Week 4 attention economic tutor due date is 06/28/13


Human Virtues and Character Strengths

Examine one human virtue and the associated character strengths that are important to you, as listed in Ch. 10 of Positive Psychology.

Select someone who you know or is a public figure who you feel encompasses at least one of these virtues.

Discuss why this virtue is important to you. How does the person you selected encompass this virtue and the associated character strengths?


Post a 200- to 300-word response.












Think of someone you hold in high regard and look up to as a model for yourself and others.
Perhaps a friend, relative, or a person from history or contemporary society comes to
mind. Think about this individual’s personal qualities and how you might describe the
basis of your admiration to another person. Make a mental list of 4 or 5 qualities that make this
person deserving of your respect. Now compare your list to the positive traits discussed in
Chapter 9. How many of them overlap? Did your list include extraversion, cheerfulness, selfesteem,
or optimism? What traits on your list are not in Chapter 9? Did you include any of the
following qualities: integrity, courage, honesty, kindness, religious conviction, wisdom, fairness,
or modesty? The point here, affirmed by how we think about people we respect, is that a
description of positive human traits would be incomplete without including personal qualities
Developing a Classification of Human Virtues
Measuring Strengths of Character
Wisdom as a Foundational Strength and Virtue
What is Wisdom?
Theories of Wisdom
Balance Theory
Wisdom as Expert Knowledge in the Conduct of Life
Wisdom in Action: The SOC Model of Effective Life Management
Focus on Theory: Wisdom or Self-control as Master Virtues?
Transcendence: Religion and Spirituality
The Search for Meaning
Religion and Spirituality: The Diversity of Views
Defining Religion and Spirituality
Religion/Spirituality and Well-Being
Religious Orientation
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Religious Orientation
Quest Religious Orientation
Attachment Theory and Relationship to God
Styles of Religious Coping
“Explaining Religion versus Explaining Religion Away”
Religion and Virtue
Focus on Research: Increasing Well-Being by Counting Your Blessings
Virtue and Strengths
of Character
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208 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
judged as positive because they are “good” in
moral and ethical terms. Clearly, we may admire
people who are outgoing, upbeat, and positive
about the future. But just as clearly, and perhaps at a
deeper level, we also admire individuals who show
strengths of character that reflect virtuous qualities like
integrity, kindness, and compassion. In short, virtue
and character strengths belong on a list of positive
human traits.
The traits reviewed in Chapter 9 were evaluated
as positive because of their benefits to individual
well-being—specifically health, happiness, and
emotional well-being. Virtuous behavior may also
increase our life satisfaction and make life more
meaningful and healthy. However, virtue is also considered
a positive trait independent of any benefit or
“pay-off” to the individual. Virtue is positively
regarded in its own right because of its connection to
religious and secular mores and its value to society.
A consideration of virtue and character strengths provides
an additional way to think about the meaning
of “positive.” In this chapter, we will first review a
recent attempt to provide a comprehensive classification
of character strengths and virtues. Then, we will
focus on two foundational virtues (wisdom and
religion) in more detail by examining how they contribute
to well-being and a life well-lived.
For a considerable time in psychology’s history,
virtue was not considered an appropriate construct
for scientific investigation. The study of virtue was
thought to be too easily tainted and biased by the
moral beliefs of researchers and the prevailing cultural
mores of the day (Tjeltveit, 2003). Many psychologists
believed that science should provide only
objective facts about how people act. Questions
about how people should conduct themselves—that
is, whether their actions were good, bad, moral, or
immoral—were left for philosophers and theologians
to decide. However, a renewed interest in
character strengths has begun to emerge as more
psychologists have come to realize that a complete
account of human behavior needs to include the
moral dimension of people’s lives (Fowers &
Tjeltveit, 2003). Recent events from the Enron scandal
to the influence-peddling of lobbyist Jack
Abramoff have reinforced the importance of ethical
behavior. People’s anger and outrage at these sorts
of improprieties stem primarily from moral considerations.
In short, people lead moral lives in the sense
of evaluating themselves and others according to
moral criteria.
Describing the features of a life well-lived is a
central theme of positive psychology. Because the
meaning of a good person and a good life are intimately
connected to virtue, positive psychology has
given virtue particular prominence. This is most
apparent in a recent collaborative research project
(the Values in Action Project, Peterson & Seligman,
2004) that had the lofty goal of developing a classification
of character strengths and virtues that would
parallel the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (DSM), developed by the
American Psychiatric Association (2000). The DSM
provides a classification of mental disorders and an
extensive “language” for describing human psychological
weaknesses and pathologies. Authors of the
Values in Action Project (VIA) hoped to create a
comprehensive classification system similar to the
DSM, but one that was focused on human strengths
rather than weaknesses. They also hoped to provide
a language describing positive human qualities that
defined a healthy person living a good life. Put
another way, the DSM describes aspects of life
“below zero” (with “zero” representing the threshold
dividing mental health from emotional illness). One
goal of the VIA was to describe life “above zero”
(i.e., to identify the traits that define emotional
health and strength). This goal is consistent with
positive psychology’s emphasis on restoring balance
to the field, in place of psychology’s historic focus
on problematic human behaviors.
Developing a classification of character
strengths is a daunting task. Virtue and character
are obviously complex topics. What, exactly, is a
human virtue or character strength? Do people have
a common understanding of traits that qualify as
virtuous? Getting answers to these questions was
one of the major purposes of the VIA. The VIA,
coordinated by Christopher Peterson and Martin
Seligman (2004), brought together a group of
researchers who sought to describe those strengths
of character that were most prominent across history
and culture. Is there a common set of human
qualities universally regarded as positive virtues? A
list of possible “candidates” was generated by examining
virtues and strengths described in a variety of
philosophic, religious, and cultural traditions. This
list included virtues described in major religions
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 209
and philosophies (e.g., Confucianism, Buddhism,
Hinduism, Judeo-Christianity, and ancient Greek
philosophy), the works of famous historical figures
(e.g., Benjamin Franklin), and in popular culture
(e.g., Boy and Girl Scout Guides, Hallmark greeting
cards, popular songs, Saturday Evening Post covers
by Normal Rockwell).
From a long list of candidates, 24 character
strengths were selected and organized around 6
virtues. The 6 virtues—wisdom, courage, humanity,
justice, temperance, and transcendence—were
selected because they appear to be universal
across history and across societies. They represent
moral virtues as defined by most religions and ethical
philosophies. Peterson and Seligman regard
these virtues as core defining features of good
character. Each virtue is defined by a set of character
strengths that represent the ingredients, expressions,
and potential means of developing the
virtue. For example, temperance as a virtue refers
to people’s strength in avoiding excesses. The
ingredients and expressions of temperance would
include self-control, gratitude toward others,
humility, prudent decision-making, and the ability
to forgive the transgressions of self and others.
Developing this virtue would involve efforts to
exert more self-control, become more humble and
less self-aggrandizing, and more grateful and forgiving
in relationships with others.
Character strengths were selected by applying
a set of criteria to the list of strengths identified in
the first phase of the project. A sample of the set of
criteria used is shown in Table 10.1. To be included
in the final classification, a character strength had to
meet all or nearly all of these criteria.
Half of the strengths selected met the entire set
of criteria. The other half did not. As Seligman and
Peterson note, disagreements can arise about the
inclusion of one or another of the strengths, the placement
of a given strength under a particular virtue, and
whether some other important strength was omitted.
However, taken in total, this classification system
“hangs together” as a reasonably coherent first effort
at describing what may be universally regarded as
human strengths and virtues. The final classification of
strengths and virtues is described in Table 10.2. For a
complete description of the selection criteria, previous
classification models, and literature reviews detailing
what is known about each character strength, see
Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and
Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004).
Wisdom and Knowledge
As a virtue, wisdom refers to a general intellectual
strength involving the development and use of
knowledge. Wisdom does not necessarily follow
from a formal education or a high IQ score. Wisdom
refers to a more practical intelligence and good judgment
based on learning life’s lessons—perhaps
through hardships. A wise person puts things in the
proper perspective and avoids the pitfalls of narrowly
focused and self-interested understandings. Wisdom
means being able to offer good counsel to others
about how to live and how to understand and deal
with life’s challenges, uncertainties, and choices.
Courage is the emotional strength to overcome fear
in the face of opposition and adversity. Courage is
TABLE 10.1 Criteria for selecting character strengths
Regarded as a valued moral quality in and of itself, whether or not it led to concrete benefits.
Contributes to personal fulfillment in the sense of enhancing personal expressiveness, meaningfulness, satisfaction,
and happiness.
Constitutes a stable individual difference trait for which reliable measures had been previously developed.
Be distinctive and not overlap with other strengths.
Have an opposite that was clearly negative (e.g., the opposite of courage is cowardice).
Enhances rather than diminishes other people when expressed (i.e., the trait must evoke admiration or respect rather
than envy, inferiority, or lowered self-evaluation).
Be the focus of institutional efforts (e.g., education, churches) to promote its development.
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210 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
TABLE 10.2 Classification of virtues and character strengths
I. Wisdom and Knowledge—cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge.
Defining Strengths
1. Creativity—thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
2. Curiosity—taking an interest in all ongoing experience
3. Open-mindedness—thinking things through and from all sides
4. Love of learning—mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
5. Perspective—being able to provide wise counsel to others
II. Courage—emotional strengths that involve exercise of will in the face of opposition, external or internal.
Defining Strengths
6. Authenticity—speaking the truth and presenting yourself in a genuine way
7. Bravery—not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
8. Persistence—finishing what one starts despite obstacles along the way
9. Zest—approaching life with excitement and energy
III. Humanity—interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others.
Defining Strengths
10. Kindness—doing favors and good deeds for others
11. Love—valuing close relations with others
12. Social intelligence—being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others
IV. Justice—civic strengths that underlie healthy community life.
Defining Strengths
13. Fairness—treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
14. Leadership—organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
15. Teamwork—working well as member of a group or team
V. Temperance—strengths that protect against excess.
Defining Strengths
16. Forgiveness—forgiving those who have done wrong
17. Modesty—letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
18. Prudence—being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might be later regretted
19. Self-regulation—regulating what one feels and does
VI. Transcendence—strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and providing meaning.
Defining Strengths
20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence—noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance
in all domains of life
21. Gratitude—being aware of and thankful for good things that happen
22. Hope—expecting the best and working to achieve it
23. Humor—liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
24. Religiousness/Spirituality—having coherent beliefs about the higher purposes and meaning of life
Source: Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of
interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421. Copyright American Psychological Association. Adapted and reprinted with
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 211
exemplified in confronting and accepting one’s own
death; dealing with a debilitating illness or disease;
honestly confronting one’s own limitations, weaknesses,
or bad habits; and standing up for one’s
convictions, despite the possibility of negative consequences
(e.g., chastisement by others).
Humanity refers to our capacity for sympathy, empathy,
compassion, and love in our relationships with
others. Humanity is the basis for nurturing and caring
relationships focused on another’s needs rather
than one’s own needs and interests. Humanity is
expressed in our willingness to help others in need,
to be kind, to be generous, and to respect the feelings
and values of others.
Justice is an essential ingredient in healthy societies,
communities, and relationships with others. This
virtue is shown when people are fair minded
and even-handed rather than being biased by selfinterest.
Justice also includes strengths that contribute
to community well-being, such as working
cooperatively with others and taking the initiative to
develop and follow through on goals and projects.
Temperance is the strength to control excesses and
restrain impulses that may harm the self and others. It
expresses the idea of “willpower” in the face of temptations.
Temptations and the benefits of restraint
might be focused on eating; drinking; smoking;
expressing of anger, hatred, or arrogance toward others;
or excessive self-promotion at the expense of
others. Chapter 8 described some of the psychological
processes involved in self-control and selfdirected
actions that are relevant to temperance.
Temperance is a kind of ongoing self-awareness and
self-discipline that affirms the “look before you leap”
dictum of everyday wisdom. Temperance also
involves the ability to let go and forgive the indiscretions
and hurtful actions of others.
To transcend means to go beyond or rise above the
ordinary and the everyday. Transcendent thinking
lifts us out of the usual concrete preoccupations of
daily life and out of an individualized sense of self by
providing a broader view of the world and the universe.
Transcendence puts things in perspective and
keeps us from worrying about or striving for things
that don’t really matter. Religion and spirituality are
the clearest examples of transcendence because they
involve a belief in a higher power and a greater purpose
for life. Whatever their various forms, transcendent
beliefs connect the individual to a more
encompassing understanding and a deeper meaning
of life. The character strength of religiousness clearly
fits the virtue of transcendence.
The other strengths listed under transcendence
may not seem to fit so well. Peterson and Seligman
(2004) believe that the common theme here is providing
opportunities to appreciate and develop a bigger
picture of the world that may provide a more enduring
and satisfying understanding and purpose for life.
“Appreciation of beauty is a strength that connects
someone to excellence. Gratitude connects someone
directly to goodness. Hope connects someone directly
to the dreamed-of future” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004,
p. 519). Humor, they admit, seems a bit of stretch as
an expression of transcendence. However, as they
point out, humor keeps us from taking our selves and
our virtues too seriously. It reminds us to “lighten up.”
Laughter holds nothing sacred and can cut through
everything from self-righteousness to passionate conflicts
over important issues. On a daily basis, Jay Leno
and David Letterman create humor out of pain and
tragedy, from political scandals to the war in Iraq.
Perhaps humor serves a protective function by connecting
us directly to life’s absurdities and getting us
to laugh at them.
Measuring Strengths of Character
A major goal of the VIA project was the development
of measures for each of the 24 strengths of
character. Based on existing knowledge and assessment
instruments for each of the strengths, a 240-
item self-report questionnaire was created. Ten
items were used to assess each character strength.
