Can Our Key Character Strengths Change Over Time?

In my earlier article on Positive Psychology, I wrote about how happiness can be sought out and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues.

The current article intends to see if these strengths remain consistent over time, or if they can be actively changed.

Is our character set in stone, or are we malleable enough to shape our strengths into something different if we want to?

Let’s find out…


My Top Character Strengths

I have taken the VIA Character Strengths survey four times now. The two earliest times were using the authentic happiness website in January 2011 and March 2012 and the last two were using the VIA character website in December 2013 and just last week in 2017.

I will present my 2017 results from 24th through to 1st, with the description from the authentic happiness website and the core virtue from the VIA character website. I will then display my earlier survey rankings under each description:

24: Self-Regulation and Self-Control

You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 23rd, 2012: 10th, 2013: 21st.
Average score = 19.5. Overall rank = 21st

I do think that it is pointless to try to control my emotions, as accepting them and trying to understand them has been much more fruitful for me than trying to control them. Trying to control my appetites is a different story, however, and I do still struggle to eat as healthily as I would ideally like to.

23: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith

You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 22nd, 2012: 24th, 2013: 13th.
Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I find meaning and purpose in connecting with and helping others and challenging myself to learn and grow, and these things are much more tangible and important to me than an overall sense of spirituality and faith. I still believe that having a sense of meaning and purpose is a crucial element of well-being and health, and should be explored in detail and sought out when it is not present.

22: Bravery and Valour

You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 24th, 2012: 22nd, 2013: 14th.
Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I wish that this was more of a strength for me, but it is something that I struggle with. I admire others who are consistently brave and courageous, and I continue to aspire towards it myself.

21: Teamwork, Citizenship and Loyalty

You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 10th, 2012: 4th, 2013: 10th.
Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

I have played competitive sports since the age of five, and I am always happy to do what is needed to be done to help the team win. This has become less important over the past four years as I have focused more on being driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors in my life.

20: Zest, Enthusiasm and Energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 17th, 2012: 21st, 2013: 22nd.
Average score = 20. Overall rank = 22nd

This was never a strong point for me, but it did drop in the context of a difficult relationship and has only improved slightly since it ended. I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue.

19: Humility and Modesty

You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 20th, 2012: 16th, 2013: 6th.
Average score = 15.25. Overall rank = 19th

When I was younger, I struggled to be modest due to insecurities. This improved as I sought therapy and felt much more comfortable with myself. I do not wish to seek the spotlight at present, but do believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.

18: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 11th, 2012: 19th, 2013: 19th.
Average score = 16.75. Overall rank = 20th

I wish that this was higher, as optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. My pessimism in regards to things running smoothly does mean that I am unlikely to ever miss a flight, which is a good thing I guess. It also means that I am unlikely to overexpose myself to excessive financial risk.

17: Prudence, Caution and Discretion

You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 21st, 2012: 6th, 2013: 16th.
Average score = 15. Overall rank = 18th

My IPIP-NEO personality assessment results actually show cautiousness levels in the top 10% of the population, but I don’t see it as a personal strength. I wish that I could take more risks in life, and not be held back by my fears and doubts as much as I am. I’ve put my foot in my mouth at times, but still want to be able to share whatever is on my mind.

16: Leadership

You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 6th, 2012: 1st, 2013: 12th.
Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th

This used to be much more important to me than it is now, especially in 2012 when it was ranked first. I feel much more comfortable with helping others to lead these days, and do what I can to help other people to live the life that they want rather than trying to tell them what they need to do.

15: Humour and Playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 8th, 2012: 23rd, 2013: 5th.
Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was a bit more playful than I have typically been. I believe that humour is a healthy and mature defence mechanism, and hope to foster more of this going forward.

14: Forgiveness and Mercy

You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 2nd, 2012: 15th, 2013: 8th.
Average score = 9.75. Overall rank = 7th

This seems to yo-yo. I do want to be able to forgive those who have erred and have done wrong towards me, as I understand the benefits of this type of forgiveness. What I do struggle with is trying to forgive or show mercy to people who consistently cause harm to others and seem to feel no remorse for their actions.

