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Positive Psychology

Moral Virtues and Character Strengths Across the Life Span

What matters most may change with age and circumstance.

Key points

  • The moral virtues and character strengths that matter the most evolve over a lifespan.
  • We should not expect attributes that support academic or work performance to apply equally well to other tasks and situations.
  • It is important to recognize the fluid and dynamic nature of virtues and character strengths to flourish in life.
Google Art Project (public domain)
Google Art Project (public domain)

During the summer of 2005, Martin Seligman convened a meeting of the world’s leading experts in the emerging field of positive psychology. Held at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman dubbed the meeting the Medici II Conference. The goal was to explore ways to build the science of positive psychology, focusing on research on the three pillars of positive psychology – positive experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.

I was fortunate to be part of this gathering of the minds of positive psychology that included (besides Seligman) Chris Peterson, Mihaly (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi, and Ed Diener. Peterson and Seligman had recently published their now classic book on the classification of character strengths.1 Csikszentmihalyi, was famous for the concept of flow.2 Diener was among the world’s leading experts on happiness. Together with about a dozen other psychologists and frequent guest speakers, we spent the summer of 2005 charting the path for the future of positive psychology.

Peterson and Seligman’s classification of positive values into six moral virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence) and 24 character strengths (distributed across the six virtues) caught my interest. At West Point, a positive character is one of four pillars of excellence deemed fundamental to success as an Army officer, along with intellectual, physical, and military competence.

As our discussions unfolded that summer, I began to design ways to empirically study the role of moral virtues and character strengths in cadet performance, adaptability, and resilience. This launched what is approaching a 20-year research program in character science within the context of a service academy and the military more generally.

This research program has yielded interesting results. West Point cadets show a different profile of character strengths compared to non-military affiliated college students.3 A collaboration with Angela Duckworth has demonstrated that grit is an important predictor of cadet success.4 Psychological hardiness is linked to success both among cadets and, later, as Army officers.5 A five-year longitudinal study of cadet character, completed in collaboration with Tufts psychologist Rich Lerner has produced dozens of empirical studies that explore a myriad of ways that character plays out in this context.6

This research also has provided more general insights into the role of virtues and character in human performance and resilience. Perhaps the most important of these insights is that character is multidimensional. With 24 individual character strengths distributed across six moral virtues, it is clear that to live a full and meaningful life people must learn to match their virtues and character strengths to the conditions they face at any given point in time. Even if virtues and strengths are trait like, people can learn when, where, and how to use them. I call this the character toolbox analogy.

Just like an actual toolbox, not every job can be completed with a hammer. Grit is important for accomplishing difficult and long-term goals, but other character strengths rise in importance in other situations, such as forming genuine and lasting social relationships. Cadets who excel at West Point must be more than gritty. They also need social intelligence, curiosity, integrity, and kindness (just to name a few strengths). Importantly, they need to be agile in their ability to match particular character strengths to particular situations.

I suspect that the virtues and strengths of the greatest importance to us also shift and evolve across our lifespan. In early adulthood, virtues and strengths that support task mastery and performance may dominate. The character strengths that help a cadet graduate from West Point or a student complete medical school and a residency may differ from those virtues and strengths most relevant in late adulthood.

Later in life, finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life may be more important than getting that next promotion or publishing another journal article. In my own case, early in my career, I leaned heavily on grit and self-regulation to achieve career goals. Nowadays, grit and self-regulation – while still relevant and important at times – take a backseat to the virtues of humanity and transcendence.

This adds up to the point that human virtues and strengths represent a dynamic force in our lives. Virtues and strengths develop over the lifespan – they are not etched in stone once formed. Moreover, situations and conditions change, both day-to-day and over the long term. Changes in work, marital, social, or health status will influence what specific virtues and strengths matter the most. Finally, people change over time. As discussed, those attributes that matter most when you are 25 may differ from those that matter most at age 55 or 75.

To flourish in life, it is thus important to recognize the fluid and dynamic nature of virtues and character strengths. Learn what tools are in your strengths toolbox. Do not rely excessively on a particular attribute. Cultivate a systematic approach to flexibly employing your virtues and strengths. And do not be surprised that the virtues and strengths you hold most dear evolve over time and place.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


1. Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P., Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press, 2004).

2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 2009.

3. Matthews, M. D., Eid, J., Kelly, D. R., Bailey, J. K. S., & Peterson, C. (2006). Character strengths and virtues of developing military leaders: An international comparison. Military Psychology, 18 (Supplemental Issue), pp S57-S68.

4. Duckworth, A. L., Quirk, A., Gallop, R., Hoyle, R. H., Kelly, D. R., & Matthews, M. D. (2019). Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(47), 23499-23504.

5. Bartone, P. T., Kelly, D. R., & Matthews, M. D. (2013). Hardiness predicts adaptability in military leaders. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21, 200-210.

6. For example, Murray, E. D., Schaefer, H.S., Callina, K. S., Powers, J. J., Matthews, M. D., Burchard, B. M., Ryan, D. M., & Lerner, R. L. (2021). Training character: Character attributes and performance profiles among cadets at the United States Military Academy. Journal of Positive Psychology.

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