For example, forgiveness is measured by items such
as, “I always allow others to leave their mistakes in
the past and make a fresh start.” Kindness is measured
by items like, “I’m never too busy to help a
friend.” Curiosity is measured through items such as,
“I am never bored.” Items like, “I always keep my
promises” measure integrity (Peterson & Seligman,
2004, pp. 629–630). Respondents rate their degree
of endorsement on a scale from 1 (very unlike me)
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212 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
to 5 (very much like me). Rating summaries produce
a profile of an individual’s relative standing on each
of the 24 character strengths. The entire VIA inventory
of strengths takes 30 to 40 minutes to complete.
You can take the VIA inventory of strengths online
at www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/. There
are several questionnaires on this site. You want to
select the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire,
which gives you a character strength profile and
identifies your top five strengths, called “signature”
strengths. You will need to log on to the site, provide
some basic information, and create a password
to take the test and have your responses scored.
Although still a work in progress, the VIA
Strengths Inventory has shown good internal consistency
and test–retest reliability. Individual self-ratings
have been validated against ratings by informed
observers. A youth version of the VIA inventory has
also been developed and tested (see Peterson &
Seligman, 2004). The inventory has been taken by
over 350,000 people of all ages and backgrounds, representing
50 countries and all 50 U.S. states (Peterson,
2006; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Seligman, Steen,
Park, & Peterson, 2005).
Analysis of character-strength profiles in relation
to respondents’ backgrounds revealed several interesting
patterns. People from around the world show substantial
agreement regarding the strengths rated as
“most like me.” The most commonly endorsed character
strengths in 50 countries were fairness, kindness,
authenticity, gratitude, and open-mindedness. The
least frequently endorsed strengths were prudence,
self-regulation, and modesty. The correlations of
strength rankings across nations were typically in the
0.80 range. Despite widely different cultures, religions,
and ethnic backgrounds, people seem to share
a common understanding of character strengths and
virtues. Within the United States, the same pattern of
rankings was apparent with the exception of religiousness,
which was stronger in the southern states.
Interestingly, there was less agreement in
rankings between U.S. teenagers and U.S. adults
than among adults from different countries.
American adolescents rated hope, teamwork, and
zest as “most like me,” while American adults gave
higher endorsements to authenticity, appreciation of
beauty, leadership, and open-mindedness.
Character strengths related to relationships
(love) and positive emotions (e.g., zest, hope, and
gratitude) were more strongly related to measures of
life satisfaction than were more intellectual-cognitive
strengths (e.g., curiosity and love of learning).
“Strengths of the heart,” as Peterson and Seligman
call them (experiences such as kindness, love, and
gratitude), contribute the most to our individual
Profiles of character strength also fit with the
matching hypothesis discussed in Chapter 7. People
were asked to think about personal experiences
involving their most rewarding and fulfilling jobs
and hobbies, their “truest” love, and their best
friends. The experiences they chose as the “most
satisfying (they) had ever had” were those that
matched their character strengths. For example,
people strong in kindness enjoyed working as mentors
for others. Those with curiosity as strength valued
and enjoyed romantic partners who were
adventuresome risk-takers.
Finally, factor analysis revealed a five-factor
dimensional structure of the 24 character strengths
that was similar (but not identical) to the original
organization of strengths around the six virtues.
The five factors were identified as strengths relating
to restraint (e.g., humility, prudence, and
mercy), intelligence (e.g., creativity and curiosity),
relationships (e.g., love and kindness), emotions
(e.g., bravery, hope, and self-regulation), and
religion (e.g., spirituality and gratitude). Peterson
and Seligman acknowledge the tentative nature of
the organization of character strengths around the
six core virtues. Subsequent research will undoubtedly
refine the virtue categories and the strengths
that define them. For example, a recent study
examining the factor structure of 42 positive character
traits, including those from the VIA project,
found only a partial overlap with the VIA six-virtue
model (Haslam, Bain, & Neal, 2004). Results suggested
that categories of self-control, love, wisdom,
drive, and vivacity may better capture how people
think about and organize character strengths.
Whatever the final organization, the VIA project
has provided a useful starting point, by proposing
a detailed list of character strengths and strong evidence
for their universality across time and culture.
In the remainder of this chapter, we will
review research and theory related to the virtues of
wisdom and transcendence. Chapter 11 is focused
on the virtue of love. Literature relevant to other
strengths has been discussed in previous chapters as
described below. Peterson and Seligman (2004) provide
a comprehensive review of research and theory
relating to each character strength.
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 213
From the ancient Greeks to the present, wisdom and
living a good life have been intimately connected.
Despite cultural differences in the specifics (e.g.,
Yang, 2001), wisdom is most generally understood to
mean a philosophic understanding of what matters in
life and the practical knowledge of how to conduct a
life that matters (Baltes & Freund, 2003b; Peterson &
Seligman, 2004; Robinson, 1990). Theoretical wisdom
and practical wisdom are thus wedded together and
assumed to produce a happy and satisfying life. The
happiness connected to wisdom has more to do with
the eudaimonic than with the hedonic perspective
(see Chapter 4). Wisdom involves identifying and pursuing
the deeper and enduring purposes of life,
beyond individual happiness. Wisdom is the ability to
balance your needs and happiness with those of others
(Sternberg, 1998). Wisdom serves the common
rather than the purely individual good by finding a
balance between the two. Many psychologists have
come to regard wisdom as a foundation for a life welllived
and one of humans’ most important strengths
(e.g., Baltes & Freund, 2003a, 2003b; Baltes, Gluck, &
Kunzman, 2002; Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1990;
Sternberg, 1990, 1998a).
What Is Wisdom?
One way to explore the meaning of wisdom is to
examine people’s everyday understanding. Each of
us has some implicit idea about wisdom, drawn
from cultural characterizations that are embodied in
exemplars of “wise” people. Think of famous people,
past and present, who exemplify your understanding
of a wise person. Who comes to mind? The
top 15 answers given by college students are shown
in Table 10.3. Interestingly, along with well-known
wise people like Gandhi, Confucius, Jesus Christ,
Martin Luther King, and Socrates, “wisdom nominees”
also included Oprah Winfrey and Ann Landers
(Paulus, Wehr, Harms, & Strasser, 2002).
This study also investigated whether people
distinguish among wisdom, intelligence, creativity,
and sheer fame by having different groups of participants
make nominations for each of the specified
characteristics. Table 10.3 shows that the nominations
for each of the categories include a blend of
historic and contemporary figures. Evidence of the
differences people perceive among wise, intelligent,
creative, and just famous people was shown by the
low degree of overlap in the various nominee lists.
Only one person, Oprah Winfrey, was on both the
wisdom list and the intelligence list. There was no
overlap between nominees for creativity and wisdom,
a 27% overlap between creative and intelligent
people, and a 7% overlap between wisdom and creativity.
People do not use pure fame or notoriety as a
basis for nominating wise, creative, or intelligent
people. Sheer fame nominees never exceeded 20%
of overlap with the other three categories.
To get at the specific factors that define folk
wisdom, researchers have asked people to identify
Strength Topic Chapter
Curiosity Five Factor Model (FFM) Chapter 9
Openness to experience
Love of Learning Approach/avoidance goals Chapter 7
Intrinsic/extrinsic motivation
Persistence Commitment Chapter 7
Persistence and self-esteem Chapter 9
Integrity Autonomy Chapters 2; 7
Self-determination theory
Prudence FFM—conscientiousness Chapter 9
Self-regulation Self-control and regulation Chapter 8
Hope Optimism/hope Chapter 9
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214 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
TABLE 10.3 Nominations for intelligent, creative, wise, and famous people
Intelligent Creative Wise Sheer Fame
1. Einstein Da Vinci Gandhi Princess Diana
2. Bill Clinton Picasso Confucius Elvis Presley
3. Da Vinci Michelangelo Jesus Christ Michael Jordan
4. Prime Minister Mozart M. L. King Muhammad Ali
5. Gates Spielberg Socrates Michael Jackson
6. Shakespeare Shakespeare Mother Theresa Bill Clinton
7. Hawking Michael Jackson Solomon Madonna
8. Oprah Beethoven Buddha Wayne Gretzky
9. Newton Walt Disney Pope Bill Gates
10. Mozart Robin Williams Oprah Winfrey John F. Kennedy
11. Edison Salvador Dali Winston Churchill Nelson Mandela
12. Suzuki Madonna Dalai Lama Marilyn Monroe
13. Madonna Sigmund Freud Ann Landers Adolph Hitler
14. Gorbachev Alexander Graham Bell Nelson Mandela George Bush, Sr.
15. Trudeau Margaret Atwood Queen Elizabeth Jesus Christ
Source: Paulus, D. L., Wehr, P., Harms, P. D., & Strasser, D. H. (2002). Use of exemplars to reveal
implicit types of intelligence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1051–1062. Copyright
American Psychological Association. Reprinted by permission.
wise behaviors and have analyzed the characteristics
of wisdom described in cultural, historical, and
philosophical writings. For example, Sternberg
(1985) asked a group of college professors and
lay-persons to list characteristics they associated
with wise people. Researchers then took the top
40 wisdom characteristics and asked college students
to sort them into piles, according to “which
behaviors [were] likely to be found together in a
person.” Based on students’ sortings, Sternberg
identified six groupings of attributes that characterize
a wise person:
1. Reasoning ability: Uncommon ability to look
at a problem and solve it through good logical
reasoning ability, by applying knowledge to
particular problems, by integrating information
and theories in new ways, and by possessing a
huge store of knowledge.
2. Sagacity: A keen understanding of human
nature, thoughtfulness, fairness, good listening
abilities, knowledge of self, and placing value
on the advice and knowledge of others.
3. Learning from ideas and the environment:
Places value on ideas, is perceptive, and learns
from others’ mistakes.
4. Judgment: Has good, sensible judgment at all
times, takes a long-term rather than a short-term
view, and thinks before acting and speaking.
5. Expeditious use of information: Learns
and retains information from experience (both
mistakes and successes), willingness to change
one’s mind based on new experience.
6. Perspicacity: Demonstrates perceptiveness,
intuition, ability to see through things, read
between the lines; and discern the truth and
the right thing to do.
In his analysis of wisdom in philosophical writings,
Baltes (1993) identified seven properties
describing the nature of wisdom (taken from Baltes &
Staudinger, 2000, Appendix A, p. 135).
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 215
1. “Wisdom addresses important and difficult
questions and strategies about the conduct and
meaning of life.”
2. “Wisdom includes knowledge about the limits
of knowledge and the uncertainties of the
3. “Wisdom represents a truly superior level of
knowledge, judgment, and advice.”
4. “Wisdom constitutes knowledge with extraordinary
scope, depth, measure, and balance.”
5. “Wisdom involves a perfect synergy of mind
and character, that is, an orchestration of
knowledge and virtues.”
6. “Wisdom represents knowledge used for the
good or well-being of oneself and that of
7. “Wisdom is easily recognized when manifested,
although difficult to achieve and specify.”
Wisdom, then, is not the same thing as technical
knowledge, “book learning,” fame, or intelligence
as measured by an IQ test. Having lots of
education, being a “smart” person, or being an
expert in a given area (like computer technology
or finance) does not by itself qualify a person
as wise. Many people are clever, intelligent, or
experts in their field, but far fewer are wise.
Wisdom embodies a particular kind of knowledge,
intelligence, and judgment focused on the conduct
of a virtuous life. Wise people have learned life’s
most important lessons. The broad scope of their
understanding includes the uncertainties of life—
that is, knowing what cannot be definitively
known. Two prominent theories attempt to capture
wisdom’s essential elements: Sternberg’s balance
theory and the work of Paul Baltes on wisdom as
expertise in the conduct of life (often referred to as
the Berlin wisdom model).
Theories of Wisdom
BALANCE THEORY Sternberg’s balance theory
describes the practical intelligence necessary to take
wise action when confronting difficult and complex
life situations (Sternberg, 1990, 1998a). Wisdom is
based on tacit knowledge that is built up over time
as people learn how to pursue and achieve valued
goals successfully. Tacit knowledge is the actionoriented
component of practical intelligence
(i.e., knowing “how” rather than know “what”).
Sternberg believes that knowledge of how to
live successfully is learned in the trenches of life
experience—not through formal education or direct
instruction from others. Tacit knowledge becomes
the foundation for wisdom when it is used to
achieve a common good rather than a self-interested
good, and when it is focused on finding ways to balance
the often conflicting interests and choices
involved in real-life situations.
According to Sternberg’s balance theory,
wise people are skillful in balancing three interests
and three possible courses of action in arriving at
solutions to life problems. The three interests are
(a) one’s own interests and needs (intrapersonal);
(b) the interests and needs of important others like
a spouse, friend, or employer (interpersonal); and
(c) those related to community, country, environment,
or religion (extrapersonal). Balancing these
multiple interests to achieve a common good
requires consideration of three courses of action
concerning whether and how much individuals
need to (a) change themselves (adaptation);
(b) change their environment, including others; or
(c) select a new environment altogether.
Consider the following example of a life
dilemma that confronts many “baby boomers,”
often referred to as the “sandwich generation”
because they are “sandwiched” between the needs
of their aging parents and their own children.
Imagine yourself in this situation. You and your
spouse both have successful, but demanding
careers. You have two children, one child is in college
and the other, a sophomore in high school,
will be off to college in two years. Retirement is
still a number of years off, in part because of the
need to pay your children’s college expenses.
Your aging parents are becoming increasingly frail.
They have several significant health issues and
cannot live by themselves much longer. Your parents
want to maintain their independence and do
not want to move into an assisted living facility or
nursing home. What would be a wise course of
action here?
To meet Sternberg’s criteria for wisdom, you
must find ways to balance your own interests and
those of your family with the increasing need for
support required by your parents’ deteriorating situation.
You must consider and find answers to questions
like the following: How much should your
own family have to sacrifice, and how much should
your parents have to sacrifice? How can you balance
all the interests in this case? In terms of specific
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216 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
actions, the question becomes, whose environment
and life must change the most? Yours? Your family’s?
