What’s right with me, and how can I foster that?”
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Back in the 1990s, two pioneers in the field of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, spent three years on a project. They worked with 55 social scientists, seeking to identify and classify the positive strengths in people. You know, the virtuous good stuff we aspire to, such as bravery, fairness, teamwork, and the ability to love and be loved.
That project culminated in a 2004 book, “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook,” and a classification of 24 qualities that are considered universal, that is, they span across different cultures, belief systems and countries. The 24 strengths are broken down into categories of virtues, like this:
Everyone possesses these 24 qualities, but in combinations that are unique to them. For example, some people have bravery as one of their top strengths, while others might have that as “a lesser strength” and rank higher in other qualities like Leadership or Kindness. Supposedly, knowing one’s top strengths and learning how to work with them can help people feel more confident, handle stress better and reach their professional and personal goals.
The project also created two free tools for understanding these character strengths, called the VIA Inventory of Strengths (or VIA Survey), which is for adults, and the VIA Youth Survey, which is designed for those aged 8 to 17.
By now, more than 25 million people have taken the VIA Survey. It’s a 240-item questionnaire, which takes about 20 minutes to complete. For example, there will be a statement, such as “I always admit when I am wrong,” and then you click on “very much like me,” “like me,” “neutral,” “unlike me” or “very much unlike me.”
Want to take the survey? Here are two sites; both are free but you will have to take a few minutes to set up an account and password. Try VIA’s Website or the Authentic Happiness website from the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman is a professor. (Dr. Peterson, who taught at the University of Michigan, passed away in 2012.)
I had taken the survey in November 2021 and took it again in December 2022, and my results were strikingly similar. My top traits were almost identical, as were the ones that came in at the bottom of my list of 24 traits. That’s where I’m thinking, man, I have some stuff to work on. But good news: “Your top five are the ones to pay attention to and find ways to use more often,” the survey advises. Ah, okay. Remember, this is positive psychology. It does not say challenges don’t exist, but rather it focuses attention and resources on how to create meaningful and fulfilling lives — regardless of what’s happening around us.
When you think about the best qualities a music educator could have, you might think about things like creativity, a love of music and organizational skills. All true, of course, but what’s so interesting is that within the 24 strengths, there are all sorts of combinations where a music educator can succeed. One teacher might discover their top strengths are Love of Learning, Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence, and Hope — and they are an amazing music educator. Another might discover Bravery, Spirituality and Teamwork as their top strengths — and be an equally amazing, yet totally different music educator (and human).
When you give feedback to students, highlight what strength you see them expressing, and in this way, you can be very specific when giving praise. For example, “You showed a lot of Bravery by volunteering to sing the solo today,” or “that Teamwork was fantastic; I saw how well you were working with the rest of the percussionists.”
Figuring out your top five strengths and how you can use them more often with your students and colleagues is worth the time and can be both inspiring and enlightening.
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