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Understanding Key Terms
What Is Character?

The topic of character has been of longstanding interest to philosophers, educators, political leaders, religious leaders, and the general public. Until recently, the study of character had not undergone rigorous scientific efforts thus was relegated to the experiences and programming of character educators, personal opinions of experts, and commentary by self-help gurus.

The word “character” conjures up a number of meanings for people such as one’s reputation (“his character is being attacked), one’s level of morality (“she’s a woman of good character”), or pigeonholing character into one construct such as honesty or integrity (“he's very honest so is a person of strong character”). People tend to think of character as something permanent and unchanging in people. This is further complicated by traditional views of character that widely manifest today – as championed by many character education programs found in schools, religious groups, athletic programs, etc. – that identify a small number of positive traits (e.g. usually four to seven) and claim that this grouping of qualities represents “good character.” Typically, these programs and organizations then train people to build up this select number of traits. Common character education focus areas in these programs include responsibility, respect, kindness, honesty, fairness, teamwork, persistence, and courage.

What is often missing from these views of character is akin to the actual meaning of the word. The word “character” refers to those qualities that are distinctive to the individual.

In the early 2000s, scientists began to bring character to the laboratory to study it. A 3-year project involving 55 distinguished scientists devoted to studying character traits throughout time was launched. This resulted in the VIA Classification of character strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), a classification of positive traits in human beings. Since then, hundreds of peer-reviewed articles have been published across many cultures. One of the key findings about character is that each human being has a constellation of character traits (character strengths) that make him or her distinct or unique. Character strengths cannot be boiled down to one trait or a handful of traits; in addition character strengths are idiosyncratic and expressed in degrees and combinations based on the context one is in. Said in another way: character is plural.

Click here for a newly published articles on character.

What are character strengths?

Character strengths are positive traits - capacities humans have for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit oneself and others. Specifically, they are the psychological ingredients for displaying virtues or human goodness. VIA views each person as having a capacity for expressing any of the 24 character strengths in the VIA Classification. Some strengths are easier and more natural for the individual to express (e.g., signature strengths), other strengths arise in particular situations where they are needed (phasic strengths), and other strengths are expressed to a lesser degree or lesser frequency (lesser strengths).

  • Character strengths have individual differences. Each is distinct from one another.
  • Character strengths are plural, meaning they interact and influence each other.
  • Character strengths are generally stable, but they can change over time.
  • Character strengths are shaped by context. They do not operate in isolation from settings, proximal and distal, in which people are found. Character strengths are within people and people are within settings. Settings cannot fall to the background when focusing on character strengths.
What is a signature strength?

A convention in positive psychology is to consider the top 5 strengths on the VIA Survey to be “signature strengths.” Research has revealed that some people have less than 5 and a large number of people have more than 5 signature strengths. The most important criterion in considering whether a character strength is signature, or not, is whether the strength is essential and “core” to who the person is. Additional characteristics of signature strengths include:

  • Sense of ownership and authenticity; “this is the real me”
  • Consistent, wide use across life domains and situations
  • Feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
  • Easy and natural to use - a rapid learning curve
  • Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
  • A yearning to act in accordance with the strength
  • A feeling of inevitability in using the strength, as if one cannot be stopped
  • Feeling energized, rather than exhausted in using it
  • A creation and pursuit of fundamental projects that revolve around it
  • Intrinsic motivation to use the strength
What is a lesser strength?

A lesser strength is a character strength that appears at the bottom of your strengths profile. These are not viewed as weaknesses, rather as strengths that are either underdeveloped, unrealized, not as valued as other strengths, or, at the least, less used compared to other strengths in the profile.

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology has been defined in several ways over the years from being viewed as the science of well-being, the science of what is going right with people, the science behind what makes life worth living, and so forth. The original definition, as described by Martin Seligman during his Presidential year of the American Psychological Association in 1998, is that positive psychology is the scientific study of:

  • Positive subjective experience (positive emotions)
  • Positive individual traits (positive character)
  • Institutions that enable positive experiences and positive traits (positive institutions)
  • Positive social relationships (added in 2007)
  • Positive accomplishment/achievement (added in 2007)

Positive Psychology is studied and applied across professions (e.g., business, education, counseling, coaching, etc.) and in all the domains of life. For example:

  • Self (Personal & Internal)
  • Home and Family
  • Work & School
  • Social Relationships & Community
What are Virtues?

