How to Improve Your Character
Research in personality shows we are more malleable than originally thought.
Posted Jun 20, 2018
I recall Sarah, a middle-aged woman, approaching me prior to a workshop I was about to deliver in Australia. She was excited, eager to share her news. She said she'd taken the VIA Survey six years ago and discovered her character strength of self-regulation was dead-last in her rank order of 24 strengths. She explained how this was unsettling to her. And she vowed to improve this part of herself.
Sarah went about focusing on ways she could use this character strength in her daily life. She talked about the strength with others, spotted it in action in people she respected, and monitored her use of the strength from week to week. She discovered times she was using it well, such as her keeping a discipline with her morning routine. Upon a closer look, she saw that her self-regulation in the morning centered around having a plan, feeling peaceful in her routine, and following a time schedule with it. This gave her something to build upon. When something got in the way of her routine, she called it a “happy accident” and returned to her schedule. Over the months, she monitored her daily habits such as eating, sleeping, drinking, and meditating. She made minor improvements to these healthy approaches in her life and kept a watchful eye on each to not backtrack into the world of vices and bad habits.
Sarah explained that when she took the VIA Survey again, a week prior to my workshop, her self-regulation had risen to be her number 2 strength. She explained this strength captured an important part of who she is. She had previously – unbeknownst to her – allowed self-regulation to fall dormant…underused and unattended to. There can be many reasons for this shift in Sarah’s rank-order of strengths but a highly plausible explanation is she did indeed impact one of her character strengths for the better.
Sarah is in good company when it comes to the development of character. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, and St. Thomas Aquinas, each argued that virtues can be acquired through practice. One of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, set up his own personal system in which he placed his attention on improving one virtue per week, closely tracking his progress and journaling about his experiences. In his autobiography, he described this approach as contributing greatly to his happiness and life successes.
Modern day researchers have been slower on the uptake of this idea, arguing that qualities of personality and character are rigid and unchanging, as if set in stone like an engraved mark. However, new research in personality psychology shows that personality is relatively changeable and that the change is not necessarily slow and gradual as previously thought (examples of scientific studies include Blackie and colleagues, 2014; Harris and colleagues, 2016; Hudson & Fraley, 2015; Roberts and colleagues, 2017).
There are many factors that can impact our personality and character. Examples include changes in your life role, such as getting married, having a child, or joining the military, or experiencing an atypical life event such as going through a trauma. These various factors might increase or decrease your character strengths. In a study of people before and after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, the character strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork all increased in a U.S. sample (but not in a European sample) 2 months after (Peterson & Seligman, 2003). And, ten months later these character strengths still showed elevations. Potentially, this tragedy unleashed positive qualities in the character of many?
Another way we can impact our character, and something we have more control over, is the use of deliberate interventions. In other words, focus on improving one of your character strengths – make a plan and stick with it. This was tested by positive psychology educator Michelle McQuaid, in collaboration with the VIA Institute, among thousands of people across 65 countries in 2015. Each individual focused on a character strength they wanted to improve and set forth with a plan to improve it. They found that the character strengths were changeable, malleable to a degree and many positive outcomes emerged such as higher flourishing, engagement, energy, and feeling more equipped to set weekly goals, name their own strengths, and have meaningful conversations at work.
The central idea here is this: If you want to improve one of your character strengths, follow the lead of Sarah and take action. Creating new habits of virtue and strength takes practice and sustained effort. Every one of us (yes, all 7.6 billion of us) can benefit from focusing on one or more of the 24 universal character strengths.
Blackie, L. E. R., Roepke, A. M., Forgeard, M. J. C., Jayawickreme, E., & Fleeson, W. (2014). Act well to be well: The promise of changing personality states to promote well-being. In A. C. Parks, & S. Schueller (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of positive psychological interventions (pp. 462–474). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychology and Aging, 31(8), 862–874.
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 490–507 http://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000021
McQuaid, M., & VIA Institute on Character (2015). VIA character strengths at work
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science, 14, 381–384. http://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.24482
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press/ Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143(2), 117–141.