13: Social intelligence

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 4th, 2012: 14th, 2013: 7th.
Average score = 9.5. Overall rank = 6th

This was a key strength initially, and something that I still aim to do as a clinical psychologist. However, outside of work, I have tried to live a more genuine and authentic life with equitable relationships rather than just trying to fit in with others and go along with what they want to do.

12: Perspective Wisdom

Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 12th, 2012: 11th, 2013: 9th.
Average score = 11. Overall rank = 9th

This has remained fairly consistent. I do not consider it a key strength but hope that the more I learn and the more experience I have, the more others will consider me to be wise when it comes to the big issues of life and how to successfully manage them.

11: Gratitude

You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 7th, 2012: 17th, 2013: 18th.
Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th

Gratitude is actually a handy skill to build and can help to offset our natural inclination to just look at what is going wrong in our lives. I wish that this could be a little bit higher, and am glad that it has improved from my 2012 and 2013 scores.

10: Perseverance, Industry and Diligence

You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 19th, 2012: 12th, 2013: 2nd.
Average score = 10.75. Overall rank = 8th

After reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen I now see the benefits in being orderly and organised and the difference that this can make in our lives. By working smarter and not harder, I have found a better balance recently and have begun putting less pressure on myself to be industrious.

9: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 18th, 2012: 9th, 2013: 15th.
Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I do try to appreciate the natural beauty of life, and love visiting national parks and going hiking. Some of my favourite places to go include Wilsons Promontory, The Grampians and Yosemite National Park in the US. I would also love to visit Macchu Picchu and Everest Base Camp at some point in the future. I also enjoy watching the NBA and the Olympics and admire the effort that athletes put towards reaching excellence.

8: Honesty, Authentic and Genuineness

You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 15th, 2012: 7th, 2013: 3rd.
Average score = 8.25. Overall rank = 4th

This is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives. I’m surprised to see that it has dropped since 2013, but it does feel like a key character strength to me.

7: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 5th, 2012: 13, 2013: 23rd.
Average score = 12. Overall rank = 12th

This was quite important to me while growing up, but took a back seat when I tried to get married and buy a house in the suburbs. Following this break-up, I have moved into the city and love the lifestyle that I get to have, living in an apartment. I strongly advocate for doing what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.

6: Capacity to Love and Be Loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 14th, 2012: 18th, 2013: 11th.
Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has become more important over time. I had an avoidant attachment in the past and would keep my emotional needs to myself and try to be what other people needed me to be instead. I would then leave once I realised that my needs were not being met. Over the past two years, I have become better at tuning into what I need and expressing these needs and feelings to others rather than keeping them to myself, which has increased my capacity for love.

5: Kindness and Generosity

You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 13th, 2012: 3rd, 2013: 1st.
Average score = 5.5. Overall rank = 2nd

It’s nice to see that this has increased from the first survey in 2011. I enjoy helping and being kind to others, and it is one of the reasons why I love my job as a clinical psychologist. It has been a key character strength for me since 2012.

4: Fairness, Equity and Justice

Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 3rd, 2012: 2nd, 2013: 4th.
Average score = 3.25. Overall rank = 1st

This is the only character strength that has been ranked in the top 5 in all of my surveys! Being a middle child influenced my focus on fairness and equality growing up, as I always felt my older brother could do more than me and my younger sister never had to do anything. I remember creating rules to make sure that things were as fair as possible and have continued to stand up for people that are not given equal treatment or legal rights since then.

3: Curiosity and Interest in the World

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 9th, 2012: 20th, 2013: 17th.
Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has never been a key character strength for me until 2017. Over the past few years, I have become less concerned with my personal issues and much more interested in how I can make a lasting difference on a larger scale.

2: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness

Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 1st, 2012: 5th, 2013: 24th.
Average score = 8. Overall rank = 3rd

I find the results of this strength fascinating. It’s been a key strength of mine, showing up in the top 5 in 2011, 2012 and 2017. However, in December 2013 it somehow sunk to 24th out of 24. I had been married for 9 months at the time, and it was going much worse than I could have ever imagined. I think at the time I did not want to weigh the evidence fairly or change my mind. Once I did, I knew that getting a divorce was the hard but the right thing to do, and since then my judgment has bounced back from 24th to 2nd.