Virtues are core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers. The VIA work-groups found six virtues that emerged consistently from historical surveys, and endorsed across time and cultures. These virtues are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Cross-cultural research has found that these are universal and viewed as being grounded in biology through evolutionary process and selected for aspects of excellence as a means of solving important tasks necessary for survival of the species.

What does the strength of Spirituality refer to?

The character strength of Spirituality is about connecting outside of oneself (or in a deeper, more profound way within oneself). Many describe it as self-transcendence – feeling a personal relationship with something such as Nature, a higher power, God, energy/force, or all of life (all sentient beings), to name just a few examples. Religion, ritual, etc. is one example of this larger strength as this strength is not limited to or by religion. Scientists have studied this widely and noted that while religion relates more closely to institutional rituals, dogma, and prescribed beliefs, spirituality involves searching for or connecting with the sacred which is distinct from religiousness. Modern neuroscience shows this in our genetics and hard wiring this distinction as well. That said, some religious people are spiritual, many are not. Many people are spiritual but not religious. And so on.

VIA's History and Work
What is the VIA Institute and how did it come about?

Dr. Seligman and others, including Neal Mayerson, Ph.D., Chairman of the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, quickly recognized the need for agreed-upon definitions of the “positive individual traits” to be studied by Positive Psychology and that are involved in the multiple dimensions of well-being. Dr. Mayerson supported this vital step, founding the Values in Action Institute as a foundation initiative. In 2007, the institute’s name was shortened to the VIA Institute on Character.

How was the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues developed? What are the 6 virtues and what are the 24 character strengths?

Led by Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., and Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and funded by the Mayerson Foundation, a team of 55 social scientists studied world religions, philosophies and psychology looking for agreed-upon virtues. Examples of classic works studied included:

  • Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judeo-Christian traditions.
  • Virtue catalogs, including those by Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Boy Scouts of America, William Bennett, Benjamin Franklin, King Charlemagne, and Merlin.
  • The work of psychologists including Thorndike, Erikson, Maslow, Greenberger, Jahoda, Ryff, Thurstone, Cawley, Gardner. Dr. Peterson was the lead scientist of the development of the VIA Classification, which is described in detail in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association, 2004).
What criteria were met in identifying the character strengths?

Each of the 24 VIA Character Strengths meets all or nearly all of the following:

  • Is ubiquitous, found across cultures and time.
  • Is fulfilling.
  • Is morally valued in its own right, even in the absence of obvious beneficial outcomes.
  • Does not diminish others.
  • Has an undesirable opposite (e.g., for curiosity, this would be disinterest).
  • Is trait-like, meaning it manifests in a range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. It is general enough to cross situations & is stable over time.
  • Is measurable.
  • Is distinct from other positive traits in the classification.
  • Has consensual paragons (exemplars).
  • Has prodigies.
  • Is non-existent in certain individuals within situations.
  • Has cultural rituals for cultivating and sustaining them.
VIA Survey and In-Depth Profile Reports
What is the VIA Survey?

The VIA Survey (also referred to as the VIA Inventory of Strengths, VIA-IS) was developed by renowned psychologist, Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., and recently revised by Robert McGrath, Ph.D., VIA’s Senior Scientist. It is a 96-question, scientifically validated, questionnaire that provides a rank order of an adult’s 24 character strengths. It is the only online, free, scientific assessment of character strengths in the world. The survey takes approximately 10-15 minutes to complete and descriptive results and in-depth reports are available upon completion.

Who should take the VIA Survey?

Anyone interested in learning more about what is best about themselves should take the VIA Survey. There are VIA Surveys for youth and adults. The VIA Survey for adults is available in over 40 languages.

How long will it take me to complete the VIA Survey?

The VIA Survey for adults takes approximately 10-15 minutes to complete. The VIA Adult and Youth Surveys both have 96 questions. You can stop taking the survey part-way through and your responses will be saved. You can then log back in to complete the survey.

How many people have taken the VIA Survey?

The VIA Survey has been taken by over 8 million people reaching every country around the globe.

What do I receive after completing the free VIA Survey?

You will receive a free rank order listing of your 24 character strengths. You can also choose to upgrade your results and purchase one of our in-depth Profile Reports. Learn more about Profile Reports here.

Are there benefits to exercising character strengths?