Your parents’? Should you adjust your life to your
parents’ needs and move closer to your parents?
Should they move in with you, or nearby? Should
you try to place them in an assisted living facility?
These are obviously hard choices! It’s not easy to
know what balance of interests and actions constitute
a wise solution. Wisdom does not lead to a perfect
balance of interests and actions, in the sense
that everyone will be happy and won’t have to
accommodate change or make sacrifices. Instead,
Sternberg’s idea is that wisdom means applying tacit
knowledge to find the best possible solution that
balances both multiple interests and possible actions
involving adaptation and change. A balance of interests
defines a common good, and balanced actions
serving a common good define wisdom.
OF LIFE Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Planck
Institute in Berlin, Germany, have developed a set of
specific criteria for defining and measuring wisdom
that provides the basis for an ongoing program of
empirical studies. In their Berlin wisdom model,
wisdom is defined as expert knowledge concerning
the “fundamental pragmatics of life” (Baltes, 1997;
Baltes & Smith, 1990, Baltes & Staudinger, 2000). The
phrase, “fundamental pragmatics of life” refers to
“. . . knowledge and judgment about the essence of
the human condition and the ways and means of
planning, managing, and understanding a good life”
(Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 124). Wisdom is
assessed according to the following five criteria.
1. Factual knowledge: Extensive knowledge of
the pragmatics of life. Knowing the “whats” of
the human condition and human nature (e.g.,
differences among people, social relationships,
society, social norms, etc).
2. Procedural knowledge: Knowing “how.”
Strategies and approaches for solving life’s problems,
achieving goals, dealing with conflict, etc.
3. Lifespan contextualism: Knowledge of different
life settings and social environments (e.g.,
work, education, family, leisure, and friends),
and how these roles and settings change over
time, both for individuals and for society.
4. Relativism of values: Awareness of individual
and cultural differences in values and life priorities.
Wise people are committed to the common
good, so this does not mean “anything goes.”
Relativism means consideration and sensitivity
to value differences among people from different
5. Awareness and management of uncertainty:
Recognizing the limits of knowledge. The
future cannot be fully known ahead of time. An
understanding of how to cope effectively with
the uncertainty of knowledge about the world.
Because wisdom is defined by superior knowledge
in the conduct of life, few people are expected
to meet all five of the wisdom criteria. Measures of
wisdom indicate people’s degree of wisdom-related
knowledge. Wisdom is assessed by presenting
research participants with challenging, hypothetical
life situations and dilemmas, and asking them to
describe aloud what should be considered and what
should be done in response to each dilemma.
Participant responses are tape-recorded and evaluated
by a panel of trained judges, who assess the
degree of correspondence between participants’
responses and the five wisdom criteria. The life
dilemmas include situations like the following two
examples (from Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, p. 126):
1. “Someone receives a phone call from a good
friend who says that he or she cannot go on
like this and has decided to commit suicide.
What might one/the person take into consideration
and do in such a situation?”
2. “In reflecting over their lives, people sometimes
realize that they have not achieved what
they had once planned to achieve. What
should they do and consider?”
Judges’ evaluations of respondents’ answers
show substantial inter-judge agreement; test–retest
reliability is also high. Sample excerpts from lowrated
and high-rated responses are given below
(Baltes & Staudinger, 2000, Appendix B, p. 136) for
the following life dilemma:
“A 15-year old girl wants to get married
right away.What should one/she consider
and do?”
Example of a Response Judges Rated as
“A 15-year old girl wants to get married?
No, no way, marrying at age 15 would be
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 217
utterly wrong. One has to tell the girl that
marriage is not possible. [After further
probing] It would be irresponsible to support
such an idea.No, this is just crazy.”
Example of a Response Judges Rated as
“Well, on the surface, this seems like an
easy problem. On average, marriage for a
15-year old girl is not a good thing. But
there are situations where the average case
does not fit. Perhaps in this instance, special
life circumstances are involved, such
that the girl has a terminal illness. Or the
girl has just lost her parents. And also, this
girl may live in another culture or historical
period. Perhaps she was raised with a
value system different from ours. In addition,
one also has to think about adequate
ways of talking with the girl and to consider
her emotional state.”
Using the life dilemmas measure, Baltes and
his colleagues have provided some interesting
answers to wisdom-related questions (see Baltes &
Staudinger, 2000; Baltes et al., 2002; Kramer, 2000;
Kunzmann & Baltes, 2003, for research summaries).
Does Wisdom Increase with Age? Conventional
wisdom about wisdom suggests that we become
wiser as we age and accumulate more life experiences.
Studies provide only partial support for this
belief. Wisdom has been found to increase dramatically
during adolescence and young adulthood; it
then appears to remain relatively stable until age 75,
when it begins to decline. Getting older, by itself,
does not enhance wisdom. However, examination of
the top 20% of wise people showed that a higher
proportion of the “very wise” were middle-aged
(Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).
Are “Experts” Wiser than Non-Experts?
Clinical psychologists have extensive experience
in helping people review, plan, and manage their
lives. They also might be expected to develop an
understanding of the dilemmas of life through
their clinical training and work as psychotherapists.
Are they wiser than comparably educated
individuals whose careers are not focused on
life dilemmas? Several studies (see Baltes &
Staudinger, 2000) found that clinical psychologists
did show higher wisdom scores than a control
group of non-psychologist professionals—a finding
that pleased the second author of your text,
who is a practicing clinical psychologist. However,
several considerations may qualify this finding
(sorry, Marie!). First, clinical psychologists did
score significantly higher than members of the
control group on the wisdom measure, but their
scores did not approach the top end of the scale.
(Specifically, the scale ran from 1 to 7, with 7
reflecting a high level of wisdom. Clinical psychologists
scored an average of 3.8, just above the
scale’s midpoint.) Second, it is entirely possible
that individuals with a propensity toward wisdom
self-select into clinical psychology careers. In line
with this possibility, professional specialization
accounted for more variation in wisdom scores
than did intelligence and personality factors.
Third, Baltes wondered whether the superior
performance of clinical psychologists might reflect
a professional bias imbedded in the measure
of wisdom. That is, since the test-maker and the
test-takers are both psychologists, do clinical psychologists
have an edge over non-psychologists
because they think more like the test developers
than other respondents? To find out, researchers
compared the performance of clinical psychologists
to a sample of individuals nominated as wise
by an independent panel of non-psychologists.
Wisdom nominees were found to perform just
as well as the clinical psychologists, suggesting
that the measure of wisdom is not biased against
Are Wise People Happier? Given the connection
of wisdom to a good life, one might think the answer
would be yes. However, wisdom is connected to
deeper meanings and dilemmas of life that go
beyond the simple pursuit of happiness. Wisdom is
not guided by the “pleasure principle” (Kunzmann &
Baltes, 2003). It is possible that wisdom might even
reduce personal happiness. If breadth of factual
knowledge and complex understandings lead to
greater awareness of pain and suffering in the world
and the uncertainties of life, perhaps wisdom comes
with an emotional price tag. Perhaps ignorance
really is bliss. Another possibility is that wise people
may excel at coming to terms with the emotional ups
and downs of life. Their expertise in living a good
life may include more peace of mind and less
extreme mood swings.
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218 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
To evaluate these questions, Kunzmann and
Baltes (2003) examined the relationship of wisdom
to affective experience in a sample including
young adults (15–20 years), middle-aged adults
(30–40 years), and older adults (60–70 years).
Higher wisdom scores were associated with less
frequent experiencing of negative affects (such
as anger, sadness, fear, disappointment, shame,
and indifference), less frequent experiencing of
pleasure-oriented, positive affects (such as happiness,
cheerfulness, amusement, exuberance, and
pride), but more frequent experiencing of feelings
related to affective involvement with the environment
(such as feelings of interest, alertness, inspiration,
attentiveness, and active engagement).
Kunzmann and Baltes argue that these results support
the connection of wisdom to emotional regulation.
Wise people, perhaps because of their “big
picture view” and skill in self-control, are less
reactive to life events, whether positive or negative.
In addition, wise people are not oriented
toward pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain.
Instead, they are energized by emotions that
enhance active involvement and learning. Wise
people are motivated to explore and understand
the complexities and paradoxes of life. It makes
sense that wisdom would be associated with more
frequent experience of emotions that motivate and
result from active engagement with the world
(e.g., inspiration, interest, and attentiveness).
Wisdom in Action: The (SOC) Model
of Effective Life Management
Baltes and his colleagues have recently begun to
describe a wisdom-based framework for identifying
the essential features of a good life (Baltes &
Freund, 2003a, 2003b; Baltes & Staudinger, 2000;
Freund & Baltes, 2002; Kramer, 2000; Kunzmann,
2004). Wisdom, as defined in Baltes and colleagues’
earlier work, involved an understanding of
both the deeper purposes and meanings of a good
life (what) and an understanding of the means by
which a good life could be achieved (how). The
Berlin wisdom model was initially directed more at
knowledge-related wisdom than at wisdom-related
action. Recent work has shifted to include a more
specific model of action that describes how
theoretical wisdom about what matters in life may
direct practical wisdom concerning how to live a
life that matters. Practical wisdom is described by
their SOC Model of Effective Life Management
(SOC refers to “select, optimize, and compensate”).
The model describes the role of wisdom in effective
life management and optimal human functioning
(see Figure 10.1).
Defining the Meta-range
Desirable Goals,
Desirable Means
Effective Life Management and
Goal Pursuit: Orchestration of
Optimization, and
FIGURE 10.1 The SOC Model of Effective Life Management
Source: Baltes, P. B., & Freund, A. M. (2003b). The intermarriage
of wisdom and selective optimization with compensation: Two
meta-heuristics guiding the conduct of life. In C. L. M. Keyes
& J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life
well-lived (pp. 249–273). Washington, DC: American Psychological
Association. Copyright American Psychological Association.
Reprinted by permission.
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 219
The SOC model does not specify details concerning
management of a successful life. The
specifics are dependent on each individual’s needs,
values, personality, resources, stage of life, and
environmental context. The SOC specifies three general
strategies, applicable across the life span, for
how to achieve personally important goals. In many
ways, the selection, optimization, and compensation
model describes an approach to life planning that
serves to organize the major research findings concerning
personal goals and the self-regulation
processes necessary to achieve them (discussed in
Chapters 7 and 8). Baltes and his colleagues make
the connection between goal research and SOC
explicit in their recent work (e.g., Baltes & Freund,
2003a, 2003b).
SELECTION Selection is the first step in life planning
and is an integral part of personal development and
well-being. Choosing appropriate goals among a
variety of options contributes to a purposeful, meaningful,
and organized life. While the definition of
“appropriate” depends on a person’s resources and
life circumstances, goal research provides some
guidance in distinguishing between goals that
enhance and goals that detract from well-being.
Approach goals that are personally expressive,
related to intrinsic needs, and freely chosen are
likely to inspire strong commitment, successful
achievement, and increased well-being and life
OPTIMIZATION Optimization refers to all the choices
and actions that lead to successful goal achievement.
Optimization overlaps with many of the
processes described in Chapter 8. Goal achievement
involves self-regulation, monitoring of progress,
belief in personal control and competence, and ability
to delay short-term gratification in the service of
pursuing long-term goals. The optimization element
also includes the importance of repeated practice
and effort in developing skills necessary for goal
COMPENSATION Compensation refers to developing
alternative means for achieving and maintaining
goals when previously effective means are blocked.
Compensation strategies might involve finding new
means and resources, activating unused resources,
or relying on others for help and support. A student
who loses a lucrative summer job that pays half of
her yearly college expenses might take out a student
loan, dip further into her savings, or ask her parents
for more financial help to compensate for the drop
in financial resources.
In an empirical test of the SOC model, Freund
and Baltes (2002) developed a self-report questionnaire
to assess people’s endorsement of SOC. Wellbeing,
personality, and cognitive style were also
assessed. Study participants ranged in age from 14
to 89 years. Items measuring selection focused on
the clarity, importance, and prioritizing of personal
goals, and on the degree of goal commitment.
Optimization items asked about expenditure of
effort, goal planning, and modeling one’s behavior
after the strategies used by successful others.
Compensation was measured by statements concerning
efforts to find other means of goal achievement,
renewed effort and commitment, and seeking
help from others when initial paths to goal achievement
were blocked.
Two of the study’s noteworthy findings related
SOC to age and well-being. Consistent with the pattern
of findings from wisdom research, endorsement
of SOC strategies increased with age from young to
middle age and then showed a decrease in late
adulthood. Middle age appears to be the peak
period of refined skill in using SOC behaviors for
effective life management. Each component of the
SOC model was significantly related to Ryff’s six-part
measure of psychological well-being (see Chapter 2).
This measure is based on the eudaimonic conception
of well-being, and evaluates a person’s degree
of self-acceptance, personal growth, sense of purpose,
environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive
relationship with others. Freund and Baltes also
found a strong positive relationship between SOC
strategies and higher levels of positive emotions.
The SOC model appears to be an informative framework
for thinking about the determinants of wellbeing
across the life span (see Baltes & Freund,
2003b, for a review of other SOC confirming studies).
The SOC model specifies the general skills necessary
to achieve personal goals and compensate for
setbacks, and recognizes the importance of goals in
relation to well-being. The SOC model both draws
from and affirms the major findings of goal research
described in Chapters 7 and 8.
You may have noticed that the SOC model does
not specify what goals a person should choose to
pursue. Rather, it focuses only on means. As Baltes
and Freund note, “Criminals and Mafia bosses . . . can
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220 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
be masters of SOC” (2003a, p. 30). In other words,
the model does not address questions about what
goals are good or virtuous, or what means for goal
achievement are acceptable and desirable from
an ethical or a moral point of view. Baltes and his
colleagues argue that it is the role of wisdom to determine
what goals and what means are the most important
and morally desirable. “Wisdom provides a
selector concerning which goals and means are
of fundamental significance in the life course and,
in addition, are ethically and morally desirable”
(Baltes & Freund, 2003a, p. 34). In other words,
because of the breadth and depth of their understanding
of life and virtue, wise people would be
expected to devote themselves to personally meaningful
goals that contribute both to their own good
and to the common good.
