Character Strengths & Virtues Martin E. P. Seligman

Character Strengths & Virtues Martin E. P. Seligman

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author of 20 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. With Chris Peterson, he is co-author of the newly-released Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification and Handbook. He is also the co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC.

Ben Dean, Ph.D., co-founder of Authentic Happiness Coaching LLC, is a psychologist and coach, and the CEO of MentorCoach, a virtual university that exclusively trains mental health professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. For MentorCoach’s home on the web and to subscribe to Ben’s free E-newsletter, the MentorCoach™ eNewsletter, visit .

 Getting To Know Creativity By Ben Dean, Ph.D.


A creative person is someone who comes up with ideas that are (1) original and (2) useful.

Like all strengths, creativity exists on a continuum. Some find it helpful to distinguish between “little c” creativity and “Big C” Creativity. Big C Creativity is reserved for once in a lifetime, creative acts. (Think Einstein, DaVinci, or Edison.) In contrast, little c creativity refers to day-to-day creativity.

Points To Consider

· People are much less creative when they are under time pressure, when they are being scrutinized and judged by others, and when external circumstance limit the range of options available.

· Hard work is often a prerequisite for creativity, particularly Big C Creativity. Big C artists, inventors, scientists, and writers spend years mastering their respective domains before making a valued creative contribution.

· In order for an idea or product to be considered creative, it typically has to be complete. Who knows how many potentially Big C Creative manuscripts or paintings remain forever unfinished?

Situations To Approach And Avoid When Exercising Your Creativity

· People are much less creative when they are under time pressure, when they are being scrutinized and judged by others, and when external circumstances limit the range of options available.

· In contrast, creativity is encouraged by environments that are supportive, reinforcing, open, and casual.

· Dr. Barbara Frederikson, author of the “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotion, suggests that positive emotions are evolutionarily adaptive because they trigger a broadening of our mental state. Creativity is much more likely to occur when we are open to new ideas and new experiences.

· Supporting this “broaden and build” theory, researchers found that participants in a happy mood outperformed participants in a negative or neutral mood on a task requiring a creative solution (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987).Take

Home Message

· When you or your clients want to exercise your creativity, try doing something first that you know will put you in a happy, relaxed mood. Avoid criticism (and this includes self-criticism!) and time-pressured situations when possible. Finally, recognize that creativity often requires work, work, and more work. (Stay tuned for a future E-newsletter about the character strength of perseverance!)

Just Do It

· Finally, it is interesting to note that people are more likely to be creative when they are (drumroll please) told to be creative! So if you want to exercise your creativity, then just do it!

 Curious About Curiosity? by Ben Dean, Ph.D.


· Curious people have an ongoing, intrinsic interest in both their inner experience and the world around them. Curious people tend to be attracted to new people, new things, and new experiences, and they are rarely bored.

· Everyone possesses curiosity to some degree. People differ according to the strength and breadth of their curiosity and their willingness to act on it. (How motivated are you by your curiosity? Are you curious in one domain or across many domains?)

Benefits of Curiosity

· Curiosity benefits our social and romantic lives. Curious people are often considered good listeners and conversationalists. In the early stages of a relationship, we tend to talk about our interests or hobbies. One reason for this is that people tend to equate “having many interests” with “interesting,” and for good reason. Curious people tend to bring fun and novelty into relationships.

· Curiosity is associated with intelligence and problem-solving ability. Although researchers have not identified the precise pathway by which curiosity leads to cognitive growth, a likely explanation concerns the rich environment curious people create for themselves as they seek new experiences and explore new ideas. Put simply, curious brains are active brains, and active brains become smart brains.

· Curiosity is associated with high performance in both academic and work settings. There is evidence to suggest an upward spiraling relationship between curiosity and knowledge. The more we learn, the more we want to learn, and so on.

The Downside to Curiosity: When Curiosity Kills the Cat

· Curiosity in the absence of good judgment can lead to trouble. Do you recall Jessica Fletcher, the author/amateur sleuth from the television series Murder She Wrote? Without fail, toward the end of every episode, Jessica Fletcher’s curiosity led her to confront a dangerous criminal in a remote area. Unfortunately for us, the police don’t always rush in at the last minute in real life!

· When curiosity clashes with social norms, further trouble can ensue. Anyone with a small child needs no further elaboration on this point. Curiosity can motivate the youngster to ask questions such as, “Why don’t you have any children?” or “Is that man’s belly big because he’s pregnant?”