Research is continuing to accumulate each year around the benefits of character strengths use. In general, character strengths seem to assist in reducing the likelihood of distress and dysfunction while encouraging tangible outcomes like:

  • Greater happiness
  • Acceptance of oneself
  • Reverence for life
  • Competence, mastery, efficacy
  • Mental and physical health
  • Positive and supportive social networks
  • Satisfying, engaging, and meaningful work
  • Accomplishment of goals
  • Greater engagement and life meaning
  • Higher work productivity
  • Increased likelihood of work being a life calling
  • Less stress and improved coping
  • Greater academic achievement
  • Improved close relationships
Will my survey results change over time?

First, one must look at the raw scores for each strength (these are given in the VIA reports such as the VIA Pro or the VIA Me, but do not appear in the free rank-order report). This is ultimately what helps to determine if there is even a change (e.g., there might be ties among the #5 strengths or minimal differences in scores, e.g., a .2 difference between the #5, 6, and 7 strengths). A couple of these phenomena and the rank-order results can appear different.

Knowing that, practitioners helping others should also know that the VIA Survey has good reliability which means it is repeatable over time – individuals are likely to receive similar results. The general idea is that people will receive consistent responses over time because this gets at the core of who we are – whether we are stressed, in the midst of turmoil, at our best, feeling down, etc. Now, that’s not to say that if you grow significantly in your self-understanding that your strengths will not change. But, it won’t be changes such as your top 5 become your bottom 5 and vice versa. Any time a new strength pops into the top 5 that should be treated with curiosity and attempts should be made to understand what in one’s life or one’s self-view might account for that shift. It is important to look at the general grouping of the strengths ranking and the raw scores. Strengths within groupings may shuffle around a bit, for example, your top 10 strengths might have a few strengths switch places in the top 10.

What is the difference between the VIA Survey Results and the In-depth Profile Reports?

The free VIA Survey helps you understand your character makeup. It provides a list of your character strengths in rank order from strongest strengths to lesser strengths. A profile report is a deeper, richer, review of your unique strengths constellation and how you can apply your strengths to live a more fulfilling life.

How much do the VIA Reports cost? Are discounts available for the VIA Reports?

The rank order of character strengths is a free report and is available immediately after taking the VIA Survey.
Pricings for more detailed, personalized reports are as follows:

  • The VIA Youth Decoder Report = $10 USD
  • The VIA Me Pathways Report = $20 USD
  • The VIA Pro Report = $40 USD
  • The VIA Comparison Report = $5 USD
  • The VIA Lesser Strengths Report = $10 USD
  • The VIA Team Report = $15 per team member
Professionals Using the VIA Resources with Others
What are VIA Professional Sites?

VIA Professional Sites allow you to create a unique link to the VIA Survey or VIA Youth Survey (or both) so you can use the surveys with your clients and have their results immediately added to your VIA account. If you are using the VIA Youth Survey with youth under 13, you can create an VIA Youth Survey ONLY site to bypass the registration prompts. Learn more and set-up your own VIA Pro Site for free here.

As a professional, why would I choose to use VIA character strengths in my work?

The basis for many professions, such as typical psychology training programs, is not focused on strength and building up what is strong in individuals, rather the focus is exclusively or strongly tilted toward problems, psychopathology, and what is wrong with individuals. When this is combined with research showing that “bad is stronger than good” and that the human brain is “wired for the negative” readily picking up on problems and weaknesses, there is a significant need to correct this bias with a counter-balance or a different approach. A strengths perspective helps the professional to “see” more of the person they are treating, guiding, or mentoring; it offers the professional a more complete picture that is simultaneously energizing for both the practitioner and client. Such an approach does not negate or avoid problems, rather it offers a different “lens” for seeing them.

Does VIA offer certification?

The short answer is “no.” VIA has put forth this work for the world, thus does not wish to impose a restriction that only certain people can use it. VIA has found that those individuals who attend our workshops or presentations on applying this work benefit greatly and begin to understand a depth to this work that is not immediately apparent to many individuals. To learn more about our online courses, click here. There are currently no certifications that we offer on the work with VIA character strengths. Individuals who complete our courses receive a “certificate of completion,” however, it is not a certification. VIA is currently in discussion about creating a course that would certify practitioners’ knowledge in understanding and applying VIA character strengths.

Where can I get additional help using the VIA in various settings?