In summary, a good life, from the perspective
of wisdom in action, may be described as infusing
effective life management strategies with the knowledge
and virtue of wisdom. In the words of Baltes
and Freund (2003a, p. 33), “. . . we propose that
wisdom, the knowledge of the fundamental pragmatics
of life, be viewed as a desirable end state
of human development that can be lived and
implemented through selective optimization with
Focus on Theory: Wisdom
or Self-Control as Master Virtues?
It is easy to think of wisdom as a master virtue. The
development of wisdom would seem to include a
concomitant development of other virtuous behaviors
such as compassion, kindness, humility, fairness,
and prudence. In fact, we think of wise people
as wise, largely because they embody multiple
virtues. It is somewhat harder to think of a single
other virtue that has this foundational quality.
However, Baumeister and Exline (1999) argue that
self-control might also be a candidate for master
virtue status. They describe self-control as the
“moral muscle” behind many virtuous behaviors.
Their thesis is built on a number of interrelated and
empirically-grounded arguments (see Chapter 8 for
a review of self-control research).
Baumeister and Exline are among an increasing
number of psychologists who believe that explorations
of morality and virtue have been neglected by
psychologists. Virtue and morality are highly important
personal qualities that may be more defining of
an individual’s identity than the traits studied by personality
psychologists. For example, they note that
people regard moral traits such as honesty, trustworthiness,
and fidelity, as among the most desirable
qualities for a potential spouse.
One important function of morality and virtue
is to facilitate the development and maintenance of
harmonious relationships, which are critically
important to the well-being of individuals and society.
Major research reviews conclude that the need
to belong is one of the most fundamental human
motives, the fulfillment of which is a foundation for
well-being (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995). A major
impediment to relationship harmony occurs when
people pursue self-interested needs at the expense
of their relationships. This might involve relations
between individuals, or between individuals and the
broader society. The crucial role of morality within
cultures, and virtue within individuals, is to control
selfish interests for the sake of the greater common
good. Much of what we regard as virtuous behavior
and much of what we know about successful relationships
involves putting needs of others ahead of
your own. Restraining self-interest means exerting
self-control. Baumeister and Exline believe that selfcontrol
is the psychological foundation for most
virtues and that the opposite of virtue, namely sin
and vice, result from failed self-control.
As Baumeister and Exline note, self-control
failure seems clearly involved in the Seven Deadly
Sins described in Christian theology: gluttony,
sloth, greed, lust, envy, anger, and pride. Each of
these sins and vices exemplifies one or another
form of failed control: gluttony by self-indulgence
and excessive pursuit of pleasure; sloth or laziness
by failed initiative and self-motivation; greed, lust,
and envy by selfish and exploitive dealings with
others centered on gratifying only individual
needs; anger by lack of emotional restraint and
impulse control; and pride by self-aggrandizement
at the expense of others.
The relation of sin to failed self-control finds a
counterpart in the connection between virtue and
the exertion of self-control. For example, prudence
refers to reasoned action guided by consideration of
long-term implications rather than immediate needs
or opportunities. Delay of gratification and staying
on course with a long-term goal in mind are central
features of self-control and self-regulation. Similarly,
justice requires control of self-interest in upholding
standards of conduct aimed at the common good.
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 221
The virtue of temperance (which refers to exercising
emotional restraint and avoiding excesses) also
clearly requires self-control.
In addition to its links with specific virtues,
self-control and self-regulation also help explain
how virtue may guide behavior. Recall from
Chapter 8 that self-regulation involves monitoring
and changing behavior in relationship to a standard.
Applied to personal goals this means establishing
a goal, monitoring progress, and altering
actions and the self over time to achieve a goal.
Baumeister and Exline argue that virtue’s role in
behavior fits this same general pattern. Most of us
aspire to be morally responsible people. Each of us
has moral standards that can be used to monitor
our ongoing behavior. If we maintain some level of
self-awareness, we know the extent to which our
actions are consistent or inconsistent with our standards.
Feelings of guilt are clear signals of inconsistency.
Self-control is required in order to conform
to our own standards, rather than giving in to temptations
or momentary emotional impulses. It is this
self-control that keeps behavior in line with moral
standards that Baumeister and Exline believe is the
“moral muscle” underlying virtue; thus, virtue is
dependent on self-control. “Vice signifies failure of
self-control, whereas virtue involves the consistent,
disciplined exercise of self control. Self-control can
fairly be regarded as the master virtue” (Baumeister
& Exline, 1999, p. 1189).
The Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl (1976/1959) was an early psychiatrist
who argued that finding meaning in life was essential
for survival. Frankl’s argument was based on his
experiences as a prisoner in multiple Nazi death
camps during World War II. His observations convinced
him that surviving the horrors of the camps
depended, in large part, upon people’s ability to
make sense of their experience; that is, their ability
to find some sustaining meaning and hopeful vision
for the future. The fact that many in the death
camps did find such meaning was testimony to
humans’ ability to find meaningfulness, even in the
face of immense suffering. Following Frankl’s lead,
many psychologists have come to regard the pursuit
of meaning as a central feature of human life
(e.g., Baumeister, 1991). Humans are “meaning
makers” in the sense of seeking and creating an
understanding of the specific and broader purposes
of life (Bruner, 1990).
The importance of meaning may reflect a connection
to basic human needs. In his book,
Meanings of Life, Roy Baumeister (1991) describes
four needs that underlie the pursuit of meaning: purpose,
value, self-efficacy, and self-worth. These four
needs help explain the basis for people’s motivation
to find meaning in life, but they do not specify the
specific sources of need satisfaction. The sources of
need satisfaction (and thus, of meaning) are, to some
extent, interchangeable. Baumeister gives the example
of career women who leave work to have children.
If raising children becomes a significant source
of personal meaning, the desire to return to their
careers may fade. The life meaning involved in a
career has been replaced or interchanged with that
of raising children. This interchangeability also
applies to religion, although Baumeister acknowledges
that most religious people would find ridiculous
or offensive the idea that their religion is
interchangeable with another. Baumeister’s point is
that, at a conceptual level, all religions seem to serve
similar psychological purposes, despite beliefs in the
unique positive qualities of “my” religion expressed
by adherents.
The need for purpose refers to a desire for
direction in life. Organizing life around the pursuit
of personally significant goals and ideal end states
are major ways people fulfill their need for purpose
(see Chapter 7). Working on, making progress
toward, and achieving important goals and ideals
are important sources of meaning. A second need is
for value. The need for value is fulfilled by finding
justifications for actions that affirm the positive value
of one’s life. People want to believe their actions are
“right” or “good” as judged by a system of values.
Values and codes of conduct provide standards for
judging right, wrong, moral and immoral acts and
provide guideposts for evaluating specific actions
and the overall quality of life.
A third need is for a sense of self-efficacy.
People need to feel that they have control over the
things that happen to them so that life does not
seem chaotic, capricious, and beyond their control.
Meeting challenges and accomplishing goals are two
major ways that people develop feelings of selfefficacy.
Control may take the form of changing the
environment to meet individual needs and goals, or
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222 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
changing the self in order to adapt to the environment
when the environment cannot be changed
(see Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982, and the
introduction to Chapter 8 in this textbook). An
important form of control, particularly relevant to
religion and spirituality, is interpretive control. As
Baumeister notes, being able to understand why
things occur is an important source of meaning.
Even if we cannot change the outcome, finding
meaningful interpretations for life events contributes
to a sense of control and provides a basis for adaptation
to life’s challenges. For example, accepting
the reality of death may be easier for people who
believe life and death are part of God’s plan and
that heaven awaits them after they die.
Self-worth is the fourth basis for meaning.
Self-worth reflects people’s need for positive selfevaluation
and self-esteem (see Chapter 9). Unlike
values, which are tied primarily to morality, a sense
of self-worth may be based on a variety of nonmoral
qualities and activities. Talents, accomplishments,
recognition and admiration from others, and
favorable social comparisons (i.e., doing better than
others) may all contribute to a sense of self-worth.
The four needs provide a way of thinking
about the psychological foundations of a meaningful
life and the role religion plays in addressing
what Emmons (1999a) called people’s “ultimate
concerns”—the highest-order meanings of human
existence. From Baumeister’s perspective, life is
likely to be experienced as meaningful when people
have a strong sense of purpose, clear values for
making moral judgments, beliefs in their own selfefficacy/
control, and a positive sense of self-worth.
In contrast, a less meaningful or meaningless life
results from the loss of sustaining purpose, confusion
about values, loss of perceived control, and
feelings of low self-worth. Meaning and meaningfulness
exist at different levels, from the relatively concrete
and here-and-now actions of daily life to the
abstract and enduring (eternal) meanings of human
existence. Religion and spirituality offer satisfaction
of each the four needs at the highest level of meaning.
As Baumeister notes, religion defines the purpose
of life, provides a code of moral values, offers
interpretive control by explaining the meaning and
origins of life, and provides a basis for self-worth
within a religious framework (e.g., affirmation by
fellow believers, God’s love of the faithful).
As mentioned above, Baumeister regards religions
as being, to some extent, interchangeable in
their ability to satisfy the four needs for meaning.
Despite differences in beliefs, doctrines, and practices,
major world religions and spiritual traditions
appear to share a common set of core features, and
seem to serve a common set of human needs.
Anthropologist Joseph Campbell has probably done
more than anyone to promote an understanding of
the universal aspects of religion for a broad cultural
audience. In his best selling books, The Power of
Myth (1988) and Myths to Live By (1993), and his
widely watched and praised PBS series on the
Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Campbell has
described the universal questions of existence
addressed by Eastern and Western religions, and the
power of religion’s answers to guide and transform
people’s lives.
Religion provides answers to fundamental
questions concerning human existence. How did
life and the universe begin? What happens after
you die? What is the purpose of life on earth? What
moral values should guide human actions?
Certainly religion is not the only basis for addressing
these questions. Science, nature, and humanitarian
philosophies may also provide answers. It is
also true that some percentage of people are simply
not interested in, or do not believe that there
are answers to, life’s ultimate mysteries. Yet, survey
research suggests that the vast majority of
Americans address these questions from a spiritual
or religious perspective (see Gallup & Lindsay,
1999, for reviews and Chapter 6 in Spilka, Hood,
Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003). In national surveys
over the last 50 years, between 90 and 95% of
Americans said they believed in God or a higher
power and nearly 90% say they pray. Nearly 70%
are members of a church or synagogue and 40%
report regular attendance. Polls also show that
60% of Americans said religion was very important
in their lives and another 26 to 30% report that
religion is fairly important. Religious affiliations in
the United States are dominated by the Protestant
and Roman Catholic faiths. Summarizing data from
the U.S. Census Bureau, Spilka and his colleagues
(2003) report that in 1999, the breakdown of religious
affiliations was as follows: 55% of Americans
identified themselves as Protestants; 28% as
Roman Catholics; 2% as Jewish; 6% as “other”; and
8% reported no religious affiliation. Interestingly,
the percentage of people in the United States
who believe in God is higher than in most
European countries (see Table 10.4). All these
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 223
TABLE 10.4 Percentages of people in various countries who believe in God
and have had religious experiences
Country Belief in God (%) Religious experience (%)
United States 95 41
Czech Republic 6 11
Denmark 57 15
France 52 24
Great Britain 69 16
Hungary 65 17
Ireland 95 13
Italy 86 31
Netherlands 57 22
Northern Ireland 92 26
Norway 59 16
Poland 94 16
Russia 52 13
Spain 82 19
Sweden 54 12
Source: Spilka, B., Hood, R. W., Jr., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R. (2003). The psychology of religion: An
empirical approach. New York: Guilford Press. Copyright The Guilford Press. Reprinted by permission.
statistics speak to the importance of religion in
American individual and cultural life.
Religion and Spirituality: The Diversity
of Views
Defining religion and spirituality are formidable tasks.
At the operational level, researchers often bypass definitional
complexities by relying on global self-report
measures (see Tsang & McCullough, 2003, for a review
of measurement issues). People might be asked to rate
their degree of religiousness, report on their frequency
of church attendance, or indicate their denominational
affiliation. Despite the fact that these global measures
are often found to bear significant relationships to
health and well-being, they do not tell us much about
what it means to be religious, nor do they distinguish
spirituality from other concerns in life. For example, a
person might go to church primarily because it’s a
congenial social activity and not because of religious
commitments or concern with spirituality.
Empirical studies affirm the diversity of views
among social scientists, clergy, and lay-persons concerning
what it means to be religious (e.g.,
Zinnbauer et al., 1997). For example, Pargament and
his colleagues (Pargament, Tarakeshwar, Ellison, &
Wulff, 2001) asked college students and clergy
members to rate the degree of religiousness for 100
profiles of hypothetical people. Each profile represented
a different combination of 10 cues, such as
church attendance, frequency of prayer and meditation,
feeling God’s presence, monetary donations to
a church, knowledge of church doctrines, personal
benefits from religious beliefs (comfort, support,
and meaning), and altruistic acts of giving. Every
individual in the study showed a relatively consistent
reliance on certain cues in making her or his
judgments. However, there was little consensus
among or between students and clergy on exactly
which cues indicate a “religious person.” Among
students, personal benefits were used by a narrow
55% majority and among clergy, 86% relied on
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224 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
church attendance as an important cue in rating a
persons’ degree of religiousness. With these two
exceptions, religiousness meant very different things
to different individual participants.
Researchers have struggled to develop definitions
that are specific enough to capture what is
unique and distinctive about religion and spirituality,
but broad enough to apply to all or most religions.
Given the diversity of views, it is clear that
no single definition of religion and spirituality will
be satisfactory to all scholars or individual religious
practitioners. This state of affairs is succinctly
captured in a frequently cited quote by
Yinger (1967): “any definition of religion is likely
to be satisfactory only to its author” (p. 18).
