The Gray Divorce Podcast: Episode 22 Know Yourself! The VIA Character Strengths Survey - Tools for Growth After Gray Divorce Part 2

Andrew Hatherley |

Announcement: Welcome to The Gray Divorce Podcast, hosted by divorce financial analyst and retirement planning counselor Andrew Hatherley. Join Andrew and guest experts as they help late-life divorcees build the financial and mental foundation for a meaningful future. There is life after divorce. Now on to the show.

Andrew Hatherley: Hello everybody, welcome to episode 22 of the Gray Divorce podcast. Today, we continue our discussion on the importance of better understanding ourselves before, during and after mid-late life divorce. 

In Part One, I talked a lot about the idea that we don't really know ourselves as well as we think we do and that plenty of scientific research bears this out. I also discussed why it matters that we develop a better understanding of ourselves and how tools of positive psychology like the Big Five Personality Test and, today’s subject, the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and Virtues, can be used to help us live a more authentic, meaningful, purposeful life, and maybe become a better person in the process. 

In Part One, I went into some detail on the Big 5 Personality Test as a tool for growth after gray divorce. I encourage you to listen to this discussion if you haven’t already, which is in Episode 21. 

In Part Two we're going to be discussing the VIA classification of character strengths and virtues, a tool that works alongside the Big 5 Personality Test, to help us better understand ourselves by focusing on our key strengths. Like our personalities, most of us have no real awareness of our character strengths and how these serve us in daily life. 

Character strengths help us overcome life’s inevitable challenges. For example, you can’t be brave without first feeling fear; you can’t show perseverance without first wanting to quit; you can’t show self-control without first being tempted to do something you know you shouldn’t. 

But character is not fixed; it’s malleable, it can grow and change over time. There is no end to developing your character. It’s a lifelong quest for every single one of us. 

We often equate character strengths with values. But they are not the same thing. Character strengths are positive personality traits that reflect our basic identity — and produce positive outcomes for ourselves and others. However, as Dr. Christopher Peterson explained, “Values are beliefs held by individuals and shared by groups about desirable ends…they guide how we select actions and evaluate others and ourselves; and they are ordered by their relative importance.” Therefore, individuals use their character strengths to move toward their specific values. 

The Positivity Project’s website notes an example. The core values of the United States Military Academy at West Point are Duty, Honor, Country. Cadets will use their individual character strengths — such as perseverance, teamwork, and self-control — to move towards those values.  

In 2004, Dr. Peterson and fellow psychologist Martin Seligman conceptualized the Values in Action or VIA, inventory of strengths which brings together the six most valued virtues cataloged into 24 universal character strengths. 

They suggest that every person possesses three to seven out of these 24 strengths as “signature strengths” representing the core of a person's identity.  

When we use these signature strengths we enjoy feelings of authenticity, excitement and invigoration. Further, it is suggested that people possess intrinsic motivation and a strong urge to use their top strengths. And that using those top signature strengths has a positive effect on our well-being, vitality and quality of life. 

Scott Barry Kaufman and Jordyn Feingold, in their workbook Choose Growth note that tapping into our greatest areas of strengths can be incredibly useful for fostering healing and even triumphing in the wake of great adversity and trauma, such as mid to late life divorce. 

Echoing the idea that we really don't know ourselves, Kaufman and Feingold stated that far too many of us are detached from a mindful awareness of what our greatest strengths are. For instance, if someone asked you “What are your greatest strengths?” what might you say? This is actually a useful exercise, and I would suggest that you take a moment to reflect on how you'd answer that question. 

Take a minute and think about it… what are your greatest strengths? 

You might find that many of your responses focus on your talents, the things you excel at, like cooking or playing a musical instrument.  

Or you might respond by talking about what you enjoy: movies, music, sports. 

Or your skills (proficiencies like speaking other languages or being able to do a martial art).  

You might even mention your resources (those external supports that you have access to, for instance having a good job and making a good salary). 

Kaufman asks the important question in his workbook: Did anything you jot down represent a strength of character? He notes that while each of these other types of positive qualities; talents, interests, skills and resources may be important sources of fulfillment in our lives, our character strengths in particular may be potent catalyst for coping and overcoming life stress. 

He quotes Ryan Niemiec, Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. Niemiec notes that “talents can be squandered, skills can diminish, and resources lost, but strengths crystallize and evolve and can integrate with these other positive qualities to contribute to the greater good.” 

Before I go any further let’s dig into what Peterson and Seligman identified as 24 universal character strengths, each falling within one of six categories of virtue. 

By the way, in the resources section on the podcast page I provide links to various sources which go into much more detail on these strengths and virtues. I suggest you check these resources out. 

The six categories of virtue Seligman and Peterson identified were 1) wisdom and knowledge, 2) courage, 3) humanity, 4) justice, 5) temperance, and 6) transcendence. 