In addition to perusing both the VIA website and our YouTube channel, we recommend taking a look at our popular workshops that offer a deep dive into understanding and applying character strengths, namely our online VIA courses. VIA is currently developing an array of additional workshops to help educate practitioners and enhance their armamentarium of tools and practices for helping others. Be sure to subscribe to the VIA Blog which hosts a wide range of professionals sharing their applications. Ryan Niemiec’s Psychology Today blog, entitled What Matters Most?, offers stories, examples, research, best practices, and core concepts for understanding, exploring, and applying character strengths.

Who do I contact for permissions to reprint the VIA Classification in my work?

The VIA Classification, VIA Survey, and VIA’s other intellectual property are copyrighted material and do require permission to reprint. Contact our Communications Specialist, Kelly Aluise, and provide her with a detailed description of your project and what you are interested in reprinting.

Who do I contact if I want to collaborate with the VIA Institute in some way?

It is important to be clear with what you have in mind, as each individual has a unique picture as to what they are hoping for with a collaboration. We want to ensure that good fitting ideas are not lost in the shuffle. Here are some examples you can review to see where you might best fit:

  • The person is interested in conducting their own research. E.g., they want to give the VIA Survey to their employees, clients, etc. and want to study them as a group, and collate/aggregate the data. Yes, individuals can receive a research code for this. Or, the person wants to conduct other research for their dissertation, master’s thesis, or some other work project. VIA’s response to any requests under this point: That is great! Please go to this link on the VIA Institute site and submit the form requesting a research code. Additional queries relating to this can be directed to Kelly Aluise, VIA Communications Specialist at kellya@viacharacter.org
  • The person is looking for grant dollars to support a project relating to character strengths and/or positive psychology. This is a fair question, however, VIA is a non-profit organization and does not give out grants through an application process or call for proposals.
  • The person does not have anything specific in mind; they want to brainstorm ideas. Because of the breadth of requests and ideas and projects VIA works with, it is best to have a good level of clarification that can be laid out in writing.
  • The person is interested in VIA giving a presentation or consultation to their group/institution or co-authoring something with VIA. VIA’s response will be based on a number of factors, including the type/scope of the project, insights from the VIA team, the time/availability of VIA staff that are the best match for it, and the availability of additional, external collaborators/consultants. For this, the person should make specific as many details as possible; send info to Ryan Niemiec, VIA Education Director, at ryan@viacharacter.org
  • The person has some specific ideas in mind for some other collaboration with VIA, and the project is of mutual benefit, does not involve grants, and it supports or extends VIA’s mission to educate the world about character strengths. The person should write out what their “ideal” collaboration would look like, speculate on potential roles, time involvement, and the intended benefit to themselves (their group), to VIA, and to the public.
Customer Service
How do I complete my survey that I already started?

If you are interrupted or lose your connection simply log back in to the VIA website. All answers from completed survey pages will be saved and you can resume the survey.

Why do I have to provide my email address to take the free survey?

We ask for email address so you can stop and restart the VIA Survey at anytime. If you sign out of the survey or close the browser window, you can use your email address to sign back in to your account to resume the survey. Once you complete the survey, you can always access your free VIA Survey results by signing in to your account. We do not share our email lists.

Is the information I share in my survey secure?

Yes. We collect your responses to the questionnaires on this site and store these, along with your scores, on our database server. We will never report your individual responses or scores to others, except for research purposes and in those cases, your responses will not be attached to your identifying information. We will not include your responses in the comparisons we provide on this site until there are at least 50 surveys from people in the same category (a geographic area, age range, occupational group, gender). Please click here to read our complete privacy policy.

Can I retake the survey?

We recommend that the VIA Survey be taken every couple of years as life experiences can change your strengths ranking. To retake the survey, click Sign In to log into your account and click on the Retake Survey button. If one does not appear, click on Take Survey.

How do I Reset my Password?

To reset your password, please click on the Forgot my Password link on the Sign In page. You will receive an email with instructions on resetting your password. Be sure to check your Junk folder for this email. You can also contact Christina Jenkins to make your request. If you are logged into your account and wish to change your password, click on Account Settings.

How do I change my email?

You can change your email address under Accounts Settings which is found under My Account or Personal Account.

How do I delete my account?

To delete your account click on either My Account or Personal Account. Then click on Account Settings/Update Preferences.

I purchased my report, when will I receive it?

When you purchase a in-depth report credit, it is immediately added to your VIA Account. You can access the report credit by logging into your account and choosing your purchased report from the the Reports box next to your Survey Name. Then click Download. This is a PDF file so be sure you are on a device that is compatible with Adobe.