However, empirical and conceptual work in the
psychology of religion has expanded dramatically
over the last decade. Prominent researchers in the
field have begun to find some common ground in
the variety of definitions offered by individual
researchers and theorists (e.g., Emmons, 1999a,
1999b; Hill & Pargament, 2003, Hill et al., 2000;
Pargament, 1997; Zinnbauer, Pargament, & Scott,
1999; Zinnbauer et al., 1997).
At the center of recent conceptualizations is the
relationship between religion and spirituality. Within
psychology, since the classic work of William James
(1985) (The Varieties of Religious Experience), religion
has been regarded as having both an institutional
meaning and an individual meaning. As an
institution, religion is an organized set of beliefs,
practices, doctrines, and places of worship (e.g.,
churches or synagogues) associated with the different
world religions and their denominations. The
individual meaning of religion concerns the personal
side of faith, defined by a person’s unique relationship,
experiences, and activities with the object of
her or his faith (e.g., God, a religious doctrine, a revelation,
God’s love, and Ultimate Truth).
In recent times, the complementary and overlapping
relationship between the individual and
institutional aspects of religion has been defined as
more dichotomous, particularly in American culture
(Hill et al., 2000; Zinnbauer et al., 1999). You have
probably heard someone say that he or she is “spiritual,
but not religious.” Spirituality has, more and
more, come to define the subjective, individual
aspects of religious experience, while religion refers
to the fixed doctrines and practices of organized religions.
The separation of religion and spirituality
was particularly prominent within American culture
during the 1960s. The “counter-culture” that emerged
from the youthful days of the baby-boomer generation
was highly critical of established institutions,
including religion. Religion became associated with
dogma, authoritarianism, blind faith, and conformity.
Many baby boomers left established religions in
apparent agreement with humanistic psychologists,
like Abraham Maslow (1968), who argued that spiritual
concerns could be pursed outside of traditional
religions. Many of the “New Age” philosophies that
developed during this period appealed to baby
boomers’ spiritual needs and desire for growth without
formal ties to traditional religions. Many psychologists
believe that the separation of spirituality and
religion within popular culture has led to an unfortunate
polarization (e.g., Hill & Pargament, 2003; Hill
et al., 2000; Zinnbauer et al., 1999). Individual spirituality
is regarded as “good” and institutional religion
as “bad,” from the perspective of a person’s individual
character and development. Some psychologists
have even regarded religion as an impediment to
spiritual understanding (see Hill et al., 2000;
Zinnbauer et al., 1999, for reviews).
The need to explore the interrelationship of
spirituality and religion is suggested by empirical
studies showing that most people, at least within the
United States, consider themselves both religious
and spiritual. This was clearly shown in a study by
Zinnbauer and colleagues (1997). The 346 participants
in the study represented a variety of religious
backgrounds and ranged in age from 15 to 84, with
a mean age of 40. One measure in the study asked
participants to choose one of four statements that
best defined their religiousness and spirituality
(Zinnbauer et al., 1997). The choices were: “I am
spiritual and religious; I am spiritual but not religious;
I am religious but not spiritual; I am neither
spiritual nor religious” (p. 553). A strong majority of
the participants (74%) endorsed the religious and
spiritual statement; 19% described themselves as
spiritual but not religious; 4% as religious but not
spiritual; and 3% as neither spiritual nor religious.
Participants were also asked about the relationship
between religiousness and spirituality. Only a small
percentage (6.7%) indicated that religiousness and
spirituality were completely different, with no overlap
in meaning, or endorsed a belief that they were
the same concept and overlapped completely
(2.6%). Overall, this study suggests two major conclusions.
First, most people do distinguish between
religiousness and spirituality. Second, a majority of
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 225
people identify themselves as both religious and
Zinnbauer and his colleagues also investigated
differences between the 74% of people who identified
themselves as spiritual and religious (SR group)
and the 19% of people who considered themselves
spiritual but not religious (SnR group). Interestingly,
the SnR group fit the general profile of baby
boomers. Compared to the SR group, they grew up
with parents who attended church less frequently,
were more educated and individualistic, were less
likely to hold orthodox or traditional Christian
beliefs, were more likely to be agnostic and hold
non-traditional “New Age” beliefs, and were somewhat
more likely to have a negative conception of
religiousness as reflecting a need to feel superior to
others, or as something people pursue for extrinsic
reasons (such as social image and status). The SR
group was associated with church attendance, frequency
of prayer, and orthodox religious beliefs.
These results are generally in line with a recent
study that found that the personality and social attitude
profiles of “spiritual-but-not-religious” people
were very different than those who held more traditional
religious beliefs (Saucier & Skrzypinska,
2006). Taken in total, these findings suggest both
differences and commonalities in people’s understanding
of religion and spirituality. The most recent
work in the psychology of religion acknowledges
the many differences, but focuses on what religion
and spirituality seem to have in common for the
majority of people.
Defining Religion and Spirituality
Recent conceptualizations attempt to tie together
rather than separate the meaning of religion and
spirituality (see Hill & Pargament, 2003; Hill et al.,
2000; Pargament, 1997, 1999; Zinnbauer et al.,
1999). Pargament’s (1997) work, summarized in his
insightful book, The Psychology of Religion and
Coping, appears particularly influential in recent
definitions of religion and spirituality. Pargament’s
analysis begins with a seemingly straightforward
question: What makes religion special? What is the
essential quality that distinguishes religion from
other domains and concerns of life? Based on his
review and synthesis of previous work, Pargament
concluded that it is the unique substance and function
of religion that makes it special. Substantively,
the defining essence of religion is the sacred. The
sacred refers to things set apart from ordinary life
because of their connection to God, the holy, the
divine; to transcendent forces, Ultimate Truths and
Ultimate Reality. The sacred evokes a sense of awe,
respect, reverence, and veneration. It encompasses
the beliefs, practices, and feelings relating to a
higher being and ultimate truth of existence.
In addition to its sacred substance, religion is
also distinguished by its distinctive function in people’s
lives. Religion is not just a set of beliefs and practices;
it also involves how these beliefs are used to
answer life’s most profound questions and cope with
life’s most difficult challenges. Religion addresses existential
questions concerning the meaning of life and
its inevitable pain, tragedies, suffering, injustices, and
the finality of death. People’s religious beliefs exert
powerful influence on the ways in which they cope
with these fundamental problems of existence and
find significance and meaning in life.
Pargament attempts to combine substance and
function in his definition of religion and spirituality.
He defines religion as “a search for significance in
ways related to the sacred” (1997, p. 32), and
spirituality as a “search for the sacred” (1997, p. 39).
“Search” incorporates a functional view of religion
and spirituality as a means to address life’s most
important questions. “Sacred” identifies the special
substance of this search that distinguishes religion and
spirituality from other life domains. In this conception,
religion is the broader concept because it includes
both sacred and secular purposes (Pargament, 1999;
Pargament & Mahoney, 2002). The “search for significance”
in a religious context (i.e., ways related to
the sacred) overlaps with secular routes and means.
Religion serves a variety of purposes, not all of which
are sacred in nature. For example, many people
find caring, supportive relationships through their
churches. They could also find such relationships in
private clubs or community organizations. Church
relationships are “related” to the sacred but not necessarily
sacred themselves. “Significance” is meant to
include the many individual variations in the meaning
of this term, including those related to the four needs
for meaning described earlier. Through religion, people
might seek peace of mind, a sense of worth, selfcontrol,
intimacy, caring relationships, life direction, or
personal growth. Again, these forms of significance
may or may not be regarded as sacred.
The unique and distinctive function of
religion is defined by spirituality. The “sacred”
connects the search for significance to the special
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226 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
understandings associated with a religious perspective.
People are spiritual to the extent “. . . that they
are trying to find, know, experience, or relate to
what they perceive as sacred” (Pargament &
Mahoney, 2002, p. 648). The immaterial world of
the sacred stands in general contrast to the profane
world of material objects and forces. However,
profane objects may become sacred if they
are imbued with sacred meaning. Pargament calls
this transformation of meaning sanctification,
which is described as “the perception of an object
as having spiritual significance and character”
(Pargament & Mahoney, 2002, p. 649). Almost any
ordinary object can take on sacred symbolic meaning.
Food in the form of a wafer is a scared sacrament
in many religious ceremonies. Water used in
baptism is regarded as Holy water when blessed by
a priest. Many Americans consider the American
flag to be a sacred symbol deserving reverence.
Respect for the flag is embodied in laws that
punish its destruction and desecration.
When secular objects are imbued with sacred
meanings or when secular ends are pursued though
sacred means, people are likely to be more respectful,
protective, and caring. For example, a satisfying
marriage is a goal for many people, whether or not
they are religious. However, married couples who
think of their marriage in religious or sacred terms
have transformed their relationship into one with
sacred significance. Interestingly, one study found
that couples who thought of their marriage as sacred
reported greater marital satisfaction, more constructive
problem-solving, less conflict, and greater commitment
to the marriage, compared to couples who
ascribed a lower degree of sacredness to their marriages
(Mahoney et al., 1999).
In Pargament’s conception, religion is not limited
to organized religions, and spirituality is not
limited to belief in God. There are multiple pathways
in the search for the sacred. As Pargament and
Mahoney put it “. . . the sacred can be found on earth
as well as in heaven” (2002, p. 649). The search for
the sacred would include such things as mediation;
the transcendent beliefs that are part of the
Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step program; Native
American Indians’ reverent and spiritual view of animals
and the environment; Scientology; and a variety
of other personal searches focused on the sacred.
Spiritual practices devoted to the sacred are similarly
diverse. Among those mentioned by Pargament and
Mahoney (2002) are praying, engaging in traditional
religious practices, reading the Bible, and watching
religious television programs, listening to music,
appreciating art, and engaging in social actions and
educational opportunities that are directed toward
sacred goals.
Pargament (1999) does not regard religion
and spirituality as universally good. His definitions
allow for the many uses and abuses of
sacred means and ends, from the tyranny and
oppression of faith-based governments to the
schemes of some religious groups that con people
out of their money through false promises and
devious means. The value of spirituality and religion
clearly depend on their particular form
and use. Like any other complex system of beliefs
and practices, people can use them for both
constructive and destructive purposes, and can
experience both negative and positive outcomes
(see Exline, 2002).
Religion/Spirituality and Well-Being
Given the diversity of religions and forms of spirituality,
it would be somewhat surprising to find a general
relationship between religion/spirituality and
well-being. This is particularly true considering that
most studies employ global measures of selfreported
religiousness, such as frequency of church
attendance and religious affiliation. These global
assessments do not get at the specific aspects of
people’s religious orientation, depth of commitment,
or the function of religion/spirituality in their lives.
However, a number of major reviews by prominent
researchers have concluded that religion does have
a small, but consistent positive relationship to measures
of health and well-being. On average, religious
people are found to be happier and more satisfied
with life (Argyle, 2001; Diener & Clifton, 2002;
Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Myers, 2000a,
2000b; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Studies that
measure degrees of religious involvement, such as
“closeness to God,” “spiritual strivings”, or “spiritual
commitment,” generally find that higher levels of
religious commitment are related to higher levels of
life satisfaction (Argyle, 2001; Emmons, 1999b;
Myers, 2000a). The positive connection of religion
and happiness is somewhat stronger among the elderly.
Interestingly, for children and adolescents, religious
involvement is associated with less
delinquency, less alcohol and drug abuse, and a
lower incidence of early sexual activity.
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 227
In their Handbook of Religion and Health,
Koenig, McCullough, and Larson (2001) provide an
extensive review of the relationship between religious
involvement and health outcomes. Mental
health outcomes included the presence or absence of
depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, alcohol and
drug abuse, delinquency, and marital instability.
Physical health outcomes included longevity and the
presence or absence of heart disease, hypertension,
and cancer. Overall, the preponderance of evidence
supported positive benefits of religious involvement.
The most consistent results are found for physical
health. Results for mental health have been somewhat
mixed, and some studies have found isolated
negative effects. However, the mental health
evidence is generally positive, leading Koenig and
colleagues (2001) to conclude that “. . . for the vast
majority of people, the apparent benefits of devout
religious belief and practices probably outweigh
the risks” (p. 228) (see also Worthington, Kurusu,
McCullough, & Sandage, 1996).
Four major variables are typically used to
assess religiousness/spirituality in research (George,
Ellison, & Larson, 2002). These are: church attendance
and participation in religious activities (prayer
and study groups), affiliation with a major religion
and/or denomination (e.g., Protestant, Lutheran,
Methodist, etc.), private religious practices such as
prayer, meditation, and Bible reading, and the use of
religion to cope with stressful and challenging life
events. In their review, George and her colleagues
(2002) note that of these four variables, attendance
at religious services shows the strongest positive
correlations with physical and mental health and
with longevity. People who attend church on a regular
basis (once a week or more) have been found
to enjoy better overall health, recover more quickly
from sickness, and live longer than less frequent
church attendees. Studies that track the course of illness
over time find that religious coping is the most
powerful predictor. That is, people who rely on
their religious beliefs as a means of coping with illness
recover more quickly, and are more likely to
survive their illness, and to recover from major medical
procedures (e.g., coronary bypass surgery).
To be convincing, the religion–health connection
needs to remain after other health prediction variables
are factored out or controlled (George et al., 2002;
Koenig & Cohen, 2002; McCullough & Laurenceau,
2005; Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003). Potential
competing variables would include, age, sex, race,
marital status, smoking, obesity, existing medical
conditions, social class, level of education, and stress
from social circumstances (such as poverty). Recent
studies have found that a sizable effect of religiousness
still remains after the effects of these variables have
been statistically controlled. For example, a welldesigned
longitudinal study found a 23% lower death
rate among people who attended church once a week
or more (Strawbridge, Cohen, Shema, & Kaplan, 1997).
