What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

The Nature and Nurture of Our Character Strengths

Putting our genes and environment to practical use.

It is probably not useful to ask the age-old question whether our core strengths of character are more a product of our genes or our environment. When it comes to our personality, the answer is almost always – “both are important.” And, some scientists believe that with the advancements in epigenetics and the study of the interaction of our gene and environment, that the nature/nurture question becomes rhetorical and fruitless, similar to the question: What contributes more to the area of a rectangle – the height or the width?

Instead of viewing which is “more,” we can attempt to learn from both sides and make this immediately practical. Clearly, both have played an important role in our lives. I can think of how I genetically share similar strengths to my biological mother. Both of us are high (signature strengths) in love and fairness. And, it is just as interesting to consider the impact the environment has had on helping me to develop my core traits.

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For example, perhaps my strength of curiosity was influenced by frequent questioning by my parents as to how my day was, who I interacted with, and what I learned? It is entirely possible that I developed and honed this strength by answering these questions and then internalizing them to question myself and others. Maybe my strength of hope was fostered by the generally positive, optimistic environment my parents created in which there was encouragement for me to pursue any dream or area of work that I might be interested in. There were no rigid expectations or professions that I must pursue. Instead, I was left to consider possibilities and to feel that there were many pathways to success. If I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate from college – great; if I wanted to get a full-time job instead – that’s good too; and so on. This supportive environment no doubt could conceivably influence other character strengths such as judgment/critical thinking, love of learning, and perspective…probably any of the 24 character strengths.

Takeaway point: A supportive, encouraging environment can give a child or adolescent space to allow their unique strengths – whatever those might be – to be expressed and developed.

On a practical level: Your genes set up who you are, but how do you express these genes? How do you express those traits that characterize your core self? The most basic set of concepts in the field of genetics are genotype and phenotype. Genotype is our genetic makeup while phenotype refers to the physical expression of that gene in our behavior.

Positive psychology researchers have examined the genetics of the 24 character strengths within the VIA Classification. In studying 336 twins they found significant genetic effects for most of the 24 character strengths. They were able to determine this by looking at monozygotic (identical) twins and dizygotic (fraternal) twins and found very strong correlations for the former twins but not the latter. Therefore, genes play a strong role. But they also found that there is an important role for the environment in accounting for our character strengths.

The phenotype, the expression of our genes (genotype), is seemingly infinite. Let’s say there are 10 people in a room who have creativity as their highest character strength. The expression of that creativity is likely to vary widely. One person expresses creativity through writing poems and short stories, another person is great at coming up with numerous creative ideas during team brainstorming meetings, a different person is an artist who paints brilliant watercolors, and yet another person is great at finding unique ways to solve problems.

To offer a metaphor, there are a finite number of universal facial expressions, such as showing happiness and sadness, but the expression of those facial gestures varies widely and is unique to the given individual.

Takeaway point: There is a uniqueness to how we express each of our character strengths, regardless of our genetic loading.

Phenotypes are determined by observation. Your environment and your genes play a role in impacting the phenotype. Phenotypes are constellations of observable traits.

If you watch the behavior of someone, it is unlikely you will identify only one trait that they are expressing, even if you limit yourself to the strengths in the VIA Classification.

For example, a professor giving a lecture is unlikely to just be using his or her leadership strength when they speak to students. Many professors will also use zest as they enthusiastically offer the material with energy and gusto. They may also be curious as they infuse the lecture with exploratory questions for students; social intelligence as they are sensitive to not drone on and on about one topic; prudence as they manage time appropriately to cover all of the material; creativity by infusing movie clips into the lecture; and so on. Thus, they present a constellation of strengths. It is the synergy among the strengths and the impact of each strength upon the others that offers further uniqueness.

Takeaway point: Strengths are not expressed in isolation, rather they are expressed as constellations that can be readily observed and identified by others.

Explore and embrace your genetic heritage and the role of your environment as you account for the unique constellation of character strengths that makes up who you are.

References:

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Steger, M. F., Hicks, B., Kashdan, T. B., Krueger, R. F., & Bouchard, T. J., Jr. (2007). Genetic and environmental influences on the positive traits of the Values in Action classification, and biometric covariance with normal personality. Journal of Research in Personality41, 524-539.

Resources

VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)

VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)

VIA Survey (the research-validated test)

VIA resources for practitioners

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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