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Emotions= Character?

May 9, 2010 by ·

In the early stages of formulating the framework for a new “positive psychology,” Martin Seligman spoke with me about how positive character was the backbone holding together the original three pillars he articulated: positive character, positive emotions and positive institutions. As I have observed the science develop, his position has begun to crystallize for me.

It has always been clear to me that institutions – be they families, schools, businesses, or places of worship – influence values and virtuous behavior by the various rewards and punishments that are built into their respective cultures. A family that models and teaches honesty is more likely to produce honest behavior than one that models duplicity. And, it has always been clear to me that these institutions also construct conditions that determine the valence (the intrinsic attractiveness or aversiveness) of emotions. Some institutions create more positive emotions than others, and vice versa.

But, what about the connection between positive emotion and character?

It seems to me that the answer lies in the state-trait continuum. What does it mean to possess the character strength of love other than the fact that there are many instances in which one feels or expresses love? What is the character trait of zest other than the ubiquity of joy? It has been shown that a way to strengthen one’s trait of gratitude is to practice gratitude frequently. The more commonplace states of gratitude, the stronger the trait of gratitude.

In other words, it seems that when positive emotional states become habitual that they equate to character strengths. And, it may be that each character strength has a positive emotional expression. Is there a positive affective expression of creativity? Of leadership? Of social intelligence?

As I have read the impressive work of researchers such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Barbara Fredrickson, and Bob Emmons, I have wondered how it connects with our work at VIA. My colleagues Deb Pinger and Ryan Niemiec pointed out to me the connection. The 10 positive emotions that Fredrickson writes about all seem to have character-trait trajectories. Below is a list of these positive emotional states with the corresponding character traits that we speculate are associated with each when the emotional states reach a certain density distribution across one’s life.

1. Love – Builds love and maybe kindness

2. Joy – May build zest

3. Gratitude – Builds gratitude

4. Serenity – Builds self-regulation and spirituality

5. Interest – Builds curiosity; love of learning

6. Hope – Builds hope

7. Pride – May build persistence; hope

8. Amusement – May build humor/playfulness

9. Inspiration – May build awe (appreciation of beauty/excellence)

10. Awe – May build appreciation of beauty/excellence

So, we at VIA are thinking that research on positive emotions will provide new insights into pathways for building up and maintaining character traits. And, as Ed Diener says, the positive emotion/positive character link is a mutual, two-way street. Therefore, we also wonder how much the ingredients of character strengths will illuminate the understanding of positive affect.

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