This study examined the health histories of over 5,000
adult community members for nearly three decades
(28 years). The lower rate of mortality among frequent
church attendees remained after the usual predictors of
survival (assessed at the beginning of the study) were
factored out. A number of other large-scale longitudinal
studies also affirm that the connection between
frequent church attendance and a longer and healthier
life remains, even after other health and longevity
predictors are controlled (see Koenig & Cohen, 2002;
Koenig et al., 2001, for recent reviews).
What might explain the health benefits of religion?
Researchers have suggested a number of possible
mechanisms and pathways. The literature
evaluating the potential mediators of religion and
health is in an early stage of development. The factors
discussed here must be viewed as potential,
rather than well-established, empirically validated
explanations. In their review, George and colleagues
(2002) focused on improved health practices,
increased social support, availability of psychosocial
resources, and an enhanced sense of meaning in life
as major mediating factors helping to explain the
religion–health relationship. Each of these will be
explored further in the sections that follow.
HEALTH PRACTICES Some religions include clear prescriptions
for good health. For example, the Mormon
religion explicitly prohibits smoking, drinking, and
sex outside of marriage. Many other religions promote
a sacred view of the body as “temple of the
soul.” This belief may encourage care and concern
about maintaining good physical and mental wellbeing
by giving personal health a special and sacred
significance. Support for the role of religion in good
health-care practices comes from studies showing
that, on average, regular church attendees smoke less
and are less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs.
SOCIAL SUPPORT The caring and supportive relationships
that develop through church membership
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228 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
may be one of the most significant sources of health
benefits. Religion and church attendance can provide
a stable and long-term basis for strong support
from others who share the same spiritual commitment.
Religious support might provide a number of
benefits, such as practical help in time of need, an
enduring source of comfort, and a buffer against the
effects of stress in times of crisis. Hill and Pargament
(2003) note that social support might be enhanced
by its religious basis. We may take special comfort in
knowing that people are praying for us, or from a
belief that God is working through others on our
Religious/spiritual beliefs can provide a basis for a
transcendent sense of personal worth, efficacy, mastery,
and purpose in life. People with strong spiritual
strivings report higher levels of satisfaction, a greater
sense of purpose in life, and higher levels of wellbeing
(e.g., Emmons, Cheung, & Tehrani, 1998).
Studies have linked religious affiliation to optimism
and hope (Koenig & Cohen, 2002). Positive emotions
such as joy are frequently associated with attendance
at church and other religious activities (Argyle,
2001). Taken together, and in light of Fredrickson’s
broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions
(Chapter 3) and the role of positive attitudes in coping
and health (Chapter 9), these findings suggest
that religious beliefs may provide an important
source of personal strength that promotes health and
enhances people’s coping resources. In addition, as
we noted earlier, religion/spirituality offers a unique
and special source of meaning concerning the ultimate
questions of human existence. A sacred understanding
of life and death may be a particularly
powerful source of strength and meaning when confronting
a life-threatening event or illness.
Religious Orientation
Religious involvement generally seems to have positive
benefits. However, this conclusion requires several
qualifications. First, the study of religion has
been largely limited to North American samples that
are dominated by Protestants and Catholics and their
various denominations. There are few empirical studies
of Middle Eastern (e.g., Muslim, Hindu) or Far
Eastern religions (e.g., Shintoism, Buddhism). Further,
people of Jewish faith in the United States have
received little research attention. Whether current
findings apply to all, most, or only some religious traditions
is still an open question. Secondly, the “average”
benefits of religion are not the whole story. A
balanced presentation must also point out the potential
misuses of religion and the possibilities for negative
outcomes (see Exline, 2002). Throughout history
and the contemporary world, all manner of mayhem
and atrocities have been committed in the name of
religion and with “God on our side.” Scholars may
never sort out the paradoxes of religion. For psychologists,
Peterson (2006) probably summed up the
prevalent sentiment when he commented that distinguishing
between “good” and “bad” religion is
“. . . dangerous territory into which I care not to
enter” (p. 291). However, at the individual level, psychologists
have encountered puzzling and contradictory
effects of religion in their empirical studies. In an
attempt to account for these varied outcomes,
researchers have focused on differences in people’s
orientation toward their religion.
Gordon Allport was an early psychologist who
investigated the puzzling relationships between religion
and prejudicial attitudes. In his classic book,
The Nature of Prejudice, Allport concluded that “The
role of religion is paradoxical. It makes prejudice
and it unmakes prejudice. While the creeds of the
great religions are universalistic, all stressing brotherhood,
the practice of these creeds is frequently
divisive and brutal” (1958, p. 413). That is, most religions
preach tolerance and compassion toward others,
but these teachings do not necessarily affect the
prejudices of religious followers. The empirical basis
for this paradox involves attitude surveys showing
that churchgoers tend to be more prejudiced against
various groups (e.g., African Americans, Jews) than
people who do not attend church. Major reviews of
attitude studies affirm the positive correlation
between church attendance and prejudiced attitudes
(e.g., Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993; Wulf,
1997). Allport noted that if religion itself was the
cause of prejudice, then the most religious people
should be the most prejudiced (Allport & Ross,
1967). However, he pointed out that available studies
did not support this conclusion. Many studies
suggested that people who attended church frequently
were less prejudiced than infrequent attendees.
If we take frequency of church attendance as a
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 229
measure of religious commitment and exposure to
religious influence, then the most religious appear
to be the least prejudiced among those with religious
affiliations. Since Allport’s original work, this
latter point has become a source of controversy
among researchers (see Chapter 14 in Spilka et al.,
To unravel the religion–prejudice relationship,
Allport distinguished between an intrinsic and
extrinsic religious orientation. This distinction has to
do with the differing means, ends, and functions of
people’s individual religious beliefs and practices.
The extrinsic orientation describes people who
“use” their religion for non-religious purposes, such
as to engage in a congenial social activity or to
maintain a favorable social status in the community.
The intrinsic orientation describes those who “live”
their religion and embrace its fundamental teachings.
Allport and Ross (1967) developed a scale to
measure these two orientations and reported that, as
a group, extrinsically oriented people were significantly
more prejudiced than people with an intrinsic
orientation. In the concluding discussion of their
study, Allport and Ross (1967) summarized the
intrinsic–extrinsic difference and how it explains the
apparent paradox of religion and prejudice, as
quoted below.
Extrinsic Religious Orientation.
“. . . A person with an extrinsic religious
orientation is using his religious views to
provide security, comfort, status, or
social support for himself—religion is
not a value in its own right, it serves
other needs, and is a purely utilitarian
formation. Now prejudice too is a ‘useful’
formation; it too provides security,
comfort, status, and social support. A life
dependent on the supports of extrinsic
religion is likely to be dependent on the
supports of prejudice, hence our positive
correlations between the extrinsic
orientation and intolerance” (Allport &
Ross, 1967, p. 441).
Intrinsic Religious Orientation.
Continuing to quote Allport and Ross,
“Contrariwise, the intrinsic religious orientation
is not an instrumental device. It
is not a mere mode of conformity, nor a
crutch, nor a tranquilizer, nor a bid for
status. All needs are subordinated to an
overarching religious commitment. In
internalizing the total creed of his religion
the individual necessarily internalizes
its values of humility, compassion,
and love of neighbor. In such a life
(where religion is an intrinsic and dominant
value) there is no place for rejection,
contempt or condescension toward
one’s fellow man” (Allport & Ross, 1967,
p. 441).
Originally focused on prejudice, the intrinsic–
extrinsic orientation measure has become one of
the most frequently used assessments of religiousness.
Several revised versions of the original scale
have been developed (e.g., Gorsuch & McPherson,
1989; Hoge, 1972). Research suggests that people’s
religious orientation is an important variable in the
relationship between religion and well-being,
particularly regarding mental health (see Batson
et al., 1993; Worthington et al., 1996, for examples).
Whether religiousness enhances or has no
effect on mental health and other well-being
variables (such as quality of family life, drug
abuse, and self-esteem) seems to depend in part
on the intrinsic–extrinsic orientation. A higher
intrinsic orientation is generally associated with
positive outcomes. For example, a recent study
found a positive association between intrinsic religiousness
and life satisfaction, but no association
between extrinsic religiousness and satisfaction
(Salsman, Brown, Brechting, & Carlson, 2005).
Higher degrees of optimism and social support
among intrinsically religious people partially
accounted for the enhanced life satisfaction.
People with an intrinsic religious orientation were
more optimistic in outlook and enjoyed greater
social support from others, compared to people
with a more extrinsic orientation.
Quest Religious Orientation. Though widely
accepted, Allport’s original conception and measure
of intrinsic–extrinsic religious orientations is
not without its critics (see Pargament, 1997, for a
detailed review; Spilka et al., 2003, Chapter 14).
Regarding religion and prejudice, subsequent
researchers noted that an intrinsic orientation is
only related to decreased prejudice if a person’s
religious beliefs and community condemn prejudice
toward certain groups (e.g., gays and
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230 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
lesbians). If prejudice is not prohibited, or if prejudice
is given religious sanction, the intrinsic orientation
is associated with increased, rather than
decreased prejudice (e.g., Herek, 1987). Batson
and his colleagues have addressed this issue by
developing a third dimension of religious orientation
they call “quest religious orientation” (Batson
et al., 1993), and they constructed a 12-item scale
to measure this orientation. A quest religious orientation
refers to a complex, flexible, and tentative
view of religion and spirituality. More
emphasis is placed on the search for religious
truths than on obtaining or accepting clear-cut
answers. People with a quest orientation appreciate
and are willing to confront and struggle to
understand the complexities of religion and the
world. They are skeptical and doubtful about simple
or “final” answers to life’s biggest questions. A
strong quest religious orientation has consistently
been associated with lower levels of prejudice and
a high degree of sensitivity to the needs of others
that promotes helping those in need (Batson et al.,
1993). Other studies suggest that people who have
both a flexible orientation toward their religion
(high quest orientation) and strong religious commitment
(high intrinsic orientation) have better
physical health and adjustment to negative life
events (McIntosh & Spilka, 1990).
Attachment Theory and Relationship
to God
People’s relationship to God, the divine, the spiritual,
and the transcendent is highly personal. This
relationship may take a variety of forms such as
feeling “God’s presence and love,” the “wrath of
God or of nature,” a sense of awe and wonder, reverence
and respect, security and comfort, inspiration,
fear, guilt, and anxiety. Kirkpatrick (1992)
noted these different images of God and the divine
are quite similar to different images people have of
their parents. Within developmental psychology,
attachment theory has described the nature of
the attachment between parent and child as an
important index of a healthy family and a foundation
for later development. Kirkpatrick proposed
that it might be informative to view God as an
attachment figure. He did not mean to reduce God
to the “father figure” described in the Freudian
conceptualization of religion. Religion offers a
unique and sacred foundation for life, well beyond
the protection and comfort suggested by a
Freudian view of God as a symbolic, benevolent
father. But, like a secure and loving attachment to
parents, a secure relationship with God may also
function as a foundation for exploring life and its
many challenges. Pargament described it this way:
“Armed with the knowledge that protection can
always be found in God’s loving arms, the religious
individual may feel greater confidence venturing
out in the world, searching for other forms of significance”
(Pargament, 1997, p. 355).
An attachment perspective suggests that a
person’s relationship with the divine might show
some correspondence with parental attachment. A
secure relationship with parents might set the
stage for a secure, positive relationship with
God. In a similar vein, insecure and conflicted
relationships with parents might lead to either a
compensating secure attachment to God or to a
relationship to the divine that is also insecure and
conflicted. Studies support a significant connection
between childhood parental attachments and
adult religious attachments (e.g., Birgegard &
Granqvist, 2004; Granqvist, 2002; Kirkpatrick &
Shaver, 1990). Studies also show that people’s
self-identified attachment style is related to measures
of well-being. Kirkpatrick and Shaver asked a
sample of community adults to select which of
three attachment styles best described their own
relationship to God. The three styles were
described as quoted below (with labels removed
for study participants).
Secure Attachment. “God is generally warm and
responsive to me. He always seems to know when
to be supportive and protective of me, and when to
let me make my own mistakes. My relationship with
God is always comfortable, and I am very happy
and satisfied with it” (Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1992,
p. 270).
Avoidant Attachment. “God is generally impersonal,
distant, and often seems to have little or no
interest in my personal affairs and problems. I frequently
have the feeling that He doesn’t care very
much about me, or that He might not like me”
(Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1992, p. 270).
Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment. “God seems to
be inconsistent in His reactions to me. He sometimes
seems warm and responsive to my needs, but
sometimes not. I’m sure that He loves me and cares
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 231
about me, but sometimes He seems to show it in
ways I don’t really understand” (Kirkpatrick &
Shaver, 1992, p. 270).
Compared to people with a secure religious
attachment, the two insecure attachment styles
(avoidant and anxious/ambivalent) showed lower
self-reported life satisfaction and physical health,
and higher levels of anxiety, feelings of loneliness,
and depression. The attachment-based measure of
religiousness was also found to be a better predictor
of well-being and mental health than several
measures of religiousness commonly used in
Styles of Religious Coping
Our beginning discussion of religion and spirituality
noted the importance of finding meaning in life,
particularly when confronting challenges such
as serious illness and death. An old adage has
it that there are “no atheists in foxholes,” meaning
that almost everyone becomes religious and hopes
that God will save them when confronting his or
her own death. While there probably are some atheists
in foxholes, the saying captures the importance
of spirituality and religion in times of crisis. Because
religion addresses life’s essential meaning, religious
beliefs provide a potentially powerful means of
coping with life’s existential struggles. Like other
aspects of people’s religious beliefs and orientations,
people differ in the particular style of their
religious coping. And just as certain religious orientations
are more beneficial than others, styles of
coping differ in producing positive or negative outcomes.
