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The field of positive psychology, only a few decades old now, has begun to make some significant contributions to our understanding of the “virtues and perfections” that characterize our ideal inner landscape. If you’d like to become a more goodhearted, benevolent and sympathetic person, read on.
Rather than portraying our inner reality as a warring three-way battle between our id, ego and superego, which Freud outlined in his work; or as a long list of pathological mental illnesses, neuroses, anxieties and conditions in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the emerging field of positive psychology has now attempted to define what makes a mentally and psychologically healthy human being.
In fact, positive psychology has, in some ways, returned to the classical definition of virtue from Aristotle—“excellence at being human.”
The Character Strengths and Virtues handbook, by psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, has become one of the most-recognized efforts to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings. First published a decade ago in 2004, the CSV, as it’s now known, identifies six classes of “core” human virtues, made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths. Rather than simply a theoretical assemblage of various traits, or a single psychologist’s hypothesis, the CSV virtues and strengths come from scientific studies that determine what makes people lead the happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Many of us have a high level of interest in looking within ourselves to see if we have the strengths and virtues the CSV outlines. Here they are:
- Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation
- Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality
- Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
- Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
- Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
- Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.
We can all aspire to develop these virtues and perfections, the qualities that positive psychology has identified as the strengths that enable individuals to thrive.
The vast majority of the world’s cultures see these virtues as desirable and honorable. When people adopt, practice and make these traits habitual, the studies show that they lead to increased happiness—not only for the individual, but for society itself. Positive psychologists have objectively measured the presence or absence of these traits, and they’ve found that people who actively evince these character virtues have much higher levels of self-actualization, happiness and fulfillment in their lives.
Those of you who read the recent BahaiTeachings.org series on altruism may recognize an interesting congruence here—this list of six core human virtues has a significant resemblance to Abraham Maslow’s six-stage Hierarchy of Needs and Lawrence Kohlberg’s six-step ladder of moral development. Both of those developmental structures draw a path of internal human growth—as does the CSV’s strength and virtues list.
This relatively new development in the science of psychology—the idea that focusing on and nourishing our essentially spiritual human attributes and virtues will lead us to authentic happiness—marks a significant departure in the study of the human mind. Like the great Faiths, positive psychology grounds itself in the belief that people want to lead meaningful lives, and want to actively engender and build the best possible attributes within themselves. Most importantly, this new take on human psychology has enormous resonance with the traits and virtues the world’s great Faiths all ask us to develop.
In this short series of essays we’ll take a look at this new path of positive psychological growth. We’ll evaluate the six core virtues and the twenty-four character strengths in light of human spiritual development. We’ll explore the Baha’i idea of the divine source of those virtues and character traits, and we’ll find out what the Baha’i teachings say about acquiring them.