1: Love of Learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 16th, 2012: 8th, 2013: 20th.
Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

This has never been a key character strength until the latest results. The first three surveys were completed during my Doctorate studies, where I was being told what I needed to study. Since then, I have been able to read and learn whatever I would like, and the autonomy and freedom of choice about what I learn now makes it so much more enjoyable. My thirst for new knowledge feels insatiable!


Can Our Key Strengths Change

Looking at all of the above results, it does indicate that our strengths can change over time. My overall findings put fairness 1st, kindness 2nd, judgment 3rd, honesty 4th and leadership 5th. Leadership is no longer a critical strength for me, even though it was 1st back in 2012. Curiosity and love of learning are much more recent developments, and they are both new strengths that I really enjoy putting into action on a regular basis.

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2017 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  1. Wisdom – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 12th. Average score = 5
  2. Humanity – 5th, 6th, 13th. Average score = 8
  3. Justice – 4th, 16th, 21st. Average score = 13.67
  4. Courage – 8th, 10th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 15
  5. Transcendence – 9th, 11th, 15th, 18th, 23rd. Average score = 15.2
  6. Temperance = 14th, 17th, 19th, 24th. Average score = 18.5

The changes in my strengths over time indicates that I have become more wise, which is nice to see. I’d like the courage scores to be higher, but otherwise, it seems pretty consistent with my core values.

Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?

On one level no. What is most important is that we are aware of what our individual key strengths are and that we can put these character strengths into action as often as possible.

Seeing that our strengths can change over time, however, it is worth looking at if some character strengths predict a higher level of well-being than others. In the excellent book ‘Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life’, Dr Todd Kashdan (2009) found that curiosity was one of the five strengths most highly associated with:

  • meaning
  • engagement
  • pleasure
  • satisfaction in one’s work, and
  • happiness in life.

In research conducted by Seligman and Peterson (2004), the only strengths that were rated higher than curiosity for being substantially related to satisfaction in life were hope, zest and gratitude. The other strength in the top 5 was capacity to love and be loved.


If You Would Like to Find Out Your Strengths and Virtues

The best way to identify your strengths is to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website.

Your 24 strengths will be ranked from first to last. These rankings are an indicator of your key character strengths, but it is also essential to determine if your top 5 strengths “feel right” to you. If they do, keep them as is. If a lower ranked strength feels more right than any of the ones listed in your top 5, replace with the one that shouldn’t be there, and write down your new top 5.

Once you know what your strengths and virtues are, The book ‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman goes into more detail about how to best utilise your key character strengths to find authentic happiness.

The basic premise is to assess how often you are putting your strengths into action on a daily or a weekly basis. If you are not doing it enough, set some goals towards implementing these strengths more.

I wish you the best of luck on your path of discovery!


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist


6 thoughts on “Can Our Key Character Strengths Change Over Time?

  1. Very interesting and courageous of you to share. I’ve taken the VIA strengths survey two or three times and subjectively felt that things tended to remain constant. Maybe I should look more closely.


  2. It’s an interesting question, whether we can improve our strengths. It seems obvious that we should be able to work on our wisdom and courage, and you seem to be proving it. But curiosity? I’m not so sure that we can do anything about that.


    1. Hi Alan,
      Both my love of learning and curiosity scores have increased quite a bit from 2013 to 2017. In his TED talk Ken Robinson says that schools tend to kill creativity in kids, and my own experience supports that. Once I finished with my university studies I started to become a lot more curious about the things I wanted to learn, rather than just focusing on the things I had to learn.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s interesting Damon.

        My experience too has been that schools suppress curiosity, with the exception of a few exceptional teachers. Yet, if schools are about learning, shouldn’t they be focused on encouraging curiosity?

        But I’m interested too in this idea that it can be improved. Considering that curiosity is most evident in children and least in adults, it must be instinctual. Do you think that the improvement could be a reawakening of something that is asleep?


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