Kenneth Pargament (1997) has probably
done more than any other psychologist to describe
and evaluate the various ways in which people use
their religious beliefs as coping resources. He notes
that religious coping is clearly tied to the depth of
people’s religious commitment. When religion is a
significant part of people’s overall orientation
toward life, religion becomes an important means of
In their initial work, Pargament and his colleagues
identified three distinct styles of religious
coping and problem-solving (Pargament, 1997;
Pargament et al., 1988). The independence of
each style, the internal coherence of the styles, and
scales to measure each style were validated in an
adult sample of Presbyterian and Lutheran church
Definitions and sample scale items are given
below (from Pargament, 1997, pp. 180–182).
Self-Directing Style. In this approach, people rely
on themselves rather than God to solve their problems.
People maintain their church affiliation, but score low
on measures of religiousness. “When thinking about a
difficulty, I try to come up with possible solutions
without God’s help.” “After I’ve gone through a rough
time, I try to make sense of it without relying on God.”
The self-directing style was associated with a heightened
sense of personal control in life, higher selfesteem,
and a religious quest orientation.
Deferring Style. The deferring style refers to people
who put their problems and responsibility for
solutions in God’s hands. “Rather than trying to come
up with the right solution to a problem myself, I let
God decide how to deal with it.” “When a troublesome
issue arises, I leave it up to God to decide what
it means to me.” This coping style was connected to
more religious orthodoxy (deference to the authority
of church & religion) and an extrinsic religious orientation.
Of the three styles, this deferring approach was
related to the lowest levels of personal competence,
self-esteem, and effective problem-solving. The strong
reliance on an external source of coping may contribute
to feelings of helplessness and passivity.
Collaborative Style. In this style, God and the
individual are active partners in the problem-solving
process. “When it comes to deciding how to solve a
problem, God and I work together as partners.”
“When I have a problem, I talk to God about it and
together we decide what it means.” A collaborative
style was associated with a strong intrinsic religious
orientation and commitment to religious beliefs and
practice. The collaborative approach to problemsolving
showed positive correlations with personal
control, competency, and self-esteem.
Pargament and his colleagues have subsequently
developed a more comprehensive measure
of religious coping that captures the diverse ways in
which people use religion in times of stress and
challenge (Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Smith,
Koenig, & Perez, 1998; Pargament et al., 2001). In
the development and validation of an expanded religious
coping scale (RCOPE), Pargament and colleagues
(1998, 2001) found that coping styles could
be classified as positive or negative based on their
relationship to well-being outcomes. Positive coping
strategies reflected a secure relationship with
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232 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
God and a belief that deeper meanings can be
found in life (including tragedies) and in spiritual
connections with others. Positive coping methods
included benevolent religious appraisals (e.g.,
redefining a stressful situation as beneficial for spiritual
growth), collaborative religious coping, seeking
spiritual support through God’s love and care, seeking
help from clergy or fellow church members, and
spiritual purification (asking God’s forgiveness and
blessing). Negative religious coping reflected a
less secure relationship with God and a more uncertain
and threatening view of the world. Negative
coping methods included negative and punitive religious
appraisals (e.g., tragic events as God’s punishment
for sin or the work of the devil), reappraisals
of God’s powers (doubt about God’s ability to help),
spiritual discontent (confusion and dissatisfaction
with God), interpersonal religious discontent (dissatisfaction
with clergy or church), and deferring religious
coping (passively waiting for God’s solution to
the problem).
The influences of positive and negative religious
coping on well-being outcomes have been
examined in diverse samples: community members
dealing with the Oklahoma City bombing; college
students dealing with life stresses (such as the death
of loved one or a failed romance); people hospitalized
for medical illness; older individuals coping
with serous illness; and members of the clergy
(Pargament et al., 1988, 1998, 2001). Despite the
diversity of the crises in which participants were
involved, results showed a consistent pattern of
good outcomes related to positive coping styles and
neutral to poor outcomes for negative coping styles.
The majority of participants reported using positive
religious coping methods. Positive religious coping
was generally related to higher levels of well-being,
more religious growth, less distress, and better mental
health. Negative religious coping was correlated
with lower levels of well-being and more emotional
distress and depression.
One of Pargament and his colleagues’ studies
(2001) compared clergy members, church elders,
and rank-and-file church members affiliated with the
Presbyterian Church. Interestingly, the impact of
positive and negative coping was strongest for the
clergy members. They enjoyed the greatest benefits
of positive coping, but also suffered more deleterious
effects of negative coping. The overwhelming
majority of clergy members relied primarily on positive
coping methods. However, they also tended to
use more negative coping than the other two groups
in the study. The relationship between negative coping
and depression was particularly strong among
clergy members, compared to church elders and
church members. Why would this be the case?
Pargament and colleagues (2001) suggest that negative
coping may reflect a kind of religious struggle,
in which crises may challenge aspects of an individual’s
religious beliefs. Clergy members’ personal and
professional identities as “men and women of God”
are inextricably tied to their religious convictions.
Doubt about these convictions might be expected to
cause more turmoil for clergy members than for
people whose commitments are not so deep and
whose lives and identities are not so invested in
religion. For the clergy members, “. . . those
who encounter spiritual struggles in times of difficulty
(e.g., feeling that God has abandoned
them, anger at God, religious doubts) may find the
coping process particularly devastating. Religious
professionals and leaders might well experience
such painful struggles to be fundamentally incompatible
with their training and career and thus,
threatening to core aspects of their personal identity”
(Pargament et al., 2001, p. 510).
“Explaining Religion versus Explaining
Religion Away”
The heading of this section is taken from
Pargament’s insightful article titled, “Is Religion
Nothing But . . . .? Explaining Religion versus
Explaining Religion Away” (Pargament, 2002). The
point of the title is to ask whether there is anything
special or unique about religion and spirituality that
cannot be accounted for by psychological, social,
and biological explanations. For example, if we
remove the effects of social support, finding meaning
and purpose in life, increased self-esteem and
competence, and the benefits of positive attitude on
immune-system functioning from the health benefits
of religion, is there anything left over that results
from spirituality alone? The answer to this question
is perhaps one dividing line between spiritual and
non-spiritual people, or between those who believe
religion is “nothing but” and those who believe religion
is a unique dimension of human life.
Psychologists’ answer to this question has
important implications for how religion is studied. If
the effects of religion are entirely mediated by other
factors, such as social support, then only these other
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 233
factors need to be studied. However, if the sacred
dimension of life makes an independent contribution,
psychologists will need to give religion more
serious and thoughtful attention. As we noted, studies
that control for known health-enhancing and
health-detracting factors have found that the benefits
of religion and spirituality are reduced, but not
eliminated. Such findings are suggestive of the distinctive
effects of spirituality. At this point is probably
best to conclude, with Pargament, that the “jury
is still out” on this question.
The Values in Action Project (Peterson & Seligman,
2004) discussed earlier in this chapter drew heavily
on the moral principles embodied in the major religions
of the world. While one can certainly be virtuous
without being religious, religion has provided
an important foundation for thinking about morality,
virtue, and the difference between “right” and
“wrong” conduct in human affairs. Empirical investigations
of the relationship between religion and
virtue are in the beginning stages of development.
Survey researchers do find that religion is related to
more traditionally conservative moral attitudes
toward contemporary issues. Spilka and colleagues
(2003) review studies showing that, on average, the
more religious people are, the more likely they are
to oppose pornography, divorce as a solution to
marital unhappiness, homosexuality and AIDS education,
premarital sex, feminism, and rap music.
Religious people are also more likely to approve of
more severe sentences for criminal offenders, support
censorship of sexual and violent programming
in the mass media, and to be more politically conservative.
Obviously, the problem with these “on
average” findings is that many religious individuals
hold quite liberal political and moral outlooks.
Based on their religious beliefs, many people oppose
the death penalty, seek more compassion for criminal
offenders, and support sex education and AIDS
education. In their research review, Peterson and
Seligman (2004) cite studies supporting a number of
positive associations between religion and virtuous
behaviors such as healthy relationships, forgiveness,
kindness, compassion, altruism, and volunteering in
community service activities. However, they also
note that the general relationship between religious
beliefs and virtue is complicated by individual diversity
in the religion–morality connection and how
individual researchers measure religiousness. As we
saw in our earlier discussion, the effects of religion
and spirituality depend heavily on the particular,
individualized form of people’s religious beliefs and
their level of religious commitment.
That said, research has begun to explore the
connection between virtue and religion and to
examine how virtue functions in individual and
social life, whether or not it has a religious basis.
Forgiveness and gratitude are among the most heavily
researched virtues in recent research. Both figure
prominently in world religions as essential components
of a religious life. Seeking God’s forgiveness
for sin and giving thanks for God’s love, grace, and
blessing are common elements of many religious
traditions and teachings.
Most researchers see the value of forgiveness in terms
of its potential ability to offset the debilitating effects
of the anger and hostility associated with a desire to
avenge the hurtful act of another (Fincham &
Kashdan, 2004; McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen,
2000; McCullough & Witvliet, 2002; Worthington,
1998). Being insulted, betrayed, taken advantage
of, or wronged by others are inevitable, painful
aspects of the human experience. The anger and
resentment created by interpersonal transgressions
can destroy relationships and suspend us in obsessive
rumination over the offense. For example, considerable
research suggests that bad marriages
are typified by needs to “get even,” leading to an endless
cycle of reciprocating negative comments and
actions (Gottman, 1994, 1998; Reis & Gable, 2003).
Forgiveness has the potential to repair relationships
and undo the negative emotions related to revenge
and resentment.
Although there is no consensual definition of forgiveness,
several reviews point to core features shared
among the major conceptualizations (Fincham &
Kashdan, 2004; McCullough et al., 2000; McCullough &
Witvliet, 2002; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Fincham
and Kashdan argue that “at the center of various
approaches to forgiveness is the idea of a freely chosen
motivational transformation in which the desire to
seek revenge and to avoid contact with the transgressor
is lessened, a process sometimes described as an
‘altruistic gift’ ” (p. 618). Most researchers also agree
that forgiveness is distinct from related concepts such
as excusing (concluding that the hurt was not the
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234 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
transgressor’s fault or intention), condoning (reframing
the act as not really being an offense), denial (not confronting
the offense), and forgetting (allowing memory
of the offense to fade) (Enright & Coyle, 1998).
Reconciliation is also viewed as different than forgiveness
because it involves a mutual effort to restore a
relationship by both the offender and the offended
(McCullough & Witvliet, 2002).
Researchers disagree about whether forgiveness
requires positive feelings and actions toward
the transgressor (e.g., increased kindness, compassion,
making contact), or whether the absence of
negative responses is sufficient (e.g., decreased
revenge, hostility, and avoidance). Research suggests
that the positive and negative responses may be
independent dimensions of forgiveness that lead to
different outcomes, and that these outcomes may be
related to stages of forgiveness. For example, Enright
and his colleagues (1998) view forgiveness as a
developmental process involving stages or degrees
of forgiveness that can be evaluated according to
their degree of genuineness. An act of forgiveness
may be heartfelt or disingenuous. Genuine forgiveness
requires compassion, benevolence, and love for
the offender, together with a relinquishment of the
right to revenge, resentment, and indifference.
A final definitional complication concerns the
difference between laypersons’ and psychologists’
understandings of forgiveness. While laypersons’
understanding of forgiveness overlaps considerably
with psychologists’ conceptions, there are also important
differences (Kantz, 2000; Kearns & Fincham,
2004). Recall that psychologists express the opinion
that forgiving someone does not mean the same thing
as simply excusing, condoning, denying, forgetting,
or reconciling the hurt. Kearns and Fincham (2004)
found that, contrary to psychologists’ definitions, 28%
of laypeople believed forgetting about the offense
was an important attribute of forgiveness and 28%
thought reconciliation was a significant potential
outcome of forgiveness.
The burgeoning research literature presents a
complicated picture of the outcomes of forgiveness.
This is partly because researchers define and measure
forgiveness in different ways (Thompson & Snyder,
2003). Some reviews suggest that forgiveness generally
leads to small, but consistent positive outcomes
in health and well-being (e.g., McCullough & Witvliet,
2002), while others argue that such conclusions
are premature (e.g., Fincham & Kashdan, 2004).
All researchers recognize the tentative nature of
conclusions in this new area of research and the need
to understand the many factors mediating the effects
of forgiveness. For example, the reasons why people
forgive are important to the effects of forgiveness. In
one study, people who forgave out of a sense of obligation
rather than love showed no decrease in anger
and related physiological responses such as blood
pressure (Huang & Enright, 2000). Here, we will
review studies that exemplify the potential of forgiveness
to reduce the deleterious effects of hostility
caused by a personal offense.
Anger and hostility are strongly implicated in
cardiovascular disease (Friedman & Rosenman,
1974). Evidence that forgiveness might be an antidote
for the negative effects of hostility is shown in
a recent study by Witvliet, Ludwig, and Vander Laan
(2001). In this study, a variety of physiological
measures were taken as college undergraduates
imagined forgiving and unforgiving responses to a
real-life offense. In the forgiveness imagination
exercise, students were asked to empathize with
the humanity of the offender and grant forgiveness.
In the unforgiveness condition, they mentally
rehearsed the hurt of the offense and nursed their
grudge against the offender. Students in the unforgiveness
condition showed significantly more cardiovascular
reactions (heart rate & blood pressure
increases), exhibited more sympathetic nervous
system arousal (skin conductance), and reported
more negative emotions (e.g., anger, sadness) than
students in the forgiveness imagination condition.
In contrast, the forgiveness imagination exercise
produced lower physiological reactivity, more positive
emotions, and greater feelings of control.
Although only a short-term study, these results
affirm the potential health benefits of forgiveness.
Forgiveness seems particularly important as a
possible repair mechanism for the inevitable conflict
that occurs in relationships. As we have noted
many times, caring relations with others are one of
the more significant factors in our health and happiness.