Building Curiosity

All things considered, the benefits of curiosity far outweigh the possible risks. Cultivating this strength can lead to both personal and professional rewards. So how might we go about developing this strength? One idea comes from the work by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology and a pioneering researcher in the area of flow.

According to Cskikszentmihalyi, there is a direct relationship between our attentional resources and our interest in the world: Nothing is interesting to us unless we focus our attention on it. Rocks are not interesting until we begin collecting them, people in the mall are not interesting until we become curious about their lives and where they are going, and vacuum cleaners are not interesting until we need to buy a new one. According to Csikszentmihalyi, we can develop our curiosity (and fight boredom) by making a conscious effort to direct our attention to something in particular in our environment.

A Curiosity Challenge I leave you with the following Curiosity Challenge. Test Csikszentmihalyi’s theory in your own lives this week. During those times when you are feeling bored or unstimulated (e.g., while waiting in line at the grocery store), focus your attention on something that ordinarily might not engage your interest. For example, if you are at the grocery store, really notice how various customers interact with the checkout clerk. Are they making eye contact or averting their gaze? Do they make small talk? Do they offer to bag their own groceries? Notice how much effort you need to expend to focus your attention. Is it worth it? Is there a trade off between being bored (but with no demands placed on your psychic energy) and being interested?


People are very open-minded about new things…
as long as they’re exactly like the old ones!

–Charles Kettering


 ·        Open-mindedness is the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available.
·        Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one’s self.  After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly.
·        The opposite of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs.  Most people show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.

Benefits of Open-Mindedness

Research suggests the following benefits of open-mindedness:

·        Open-minded, cognitively complex individuals are less swayed by singular events and are more resistant to suggestion and manipulation.

·        Open-minded individuals are better able to predict how others will behave and are less prone to projection.

·        Open-minded individuals tend to score better on tests of general cognitive ability like the SAT or an IQ test.  (Of course we don’t know whether being open-minded makes one smarter or vice versa.)

Open-Mindedness as a “Corrective Virtue”

Social and cognitive psychologists have noted widespread errors in judgment/thinking to which we are all vulnerable.  In order to be open-minded, we have to work against these basic tendencies, leading virtue ethicists to call open-mindedness a corrective virtue.  

In addition to the myside bias described above, here are three other cognitive tendencies that work against open-minded thinking:
Selective Exposure

We maintain our beliefs by selectively exposing ourselves to information that we already know is likely to support those beliefs.  Liberals tend to read liberal newspapers, and Conservatives tend to read conservative newspapers.
Primacy Effects

The evidence that comes first matters more than evidence presented later.  Trial lawyers are very aware of this phenomenon.  Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resistant to counterevidence. 


We tend to be less critical of evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that runs counter to our beliefs.  In an interesting experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon[1], researchers presented individuals with mixed evidence on the effectiveness of capital punishment on reducing crime.  Even though the evidence on both sides of the issue was perfectly balanced, individuals became stronger in their initial position for or against capital punishment.  They rated evidence that supported their initial belief as more convincing, and they found flaws more easily in the evidence that countered their initial beliefs.

What Encourages Open-Mindedness?

·        Research suggests that people are more likely to be open-minded when they are not under time pressure. (Our gut reactions aren’t always the most accurate.)

·        Individuals are more likely to be open-minded when they believe they are making an important decision. (This is when we start making lists of pros and cons, seeking the perspectives of others, etc.)

·        Some research suggests that the way in which an idea is presented can affect how open-minded someone is when considering it.  For example, a typical method of assessing open-mindedness in the laboratory is to ask a participant to list arguments on both sides of a complicated issue (e.g., the death penalty, abortion, animal testing).  What typically happens is that individuals are able to list far more arguments on their favored side.  However, if the researcher then encourages the participant to come up with more arguments on the opposing side, most people are able to do so without too much difficulty.  It seems that individuals have these counter-arguments stored in memory but they don’t draw on them when first asked.

Exercises to Build Open-Mindedness

In my readings, I did not uncover any open-mindedness interventions.  But in the spirit of creativity/originality (the featured strength 2 newsletters ago), I consulted Catherine Freemire, LCSW [Catherine Freemire, LCSW, Balanced Life Coaching,], a clinical therapist and professional coach renowned for her creative thinking.  She came up with three exercises for building open-mindedness which I think are definitely worth trying:

1)      Select an emotionally charged, debatable topic (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, healthcare reform, the current war in Iraq) and take the opposite side from your own.  Write five valid reasons to support this view.  (While typing Catherine’s idea, I had a related one of my own: If you are conservative in your political beliefs, listen to Al Frankin’s radio show; if you are liberal, listen to Rush Limbaugh!  While you are listening, try to avoid the cognitive error of polarization described above.)

