- Character is about how individuals live out what they believe to be true about life, people, and the world.
- Resilience is both a reflection and a building block of character.
- Good character is about a collection of positive traits, and it evolves, choice by choice, over the course of someone's life experiences.
“He was pompous and arrogant when we captured him, but as the days went on and he no longer had his palaces, his generals, and his handmaidens, he just became a pathetic old man,” Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven says of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in an April 2023 interview with AARP Bulletin. “Within about four or five days, you could tell that Saddam was not a leader. When you take away all the trappings, that’s when you find out the character of an individual.”
McRaven contrasted Hussein with Nelson Mandela, who spent over 27 years imprisoned in South Africa for challenging the Apartheid government. “Because Mandela had this great strength of character, he came out of prison as strong and maybe even stronger than when he went in,” says McRaven.
What is character, anyway? We could say it’s how you live out what you believe to be true about life, people, and the world. It shows in how you live and how you treat others.
We think of character strengths as positive qualities that are reflected in someone’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. We aspire to have such character strengths ourselves or find them in our friends, family, or others around us.
In positive psychology, many researchers use the Values in Action (VIA) Classification, which identifies 24 character strengths that are often organized under six core virtues. The virtues represent characteristics long valued by philosophers and in religious teachings. Character strengths represent the means for achieving these virtues. The VIA virtues and character strengths are:
- Wisdom — creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
- Courage — bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
- Humanity — love, kindness, social-emotional intelligence
- Justice — teamwork, fairness, leadership
- Temperance — forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
- Transcendence — appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality
Good character is more than just one attribute; it is really a collection of positive traits. And the good news is that research finds that positive character traits correspond to well-being, happiness, emotional and psychological health, work performance, and satisfaction.
Character strengths and resilience
To attain the level of virtue, to be fully realized and self-aware, requires us to cultivate qualities we associate with resilience—including judgment, perspective, bravery, perseverance, prudence, self-regulation, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. These are among the characteristics of a resilient person.
When we face a challenge, we reveal our character—“what we are made of.” Consider Mandela’s extraordinary challenge, imprisoned for nearly three decades because of his efforts to oppose the South African government nonviolently. Yet he was able, upon his release, to have the wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence to be able to shake hands with the prison guards who had kept him locked up for more than 27 years. He abhorred the injustice that had put him in prison, but he didn’t unjustly blame the guards for doing their jobs.
This is the man who wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Like the ancient Greeks, who were quite interested in the subject of courage, Mandela understood that the courageous man or woman acting from a place of humanitarianism and justice would certainly feel fear in the face of a difficult challenge—but would move forward anyway.
“Good character is not formed in a week or a month,” wrote sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher Heraclitus. “It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”
Good character evolves over the course of our life experiences. Each bump in the road tests our character, measures how well we choose, gauges the degree to which we live out our ethics and morality, and shows what we’re made of. The choices we make at these moments—to bravely face the truth rather than trying to hide from it, to let tears reveal our sorrow instead of choking them back to pretend indifference, to turn away from cruel words and not return them—reveal the person we really are. These micro-choices altogether comprise the big choice of who we want to be, the person we present to the world. Strong character, resilience, authenticity, and genuine self-esteem go hand in hand.
Another quote from Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my success; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” It’s in choosing to get back up after we’ve fallen—the first time or the 50th time—that we build our resilience and strengthen our character.
Q&A With William McRaven. AARP Bulletin, 64(3), 30-31. https://advertise.aarp.org/uploads/misc/Apr-2023.pdf