Studies support the contribution of forgiveness
to marital quality and the connection between
forgiveness and other relationship factors, such
as higher overall relationship satisfaction, greater
empathy for one’s partner, stronger commitment to
the relationship, and less rumination about past
offenses and about whether the offending partner
apologized (Fincham & Beach, 2004; Fincham,
Beach, & Davila, 2004; Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, &
Hannon, 2002; McCullough & Worthington, 1997;
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Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 235
McCullough et al., 2000; Paleari, Regalia, & Fincham,
2005). Forgiveness seems to both express and
enhance close, caring, and healthy relationships. Let’s
explore this reciprocal influence a bit further:
Forgiveness as an expression of marital quality has
been demonstrated in studies showing specific variables
that predict people will forgive one another.
Specifically, strong commitment to the relationship,
high levels of satisfaction and closeness, high levels
of emotional empathy for the offending partner, and
low levels of rumination about the offense by the
offended partner are all variables that predict that a
person will forgive a loved one for a serious transgression.
On the flip side, the positive effects of
forgiveness are shown in the form of enhanced marital
quality, increased likelihood of future forgiveness,
and the observation that forgiveness contributes to the
restoration of closeness after a transgression occurs
(e.g., McCullough et al., 1998; Paleari et al., 2005).
Like forgiveness, gratitude is deeply embedded in
most religious traditions, but defies easy definition.
Gratitude is widely regarded as a virtue and ingratitude
as a vice (Bono, Emmons, & McCullough,
2004). Studies show that feelings of gratitude are
among the more commonly experienced positive
emotions, making us feel happy, contended, and
joyful (Bono et al., 2004; Emmons & McCullough,
2004). Expressions of gratitude can range from a
polite and obligatory “thank you” in everyday life to
an appreciation and thankfulness for life itself. A
prominent feature of gratefulness is an appreciation
for the enhanced well-being that derives from
another source (e.g., a person, God, or nature).
Feelings and expressions of gratitude would seem
particularly strong when the benefit received was
freely given and when the benefactor incurred some
cost and sacrifice (Emmons & Shelton, 2002).
McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, and Larson
(2001) provided one of the first conceptualizations
of gratitude. These researchers define gratitude as
moral affect because both the origins and consequences
of gratitude are oriented toward the wellbeing
of another person. That is, gratitude arises
from virtue and concern with doing the right thing.
It is also a prosocial act that sustains and reinforces
the practice of virtue because of the positive consequences
for both the benefactor and the beneficiary.
Gratitude is distinct from other moral emotions, like
shame and guilt, because these emotions mean we
have fallen short of our moral standards and committed
some transgression against another. In contrast,
gratitude derives from being the recipient of
helpful acts from another.
McCullough and his colleagues believe gratitude
serves three moral or social functions: Gratitude can
function as a moral barometer, a moral motive, and a
moral reinforcer. As a moral barometer, gratitude signals
a change in one’s social relationships, as both the
recipient (the person who received the kind act) and
the benefactor (the person who offered the kind act)
acknowledge their roles in each other’s well-being.
Positive feelings are the barometer or index of this
change. As a moral motive, gratitude may serve to
energize gratefulness among recipients of kind acts, in
a reciprocating, “treat-kindness-with-kindness” mindset.
Recipients of a particular kind act may also start
thinking of other kind things done for them by other
people, which may motivate them to express gratitude
to those benefactors. As a moral reinforcer, gratitude
may fuel the benefactor’s desire to continue helping
others in the future. In other words, receiving heartfelt
thanks from someone creates positive emotions, and
thereby serves as powerful reinforcement, leading to
increased likelihood of future helpful acts. An evaluation
of empirical evidence relevant to the three functions
of gratitude found moderate support for gratitude
as a moral barometer, weak support for the moral
motive function, and very strong support for gratitude
as a moral reinforcer (Bono et al., 2004; Emmons &
McCullough, 2004; McCullough et al., 2001).
Focus on Research: Increasing
Well-Being by Counting Your Blessings
Since gratitude is associated with positive feelings,
could well-being be enhanced by asking people to
think about and keep track of their blessings? This
was the question examined by Emmons and
McCullough (2003) in three separate studies. In their
first study, college students were assigned to one of
three conditions.
In the grateful condition, students were given
the following instructions: “There are many things in
our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful
about. Think back over the last week and write
down on the lines below up to five things in your life
that you are grateful or thankful for” (Emmons &
McCullough, 2003, p. 379). In this condition, students
mentioned such things as the helpfulness of friends,
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236 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
having great parents, and thankfulness to God for his
help in their life.
In the hassles condition, the following instructions
were given: “Hassles are irritants—things that
annoy or bother you. They occur in various domains
of life, including relationships, work, school, housing,
finances, health, and so forth. Think back over
today and, on the lines below, list up to five hassles
that occurred in your life” (Emmons & McCullough,
2003, p. 379). Hassles mentioned by the student participants
included things like dwindling finances for
school, a messy kitchen that no one would clean,
poor test performance in a college class, and lack of
appreciation from friends.
Instructions for the events condition were as
follows: “What were some of the events or circumstances
that affected you in the past week? Think
back over the past week and write down on the
lines below five events that had an impact on you”
(Emmons & McCullough, 2003, p. 379). Events mentioned
included attending a festival, learning a new
skill, taking a trip and cleaning up one’s place of
Students also completed well-being measures
that included ratings of mood, overall well-being,
physical health symptoms, and the experience of 30
different positive and negative emotions. Students in
each condition (grateful, hassles, or events) completed
all measures once each week over a period
of 10 weeks. In a second study, students were again
assigned to either a grateful condition or a hassles
condition, but a downward comparison condition
was substituted for the events condition. For downward
comparisons, participants were asked to think
of ways in which they were better off than others. In
this second study, students recorded their responses
daily, over a 2-week period.
Compared to students in the hassles and events
conditions, students in the grateful condition
appeared to reap a number of well-being benefits.
They reported being more grateful; said they felt
better about life in general; experienced more positive
emotions; reported fewer negative emotions;
and were more optimistic about the future. In the
10-week study, students also reported fewer health
problems and increases in both the amount and
quality of sleep experienced. Perhaps because of its
short duration, health benefits were not found in the
2-week daily diary study.
In a third study, adult participants with
neuromuscular diseases were recruited through
a university neuromuscular disease clinic.
Participants kept daily diaries for 21 days and
were assigned to either a grateful condition (as in
previous studies) or a “no-manipulation” condition
in which only the well-being measures were
completed. Reports from spouses or significant
others were also gathered to help validate the
self-reports of participants. Results showed that,
compared to the no-manipulation group, participants
assigned to the grateful condition reported
higher overall subjective well-being, more optimistic
views of the future, more frequent positive
emotions, a reduction in negative emotions, more
sleep, sleep of improved quality, and a stronger
sense of connection to others. These changes
were corroborated by the reports of others who
saw improved well-being among participants in
the grateful condition, as compared to participants
in the no-manipulation condition.
In their conclusion, Emmons and McCullough
suggest that, because grateful expressions increase
positive emotions, gratitude might be an important
contributor to the upward spiral of well-being
described in Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory
of positive emotions (see Chapter 2). That is, gratitude
has the potential to promote positive emotions,
repair relationships, and offset the toxic effects of
revengeful hostility. These effects are consistent
with Fredrickson’s idea that positive emotions build
psychological and social resources for healthy and
adaptive functioning.
We began this chapter by describing the
monumental effort to develop a classification system
of human virtues and strengths of character
(the “Values in Action” Project). The purpose of
this effort was to provide a language for describing
the “good,” in human behavior and what goes
right in people’s lives, in order to balance psychology’s
long-standing focus on the “bad” and what
goes wrong. The Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders catalogues the many
mental and emotional problems that plague
human beings. Mental health professionals have
developed a variety of therapies to treat mental
disorders. In many ways, the VIA project is an
analogous effort, but one that is focused on wellbeing
and happiness. The VIA project aims
to delineate the positive behaviors that underlie
well-being and happiness. In this regard, practicing
forgiveness and gratitude are examples of
interventions analogous to psychotherapy, but
intended to promote a life on the positive side of
zero, rather than to treat illness.
ISBN 1-256-51557-4
Positive Psychology, by Steve R. Baumgardner and Marie K. Crothers. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2009 by Pearson Education, Inc.
Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character 237
Chapter Summary Questions
1. Why have psychologists tended to avoid the
study of morality and virtue?
2. How did the Values in Action Project researchers
develop and select their list of 6 virtues and 24
character strengths?
3. What is the difference between wisdom and
“book learning,” intelligence, technical knowledge,
or being “smart?” What does it mean to be
4. What three interests are wise people skillful at balancing,
according to Sternberg’s balance theory?
5. What do Baltes and his colleagues mean when
they describe wisdom as expert knowledge of
the “fundamental pragmatics of life?”
6. How does wisdom relate to happiness, according
to research by Baltes and his colleagues? Are
wise people happier?
7. What role does wisdom play in the SOC model
of effective life management, according to Baltes
and his colleagues?
8. What are the arguments supporting self-control
as a master virtue? How is failed self-control evident
in the “Seven Deadly Sins,” according to
Baumeister and Exline?
9. How may religion fulfill the four needs (described
by Baumeister) that underlie a meaningful life
(purpose, value, self-efficacy, and self-worth)?
10. What does it mean when someone describes
themselves as “spiritual, but not religious?”
What has research shown about the percentage
of people who make and identify with this
11. How does Pargament define religion and spirituality?
What is the defining feature of each; and
why is religion considered the broader concept?
12. What general conclusions are drawn from
research investigating the relationship between
religion and well-being? Of the four measures
used to measure religiousness, which is the
strongest predictor of well-being?
13. How may the relationship between health and
religion be explained (3 factors)?
14. According to the classic work of Gordon Allport,
how does the distinction between intrinsic and
extrinsic religious orientation help solve the religious-
prejudice puzzle?
15. How may an attachment to God serve a function
similar to attachment to parents?
16. a. What is the difference between positive and
negative coping styles, according to Pargament
and his colleagues?
b. What “religious struggle” might cause clergy
members to use more negative coping styles
than rank-and-file church members, according
to Pargament and his colleagues?
17. What is the difference between “explaining religion
versus explaining religion away,” according
to Pargament?
18. Why do researchers believe forgiveness may
release people from the damaging effects of negative
emotions like anger and revenge and also help
repair and enhance relationships? What does preliminary
research suggest about these possibilities?
19. a. How may gratitude function as a moral barometer,
a moral motive, and a moral reinforcer,
according to McCullough and his colleagues?
b. What positive outcomes were associated with
gratitude among college students and adults
suffering from neuromuscular diseases in the
recent study by Emmons and McCullough?
Key Terms
values in action project 208
wisdom 209
courage 209
humanity 211
justice 211
temperance 211
transcendence 211
balance theory 215
wisdom as expert
knowledge 216
SOC Model: selection,
optimization, and
compensation 218
purpose 221
value 221
self-efficacy 221
interpretive control 222
self-worth 222
religion (Pargament) 225
spirituality (Pargament) 225
sanctification 226
intrinsic versus extrinsic religious
orientation 228
quest religious orientation 230
attachment theory 230
positive coping styles 231
negative coping styles 232
forgiveness 233
gratitude 235
ISBN 1-256-51557-4
Positive Psychology, by Steve R. Baumgardner and Marie K. Crothers. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2009 by Pearson Education, Inc.
238 Chapter 10 • Virtue and Strengths of Character
Web Resources
Values in Action Project
www.viastrengths.org/index.aspx?ContentID=1 This is
the web site for the Values in Action Project. Follow
the links to VIA Measurement Instruments and you
can register (free) to take a long or brief version of the
character strength inventories. You do have to provide
demographic information that is used along with your
responses in an online study of character strengths.
Authentic Happiness
www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu This is Martin
Seligman’s site at the University of Pennsylvania. The
same VIA Project measures of character strengths are
available on this site. There is also a measure of forgiveness.
You must log in, create a password, and provide
demographic information to take the tests and
have them scored for you. A profile of scores on all
tests is computed and can be accessed at anytime.
Psychology of Religion
virtualreligion.net/vri/psych.html This site provides
a large number of links to research and researchers
in the psychology of religion, from classic works by
William James to recent studies.
www.apa.org/about/division/div36.html This is the
web site for Division 36, Psychology of Religion of
the American Psychological Association. Contains
information about conferences and current research.
facultymembers/pargament.html This web site is by
Kenneth Pargament (Bowling Green University), one
of the top researchers in the psychology of religion.
It provides listing of his past and recent research.
Gratitude and Forgiveness
html This site for Michael McCullough provides
access to research articles on gratitude and forgiveness,
a gratitude questionnaire, and links to Robert
Emmons and other researchers in this area.
Suggested Readings
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York:
Baumeister, R. F., & Exline, J. J. (1999). Virtue, personality,
and social relations: Self-control as a moral muscle.
Journal of Personality, 67, 1165–1194.
Baltes, P. B. (1997). On the incomplete architecture of
human ontogeny: Selection, optimization, and compensation
as foundations of developmental theory.
American Psychologist, 52, 366–380.
Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns:
Motivation and spirituality in personality. New
York: Guilford Press.
Hill, P. C., & Pargament, K. I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization
and measurement of religion and spirituality.
American Psychologist, 58, 64–74.
Koenig, H. G., & Cohen, H. J. (Eds.). (2002). The link
between religion and health: Psychoneuroimmunology
and the faith factor. New York: Oxford University Press.
Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001).
Handbook of religion and health. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (Eds.). (2004). Positive psychology
in practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
McCullough, M. E. (Ed.). (1999). Forgiveness: Theory,
research and practice. New York: Guilford Publications.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and
coping: Theory, research and practice. New York:
Guilford Publications.
Paulus, D. L., Wehr, P., Harms, P. D., & Strasser, D. H.
(2002). Use of exemplars to reveal implicit types of intelligence.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28,
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character
strengths and virtues: A handbook of classification.
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/
New York: Oxford University Press.
Spilka, B., Hood, R. W., Jr., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R.
(2003). The psychology of religion: An empirical
approach. New York: Guilford Press.
ISBN 1-256-51557-4
Positive Psychology, by Steve R. Baumgardner and Marie K. Crothers. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2009 by Pearson Education, Inc.