2)      Remember a time when you were wronged by someone in the past.  Generate three plausible reasons why this person inadvertently or intentionally wronged you.

This one is for parents: Think of a topic that you consistently argue about with your teen or grown child.  Now, take their position and think of 3 substantial reasons why their point of view is valid.  (This could also be done with spouses or any family members for that matter!)

 Learning about Learning  By Ben Dean, Ph.D.

I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma. ~Eartha Kitt

Defining Love of Learning

People who possess the character strength love of learning are motivated to acquire new skills or knowledge or to build on existing skills or knowledge. They feel good when they are learning new things, even though they may occasionally become frustrated when the material is challenging.

This strength exists as a continuum. It is hard to think of someone who does not love learning in at least one domain, be it history, fashion, bike mechanics, sports trivia, etc. Indeed, some researchers speculate that an across-the-board absence of this strength may be indicative of pathology (Peterson and Seligman, 2004; Travers, 1978).

Although a love of learning appears to be universally valued, the way this strength is manifested and the conditions that foster it may vary across cultures. For example, psychologist Jin Li noted that the Chinese have a concept that roughly translates to “heart and mind for wanting to learn.” Whereas students in Western cultures may experience shame or guilt as the result of failing to achieve, the Chinese model of learning suggests that shame or guilt results from failing to want to learn.

Benefits of Having a Love of Learning

Research suggests that individuals who have love of learning as a developed strength are likely to do the following[i]:

· Have positive feelings about learning new things

· Have the ability to self-regulate efforts to persevere, despite challenge and


· Feel autonomous

· Feel challenged

· Have a sense of possibility

· Be resourceful

· Feel supported by others in their efforts to learn

The benefits of loving to learn during the school years are obvious: Students who love to learn are more like to engage in their schoolwork and receive positive feedback from teachers and parents. But the benefits of this strength extend far beyond graduation through the working years and into retirement. Indeed, a love of learning may be particularly valuable during older age in that it may prevent cognitive decline. Research suggests that individuals who are able to develop and maintain interests later in life are likely to be more physically and mentally healthy than their less-engaged peers (Krapp & Lewalter, 2001; Renninger & Shumar, 2002; Snowdon, 2001).

Nourishing a Love of Learning

Parents and teachers understand how challenging it can be to spark a love of learning that was previously undeveloped. Recall the charismatic but controversial teacher played by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society. His successful strategy for inspiring an interest in learning poetry was to tell his class of prep school boys that poetry was a powerful tool for wooing women!

Although the Robin Williams strategy is largely humorous (and not recommended!), there is a lesson here. Research (ii) suggests that individuals are more likely to take ownership for their learning when the following conditions occur:

1) They are given a compelling, meaningful reason to do the task (e.g., to woo women).

2) They have options to make the task more interesting (e.g., sneaking out in the middle of the night to recite poetry in an abandoned cave).

3) Social networks exist to support the learning (e.g., the Dead Poets Society) so that individuals fulfill social needs as they connect with one another through a topic or project of interest.

Developing a Love of Learning

The following activities for building a love of learning are based on a list composed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia:

· Take a class just for fun (cooking, yoga, auto mechanics, astronomy, etc.)

· Go to an online search engine like Ask Jeeves, ask a question, and explore sites you never otherwise would have discovered.

· Every day, read a chapter of a book just for fun.

· Decide to become an expert in a specialized topic and begin collecting (and reading) books on the subject.

· Every weekend, discover a new area of your neighborhood, town, or city.

· Subscribe to a newspaper or a periodical of special interest.

 Wisdom  by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Definition: What is Wisdom?

The strength of wisdom refers to the ability to take stock of life in large terms, in ways that make sense to oneself and others [ii]  

Wisdom is the product of knowledge and experience, but it is more than the accumulation of information. It is the coordination of this information and its deliberate use to improve well-being.  In a social context, wisdom allows the individual to listen to others, to evaluate what they say, and then offer them good (sage) advice.  

