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Mastery: A Universally Desirable Trait

At the beginning of the millennium, two psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman set out on what American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner called “One of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half-century

Peterson and Seligman had begun working on a 3-year project involving 55 distinguished social scientists to research 40 different countries, the major world religions, and the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers from Aristotle and Plato spanning the last 2,500 years

Peterson and Seligman wanted to find out which positive personality traits are endorsed by all people and allow humans to thrive in all cultures, in all places and in all times from the last 2,500 years to the present, all around the world.

  • Vitality [zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or half-heartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated
  • Integrity [authenticity, honesty]: taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions 
  • Vitality [zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or half-heartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated

  • Persistence [perseverance, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; taking pleasure in completing tasks 
  • Integrity [authenticity, honesty]: taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions 

  • Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; 
  • Persistence [perseverance, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; taking pleasure in completing tasks 

Under ‘courage’, which are emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal, the list

  • Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; 

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience

Moreover, there are additional traits under some of the other ‘core moral virtues’ which are also closely linked to mastery; for example, under ‘transcendence’, which Peterson and Seligman define as ‘strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning’, they place

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience

  • Open-mindedness [judgment, critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly
  • Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering
  • Open-mindedness [judgment, critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly

However, under ‘wisdom and knowledge’, they also include other traits that are closely related to mastery such as:

  • Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering

  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.

Under each overarching virtue, Peterson and Seligman list specific positive traits; for example, under ‘wisdom and knowledge’, which Peterson and Seligman define as ‘cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge,’ they insert: 

  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.

  • wisdom and knowledge
  • courage
  • humanity
  • justice
  • temperance
  • transcendence

In general, Seligman and Peterson found ‘six core moral virtues’ that, according to their research, almost all people in all times, all places and all cultures across the world endorse: 

  • wisdom and knowledge
  • courage
  • humanity
  • justice
  • temperance
  • transcendence

The results of possibly the most significant effort in history to review, assemble, research, and classify the most universally endorsed virtues that enable humans to flourish (Viacharacter.org, n.d.) were compiled into their ground-breaking book, Character Strengths And Virtues: A Handbook And Classification.

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