In the midst of the most prestigious golf tournament of the year, the Masters, Tiger Woods is trying to solidify his comeback. He needs a major championship in order to seal the deal.
A few years ago, he lied. He cheated on his wife. Repeatedly. He let down fans. He hurt many people, especially his family and friends. Former fans and spectators claimed Tiger was a man without character. Similar claims are made against other philanderers – politicians, ministers, and athletes (e.g., “she has no character”; “he has bad character”).
New research into the science of character strengths is showing that such statements do not make much sense. “Character is plural,” says researcher Chris Peterson, who has spent more than a decade leading scientific efforts in the study of character. Peterson has found in many studies that character is best viewed as a constellation of strengths, not an all-or-none, you-have-character-or-you-don’t mentality. Character is not a singular construct like honesty or integrity. It is that, and much more.
We all have many character strengths – creativity, hope, humor, and leadership. And we express all of our character strengths in degrees. This means they come in many flavors and colors and they vary by the context (e.g., in one situation, Tiger might show a high level of perseverance along with a medium level of gratitude and a low level of self-regulation and very different levels of these strengths in the next context). Also, character strengths can be developed over time with practice.
While Tiger made a number of poor choices, this does not mean he is without character. Character is “who we are.” How can we not have “who we are”? Certainly we can be out of touch with “who we are.” We can be lost. We can fail to express our true self. We can forget to honor our strengths and the strengths of others. We can underuse our signature strengths. We are too complex as human beings to simply have our character plucked out of us completely.
A nice metaphor for character, and one particularly appropriate for golfers, is the expression of an “authentic swing.” This was the goal of the fictional character, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) in the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Junuh was a golfer whose personal demons began to affect his outstanding golf game. His caddy, Bagger Vance, appears as his life advisor to help him find his true self and allow it out. Bagger Vance explains:
“Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing. Somethin’ we was born with. Somethin’ that’s ours and ours alone. Somethin’ that can’t be taught to ya or learned. Somethin’ that got to be remembered. Over time the world can rob us of that swing. It gets buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas. Some folk even forget what their swing was like…”
Will Tiger find his authentic swing? It seems new aspects of his character strengths have steadily risen up in recent years – bravery, spirituality, forgiveness. Has he also re-discovered his exemplary perseverance and self-regulation? And if so, will he maintain these important aspects of his character and use them in all domains of his life?
My hope is that Tiger will tap into his core signature strengths and allow them to be expressed genuinely and authentically, not only on the golf course to win major tournaments again, but in all of his relationships.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Learn more about strengths:
To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to www.viame.org
To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to www.viapros.org