Famous paragons of wisdom include the major religious leaders of history–leaders such as Jesus, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, the Prophet.  Famous statesmen and stateswomen throughout history such as Winston Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt are also exemplars of the strength of wisdom.  

Who Studies Wisdom?

Since the time of Aristotle, wisdom has been contemplated by philosophers, theologians, and most anyone concerned with the Good Life and how to live it. (For a good review of the history of wisdom, see Assmann, 1994.)  

In recent psychological history, two major research groups stand out as major contributors to the scientific study of wisdom: Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institue for Human Development in Berlin and Robert Sternberg and colleagues at Yale University.  There is much overlap between the way the two groups conceptualize wisdom and their research findings are often complementary.  Yet it is interesting to note the unique theoretical slant that drives the research of each group:

Baltes and colleagues define wisdom as expertise in the conduct and meaning of life.  According to their theory, a wise person is someone who knows what is most important in life and how to get it.  He or she knows what constitutes the meaningful life and how to plan for and manage such a life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).  
Sternberg’s most recent definition of wisdom stems from his “balance theory of wisdom.”  According to this theory, people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good.  They do so by balancing their own interests with those of other people and those of larger entities (e.g., family, community, country).  Wise people can adapt to new environments, change their environments, or select new environments to achieve an outcome that includes but goes beyond their personal self-interest (Sternberg, 1998)   

Interesting Research Findings About Wisdom

Wisdom is a positive predictor of successful aging.  In fact, wisdom is more robustly linked to the well-being of older people than objective life circumstances such as physical health, financial well-being, and physical environment (Ardelt, 1997; Baltes, Smith, & Staudinger, 1992; Bianchi, 1994; Clayton, 1982; Hartman, 2000).
In a fascinating study of women through midlife, Hartman (2000) found that those women who made major changes in the domains of love and work were higher in the development of wisdom by midlife. Interestingly, she found that making life changes in the 30s appeared to have a particularly positive effect on the development of wisdom.

Experiencing stressful life events across time can facilitate the development of wisdom–up to a point.  People seem to benefit from stressful life experiences, particularly if they respond well to them.  But as the ratio of negative to positive life experiences tips in favor of the negative, wisdom is inhibited (Hartman, 2000).

Wisdom is distinct from intelligence as measured by IQ tests (Sternberg, 2000).  Indeed, Sternberg goes so far as to suggest that intelligent, well-educated people are particularly susceptible to four fallacies that inhibit wise choices and actions.  You can read more about these fallacies in Sternberg’s entertaining book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (2003), but I will summarize them here.  As you read the list, see if you can generate relevant examples of famous political and business leaders who have been susceptible to these fallacies!  

==> The Egocentrism Fallacy: thinking that the world revolves, or at least should revolve, around you.  Acting in ways that benefit yourself, regardless of how that behavior affects others.  

==> The Omniscience Fallacy: believing that you know all there is to know and therefore do not have to listen to the advice and counsel of others.  

==> The Omnipotence Fallacy: believing that your intelligence and education somehow make you all-powerful.  

==> The Invulnerability Fallacy: believing that you can do whatever you want and that others will never be able to hurt you or expose you.

Developing Wisdom

==> In addition to watching out for the four fallacies listed above, consider the following wisdom-building activities compiled, in part, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

==> Read the works of great thinkers and religious leaders (e.g., Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela).  Read classic works of literature.  Contemplate the ?wisdom of the ages.?

==> Think of the wisest person you know. Try to live each day as that person would live.   

==> Look up prominent people in history and learn their views on important issues of their day.

==> Volunteer at a nursing home and talk with residents about their lives and the lessons they have learned.

==> Subscribe to two news editorial publications that are on opposite ends of the political spectrum (e.g., The National Review for the conservative perspective and The Nation for the liberal perspective).  Read them both and consider both sides of the issues.   

Remember that wisdom, like all of the character strengths we will cover in this series, exists on a continuum and can be developed with effort.  

 Defining Courage  By Ben Dean, Ph.D.

“The secret of life is this: When you hear the sound of the cannons, walk toward them.”~~Marcel France

Courage is a universally admired virtue, and courageous individuals in all cultures have survived across time to become the heroes of subsequent generations. But what is courage, and what is it not?
Philosophers have pondered these questions since antiquity. But psychologists, who had a significantly later start, have focused more on fear than on courage. The literature reflects this imbalance and contributes to the lack of consensus on a simple definition.