Within each of these six categories are strengths related to that particular virtue. 

So, let's start with wisdom and knowledge. Here we find cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge. Strengths like creativity, curiosity, open mindedness, love of learning, and perspective. 

Strengths of courage are our emotional strengths that involve the exercise of the will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, both internal and external. These include bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality. 

Strengths of humanity are interpersonal strengths that involve tending to and embracing others. These include love, kindness and social intelligence. 

Strengths of justice include civic strengths that underlie healthy community life. These are citizenship, fairness, and leadership. 

Strengths of temperance protect us against excess. Here we have forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, and self-regulation. 

Finally, strengths of transcendence forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning. These include appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. 

I encourage you all to spend some time looking over the classification of character strengths and virtues within the resources attached. As you go over this table of strengths you may find that certain strengths stand out as potentially among your signature strengths. 

I strongly encourage everybody to take the VIA survey to get a measure of your 24 strengths. You can do this by visiting and just click to take the free survey. 

What you'll get is a ranking from 1 to 24 of the character strengths as they apply to you personally. The higher ranking of your character strengths are what Seligman and Peterson call the “signature strengths.” These are most closely aligned with our identities and give us energy and the feeling of being our true selves when we're acting upon them. Most people, and certainly I'm no exception, will tend to look at the bottom of the list, those strengths ranking around 20 to 24 and think that perhaps they might be weaknesses. Well, that's not really a good way of looking at it. A better way of looking at it is perhaps to consider those as lesser strengths that might need to be worked on. They're not necessarily weaknesses. 

In their workbook Choose Growth, Kaufman and Feingold recommend starting at the top of the list and considering your signature strengths.  

They suggest asking yourself: 

What is it like for you to express that strength? When and where do you use this strength regularly in your daily life? How do you use strength when you're feeling your best? How do you use that strength in times of stress? 

In Part One I shared with you some of the results of my Big 5 Personality Test. So, I'll do the same with the VIA survey. It turns out four of my signature strengths are: bravery, honesty, humor and gratitude. 

Let's look at a couple of these strengths and apply some of the questions that Kaufman suggests we ask ourselves. For instance, one of my signature strengths is honesty, which the VIA Institute on Character sums up as: “Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way, being without pretense, taking responsibility for one's feelings and actions.”  

So, what's it like for me to express that strength? I know that I feel energized by my honesty particularly in situations where I might be going against a consensus opinion. And that's where another signature strength of bravery can come into play. I just think telling the truth, for instance, in a situation where I don't know the answer to a question, I think it's just much more natural response for me to say “I don't know” rather than make up an answer that would just create a feeling of anxiety.  

In answer to the question of how you would use the strength of honesty in times of stress, well I think the old saying that “the truth will set you free” has a lot of truth to it. The subject of the last two podcasts have really been about honesty, about understanding the truth about ourselves, as difficult as it may be, in order to build a solid foundation for a meaningful life going forward. 

Let's look at another signature strength. How about humor? The VIA Institute defines it as “liking to laugh and tease, bringing smiles to other people, seeing the light side, making (but not necessarily telling) jokes.” Again, this is the strength that I find particularly useful in daily life because I do tend to get frustrated when obstacles and inevitable roadblocks and petty nonsense creep up. As they do far too frequently. 

Kaufman talks about the risk of overusing our strengths. Consider honesty. When we're using that strength at an optimal level, we're being authentic, truth-seeking, truth sharing, sincere, and acting without pretense. But if we overuse it, we can be self-righteous, inconsiderate or overshare to the point of being almost obnoxious. 

Similarly with humor, when we use that strength to the optimal level, we're finding joy and laughter in life, seeing the lighter side of events, being playful. Those are all good things. But we also run the risk, if we overuse it, of being tasteless, insensitive, and out of touch. 

So, when it comes to strengths there can be too much of a good thing! 

The VIA Institute on Character website has some excellent recommendations for new ways in which we can use each of our character strengths after we take the survey. I really recommend you check it out at 

So that wraps up our two part look at two psychological tools that can help us get a better insight into our own minds. To recognize our strengths and to use them for good in our lives and our interactions with others. They also help us to course correct: to better appreciate aspects of ourselves that we may need to work on or at least acknowledge. 

That’s it for Episode 22 of The Gray Divorce Podcast. Until next time, take care everybody. 

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Thanks again for listening, and we'll catch you in the next episode.

Andrew Hatherley: Information provided is educational only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Each situation is unique and should be discussed with your tax or legal advisor prior to implementation. Andrew Hatherley is not an attorney and does not provide legal advice. Information provided is financial in nature.

Advisory services offered through Hatherly Capital Management, LLC. Divorce Financial Analysis Services offered through Wiser Divorce Solutions and affiliated company.