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The 3 Most Important Character Strengths

New research has an answer.

Key points

  • Zest, hope, and humor are the most important character strengths, according to new psychological research.
  • Curiosity and kindness are also high on the list of important character strengths.
  • This is not to say that other character strengths are unimportant, but that they likely serve more specific purposes.
Pol Sifter / Flickr
Source: Pol Sifter / Flickr

Character strengths refer to the set of favorable or positively valued aspects of personality. They have been linked to a broad array of life outcomes, such as success at work, academic achievement, and health-related behaviors.

A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that while all character strengths serve an important function, some may be more central to psychological well-being than others — and that zest, hope, and humor are the three strengths most commonly found in well-rounded and psychologically healthy individuals.

This squares with other research showing the character strength of zest, or the ability to approach life situations with excitement and energy (and not halfheartedly), to have the strongest ties to overall life satisfaction.

To arrive at this conclusion, a team of psychologists led by Fabian Gander of the University of Zurich examined the degree to which 24 core character strengths — including the appreciation of beauty and excellence, bravery, creativity, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, hope, humility, humor, judgment, kindness, leadership, learning, love, perseverance, perspective, prudence, self-regulation, social intelligence, spirituality, teamwork, and zest — helped people achieve their goals in 17 of life’s most important functional areas, shown here:

  • Wisdom — the ability to apply existing knowledge or acquire new knowledge.
  • Courage — the ability to overcome inner and outer resistance through willpower to reach a goal.
  • Humanity — the ability to have loving interactions with people.
  • Justice — contributing to the welfare of one’s community.
  • Temperance — counteracting excessive behavior.
  • Transcendence — feeling connected to something greater and experiencing meaningfulness.
  • Meaning — using one’s potential for a higher cause.
  • Engagement — being absorbed in an activity and losing oneself in it completely.
  • Pleasure — experiencing enjoyment or being happy.
  • Health — feeling fit and healthy.
  • Optimism — being optimistic and positive about what’s to come.
  • Accomplishment — making progress toward a goal.
  • Mastery — being able to effectively cope with everyday challenges.
  • Positive Thinking — the ability to influence one’s perceptions or thoughts to take a more positive view of oneself, others, or the world.
  • Independence — feeling free and independent.
  • Understanding — the ability to understand oneself, other people, and the world, and thus experience competence and control.
  • Self-Efficacy — feeling like one can make a difference with one’s actions.

The researchers tracked the degree to which 196 Swiss and German adults possessed each character strength, and how each strength helped them overcome everyday challenges for a 14-day period. They found zest, hope, and humor to be the three most broadly useful character strengths. The full list is shown below.

Character strengths, ranked from most important to least important

  1. Zest
  2. Hope
  3. Humor
  4. Curiosity
  5. Kindness
  6. Learning
  7. Perseverance
  8. Social intelligence
  9. Creativity
  10. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  11. Gratitude
  12. Love
  13. Perspective
  14. Self-regulation
  15. Teamwork
  16. Judgment
  17. Leadership
  18. Honesty
  19. Bravery
  20. Fairness
  21. Spirituality
  22. Forgiveness
  23. Humility
  24. Prudence

This is not to say that the character strengths at the bottom of the list are unimportant. Rather, they are important in specific ways. For instance, the character strength of prudence, or the ability to be careful in one’s choices and to stop and think before acting, tends to be helpful in the areas of temperance, justice, and positive thinking. But it is not as widely applicable as zest, which shows benefits in most of life’s functional areas and is especially prominent in the areas of mastery, health, engagement, pleasure, and optimism.

The authors state, “[Our] results corroborate the idea that there are functions that are served by several or most character strengths, while there may also be some strength-specific functions.”

Listed below are the 24 character strengths paired with the functions they are most likely to serve

  • Creativity — engagement, pleasure, accomplishment, mastery
  • Curiosity — wisdom, engagement, optimism
  • Judgment — wisdom, understanding, self-efficacy
  • Love of Learning — wisdom, accomplishment, engagement
  • Perspective — understanding, self-efficacy, humanity
  • Bravery — courage, positive thinking, accomplishment, self-efficacy
  • Perseverance — accomplishment, courage, wisdom, engagement
  • Honesty — humanity, understanding, self-efficacy
  • Zest — mastery, health, engagement, pleasure, optimism
  • Love — humanity, pleasure, optimism
  • Kindness — humanity, pleasure, understanding
  • Social Intelligence — humanity, pleasure, understanding
  • Teamwork — justice, humanity, understanding
  • Fairness — justice, humanity, understanding
  • Leadership — justice, self-efficacy, meaning
  • Forgiveness — justice, understanding, self-efficacy
  • Humility — understanding, humanity, positive thinking, self-efficacy
  • Prudence — temperance, justice, positive thinking
  • Self-Regulation — courage, accomplishment, wisdom
  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence — pleasure, independence, engagement
  • Gratitude — pleasure, humanity, optimism
  • Hope — optimism, pleasure, mastery
  • Humor — pleasure, humanity, optimism
  • Spirituality — transcendence, engagement, self-efficacy

References

Gander, F., Wagner, L., Amann, L., & Ruch, W. (2021). What are character strengths good for? A daily diary study on character strengths enactment. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-11.

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