Persistence and Fear: Two Components of Courage?

Most philosophers and psychologists agree that courage involves persistence in danger or hardship. However, some argue that courage is synonymous with fearlessness, while others suggest that the presence or the absence of fear has nothing to do with courage.

Psychologist S. J. Rachman (1990) entered this debate with a definition of courage that takes into account three components of fear:

1) the subjective feeling of apprehension
2) the physiological reaction to fear (e.g., increased heart rate)
3) the behavioral response to fear (e.g., an effort to escape the fearful situation).
These components are imperfectly linked, and it is possible to experience one or two without another. The courageous person effects an uncoupling of fear’s components by resisting the behavioral response and facing the fearful situation, despite the discomfort produced by subjective and/or physical reactions.

No Fear, No Courage

If a person is fearless, the behavioral component of fear is not at issue, for there is no reason to avoid or escape something that elicits no subjective or physical sensation of fear.
It seems unwarranted, therefore, to suggest that the fearless person is courageous. Such an assertion would make a virtue out of having an unresponsive autonomic nervous system in circumstances fearful to others.

Unless one experiences the sensation of fear, subjectively and/or physically, no courage is required.

As an astute observer of human behavior, Mark Twain, observed, “Courage is resilience to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” (Fitzhenry, 1993, p. 110).

Different Types of Fear, Different Types of Courage

Whatever the circumstances testing courage, fear must be overcome.

The fear that accompanies physical courage relates to bodily injury or death. It is also possible for a fear of shame, opprobrium, or similar humiliations to spur physical courage, producing what is popularly called the “courage born of fear.” In warfare, for example, some individuals may display physical courage because they fear cowardice. Or they may accept that they are cowards yet fear being recognized as such by others.

Moral courage, too, may relate to fear of others’ adverse opinions. Looking foolish before peers, for example, is a common fear. But moral courage compels or allows an individual to do what he or she believes is right, despite fear of the consequences. (It should be noted that what is “right” is determined by the individual who chooses to take the risk, not by an observer.)

The fear that can summon moral courage takes many forms: fear of job loss, fear of poverty, fear of losing friends, fear of criticism, fear of ostracism, fear of embarrassment, fear of making enemies, fear of losing status, to name but a few potential human fears. In addition one may fear a loss of ethical integrity or even a loss of authenticity if he or she fails to act in accord with conscience (Putman, 1997).

As there are many variations of fear, there are many dimensions to moral courage, ranging from the social courage represented by Rosa Parks and Gandhi to the political courage represented, if infrequently, by elected officials. The opportunities to act with moral courage are numerous, and the fears calling for moral courage are as varied as individuals themselves.

Promoting Courage

Because courage is a universally admired virtue, most would also consider it an attribute to be promoted and fostered. Indeed, if any virtues are to be cultivated within a society, one might reasonably argue that courage should be foremost among them, for courage may be necessary to maintaining and exercising the other virtues. As C. S. Lewis observed, courage is “not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point” (Fitzhenry, 1993, p. 111).

Aristotle believed that an individual develops courage by doing courageous acts (Aristotle, trans. 1962), and there is current support for the suggestion that courage is a moral habit to be developed by practice (Cavanagh & Moberg, 1999). The view is compatible with Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy in which successful performances (even vicarious ones) strengthen an expectation of further success (Bandura, 1977). Individuals are more likely to face a situation and attempt to cope with it if their previous experience gives them reason to believe they can meet the challenge.

Building Courage

If you or your clients would like to develop your courage, keep Aristotle in mind this week. Remember his view that we become courageous by being courageous! Design your own courage-building exercises by revisiting a life goal that is gathering dust. Is fear holding you back? How might you break down this goal into smaller steps, with each step requiring a progressively greater amount of courage?

There are no shortcuts, so run toward those cannon!

Persistence  By Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Persistence Defined

Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting.
~Christopher Morley

Persistence is defined as “voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 229).
Just as fear is a prerequisite for courage, challenge is a prerequisite for perseverance. Simply measuring how long someone sticks with a task does not adequately capture the essence of perseverance because continuing to perform something that is fun or easy does not involve the overcoming of obstacles or disappointment.

Persistence and Success

It was tempting to begin this newsletter with a “little-engine-that-could” story about some famous person who began his or her career with nothing but achieved great success through dogged perseverance. By now we know that Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb on his first try; rather, he put more than 6,000 substances to the test before he discovered that carbonized cotton thread makes a nice filament for the electric light bulb. “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Whether or not Edison actually said this is open to debate, but the message is undeniably attractive. Attractive, yes, but is it true?

To be more accurate, the 99% perspiration/1% inspiration formula needs to make room for the strength of wisdom/perspective. Persistence needs a partner. Some goals are truly impossible to reach, and some outcomes are simply unavoidable, and it takes wisdom to know when it is time to quit and move on to something else (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman; 1982). As Kenny Rogers says, “You got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”

Persistence and Self-Esteem

In general people with higher self-esteem are more likely to persist on a difficult task than people with lower self-esteem. This seems intuitive. If you believe you are a competent person with a good chance of succeeding at most things, you are less likely to quit.

What seems less intuitive is the following finding: People tend to persist longer at solving problems when they are told that what they are doing is difficult as opposed to easy. Why? Failing at a task that everyone else finds easy can be humiliating and damaging to self-esteem. In contrast, there is minimal shame when one fails a widely acknowledged difficult task (Starnes & Zinser, 1983; Frankel & Snyder, 1978)

A pernicious phenomenon called self-handicapping is a particular instance of failing to persist. Most often the term is used in the context of a failure to be persistent at practice or in preparation for a major task. Again, self-esteem comes into play. If one fails to persist in studying before a major exam, then failure can be explained (and self-esteem preserved) by blaming the failure on lack of practice rather than low ability.

Persistence and Rewards

When individuals have been rewarded in the past for effort (sticking with a task), they are more likely to persist on a future task-even if that future task is not directly related to the first (Eisenberger, 1992; Eisenberger & Selbst, 1994).

Remember this if you are an employer or a parent! But also remember that some rewards are better than others.

Certain extrinsic rewards undermine persistence. People who perform tasks for money, prizes, or awards tend to lose interest in performing a task for its own sake (Deci, 1971; Harackiewicz, 1979; Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). If the reward becomes unavailable, then persistence drops off sharply. In contrast, persistence is encouraged when a reward conveys positive feedback about competence and increases the intrinsic motivation for doing the task.

Developing Persistence

The following exercises for building persistence were adapted from a list provided by psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia:

Finish a project ahead of time.
Notice your thoughts about stopping a task, and make a conscious effort to dismiss them. Focus on the task at hand.
Begin using a time management aid of some sort (a palm pilot, a daily planner, etc.). Find a system that works and actually use it.

Set a goal and create a plan for sticking to it.

When you wake up in the morning, make a list of things that you want to get done that day that could be put off until the next day. Make sure to get them done that day.


 Kindness and the Case for Altruism
by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

The 14th strength in Character Strengths and Virtues is the strength of kindness: This strength may also include such concepts as generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, and altruistic love. Here’s an example from my own life.

My best friend from grade school, Anne Biggers, was in a car accident two months ago while driving in West Texas. She was doing the speed limit in a light rain when her car skidded on an oil spot. She spun out of control, sailed across the median, through a lane of traffic and hit a concrete abutment. Her airbag went off and she survived with just bruises.
Before she even had time to get out of the car, three people pulled over to offer help. One person had already called the highway patrol, and another offered her cell phone so that Anne could call for AAA. Another couple (and their children) actually went with her to get her car repaired at a local repair shop and waited with her until her car was fixed because they knew the shop was in a relatively unsafe part of Abilene.

When Anne told me this story, I was touched by the kindness of these strangers. Yet, though the kindnesses they gave her were inspiring, they were not extraordinary. Human beings are kind to one another, and we sometimes help others at great personal cost.

Why do we do this?

When I re-read the chapter on kindness in the Classification of Strengths and Virtues, I was again struck by how hotly debated the answers to this question are. This may be simplistic, but it seems to me that there are basically two groups of researchers and philosophers who are interested in why we are kind to one another: (1) those who believe in altruism and (2) those who do not.

One theoretical tradition (“universal egoism”) suggests that every “kind” act is ultimately done to benefit the self.

A second tradition believes that people are, in fact, able to act with the ultimate goal of benefiting someone else.

Psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues (2002) offer the following commentary on universal egoism vs. altruism (p. 486):

Those arguing for universal egoism have elegance and parsimony on their side in this debate. It is simpler to explain all human behavior in terms of self-benefit than to postulate a motivational pluralism in which both self-benefit and another’s benefit can serve as ultimate goals. Elegance and parsimony are important criteria in developing scientific explanations, yet they are not the most important criterion. The most important task is to explain adequately and accurately the phenomenon in question.

The Case Against Altruism

First, let’s consider the case against altruism. Acting with kindness offers the following “selfish” benefits:

1) Doing something kind reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction.

It can be physically and psychologically uncomfortable to see someone in need of support (e.g., a homeless person shivering during winter, a friend who lost a parent, a child being verbally abused by a parent). Helping relieves this tension.

2) A kind act allows us to avoid social sanction or personal guilt for failing to help.
You may remember the very last Seinfeld show. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were prosecuted and jailed in Massachusetts for failing to help someone being robbed, thus violating a Good Samaritan law. Such laws actually do exist in a few states (although fines are more likely than jail time). A much more common sanction for failing to help when needed is the disapproval of our friends, coworkers, family members, and romantic partners. Selfish, Insensitive, Heartless, Mean–These are labels we wish to avoid.

3) Kindness confers social and personal rewards.

We earn the approval of others and feel good about ourselves for doing the “right” thing. A theory or “reciprocal altruism” suggests that kind acts are most often directed toward individuals who are likely to repay us in the future (Trivers, 1971). If you offer to collect the mail of your neighbors when they are on vacation, then they will likely do the same for you. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller noted that a truly anonymous act of kindness is the exception. For example, most “anonymous” donations are no secret to the giver’s immediate family. Miller does not deny that most people have pure intentions when they donate money or time; but he does question why feelings of empathy and a proclivity to help evolved in the first place. He suggests that they evolved because acting with kindness and generosity confers social rewards.

The Other Side

Since the 1980s, around 25 experiments have tested whether these selfish benefits are enough to explain altruistic behavior.

Consider, for example, Selfish Benefit #1: Doing something kind reduces the tension created by our experience of empathy and inaction. Researchers have tested this explanation by putting individuals in situations where they are likely to feel empathy toward someone in need (the tension mounts) and then varying how easy it is for them to escape from that situation. If individuals were primarily motivated by a desire to reduce tension, then they would choose to escape from the situation when this was easy (e.g., nobody would know that they decided not to help). If, on the other hand, individuals were motivated by the desire to alleviate the distress of someone in trouble, then an easy escape option would do nothing to relieve this tension. Results consistently support the second explanation.
In addition, similar experiments designed to pit a “helping others” motivation against more selfish ones (e.g., avoiding social sanctions, avoiding guilty, obtaining social or personal rewards) lend support to the other-oriented motivation. For an interesting review of these social psychology experiments, I recommend Psychologist Daniel Batson’s book, The Altruism Question (1991). In my book, the case for altruism is a hard one to ignore-even on my most cynical days.

Finally, take Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford and one of Positive Psychology’s leading lights. Sonja has tested whether asking people to “commit” five random acts of kindness would reliably increase their level of positive emotion. The good news is that it does. (Lyubomirsky et al, 2004). And it is most effective if all five acts are carried out on the same day. Here are Sonja’s instructions:

In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small and the person for whom the act is performed may or may not be aware of the act. Examples include feeding a stranger’s parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter. One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act, and the act may or may not be similar to the acts listed above. Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.

When I first heard about Sonja’s research, I began to do this. I found that many days it was difficult for me to keep focused enough to remember to perform my five separate acts of kindness. So some days, I came up short. Gradually I’ve become more disciplined, and it always feels good to me. The practice not only seems to increase my level of happiness, it also has changed the way I spend the whole day because I have to keep looking for opportunities to be kind. I recommend the practice. (Special Note: you can “virtually” meet Sonja by going to

If you would like to contribute to the kindness in the world, consider the following suggestions adapted from a list by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia and Tayyab Rashid at the University of Pennsylvania (with the addition of Sonja’s five acts of kindness.)

==> · Leave a huge tip for a small check.
==> · Be a listening ear to a friend. Ask your friend how her day was and actually listen and respond to her before describing your own day.
==> · Flu season is upon us. Help a friend or neighbor who is ill by delivering chicken soup, doing the laundry, or walking the dog.
==> · Give someone else the gift of time-Do something for someone else that requires time and effort on your part.
==> · The next time someone admires something of yours and you can afford to do without it, give it away.
==> · Volunteer in your community.
==> · One day each week, “commit” five random acts of kindness. And, when possible, make them anonymous.

 Integrity by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.
–William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Integrity Defined

The word integrity comes from the Latin integritas, meaning wholeness.
Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 250) defined integrity in behavioral terms:
– A regular pattern of behavior that is consistent with espoused values (i.e., “practicing what you preach”).

– Public acknowledgment of moral convictions, even if those convictions are not popular. (Courage may be a prerequisite to integrity.)

– Treatment of others with care, as demonstrated by helping those in need; sensitivity to the needs of others. (Prior to reading this chapter in the Classification, I had always conceptualized integrity as a personal strength. However, the authors make a strong case for integrity as a strength that motivates social action.)

To summarize, integrity goes beyond speaking the truth to include taking responsibility for how one thinks and feels and what one does. It includes the genuine presentation of oneself to others (being sincere) as well as the internal sense that one is a morally coherent being.

The opposites of integrity are clearly negative: deceitfulness and insincerity. For a humorous illustration of integrity’s opposite, recall Holden Caulfield’s rants about “phonies” in J.D.

Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
At the end of the first act we went out with all the other
jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw
so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their
ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could
hear how sharp they were.
–J.D. Salinger (Holden Caulfield)

Benefits of Integrity

The “knowing thyself” component of integrity is adaptive because it allows us to modify our behavior so that we are more effective in our lives. Carl Rogers (1961) defined the “fully functioning human being” as someone who could tune into his or her changing emotional responses, accept this information, and act accordingly.

Acting with integrity has social benefits. Research suggests that authentic people are well-liked, and they benefit from social support and the many other positive outcomes associated with enjoying close relationships with others (Hodgins, Koestner, & Duncan, 1996; Robinson, Johnson, & Shields, 1995). Robinson et al. (1995) found that people who give balanced self-descriptions, acknowledging both strengths and weaknesses, tend to be perceived by others as being authentic.

Not surprisingly, acting with integrity can make leaders more effective. Busman (1992) found that when educational administrators held themselves accountable for their decisions and led without manipulation, teachers were more likely to trust their decisions and follow their lead. In the business world, workplace relationships are more effective when managers are comfortable “being who they are” rather than following narrowly defined relationships with their subordinates (Herman, 1971).

Finally, acting with integrity can help you attract and keep your romantic partner. When individuals are asked to list desired qualities in a romantic partner, honesty almost always is at the top of the list (Steen, 2003). We can forgive friends, family members, or spouses many things, but it is particularly difficult to forgive them for misrepresenting who they are.

What Institutions in Society Nourish Integrity?

Interventions and institutions that attempt to cultivate integrity are numerous, although only a handful have been empirically evaluated.

Parents have one of the earliest opportunities to encourage integrity in their children. Children learn early on the importance of “telling the truth.” A common parenting practice is to teach children that they will be in more trouble for lying about misbehaving (denying what they did or blaming someone else) than for the act itself (Quinn, 1998).

Of course parents may also unintentionally teach their children that inauthentic behavior can sometimes make life easier (at least in the short-run). For example, a child might observe parents express their desire to cancel dinner plans with their neighbors and then act delighted to see them when they arrive. Similarly, a well-meaning parent might tell a child to pretend to like a gift even if he or she does not like it.

Youth development programs that intend to encourage integrity include the Boy Scouts of America, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girls Scouts, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Girls Incorporated. Although youth development programs are associated with many positive outcomes from better grades to better health, no systematic evaluations of the effects of these programs on traits such as honesty or integrity exist.

Formal lessons about integrity do not end in adolescence. Ethics courses are taught in medical schools, law schools, business schools, clinical psychology schools, and other professional programs. Often these programs focus on what not to do (and what sanctions you will face by your licensing board if you do). Peterson and Seligman (p. 209) suggest that these programs would be more likely to reach their stated goals if they placed a greater focus on what one should do to become an ethical practitioner rather than on what one should not do to avoid being unethical. (For an example of what such a program might look like, see Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2002.)

Exercises to Encourage Integrity

The following exercises were adapted from a list compiled by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia.

==> Refrain from telling small, white lies to friends (including insincere compliments). If you do tell one, admit it and apologize right away.
==> Monitor yourself and make a list of every time you tell a lie, even if it’s a small one. Try to make your daily list shorter every day.
==> At the end of each day, identify those instances in which you were attempting to impress others or appear to be someone you are not. Resolve not to do it again.

Thank you for reading this edition of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter.


Ben Dean, Ph.D.