The Bottom Line: the work of positive psychologists like Martin Seligman appears to show that the happiest people are those that have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity or justice) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.
You may have had certain strengths that are so natural to you that you may not even consider them strengths. Think about an episode in your life when you were at your very best. What qualities enabled you to perform like that? While there are numerous talents and strengths that humans can possess, Character Strengths and Virtues are ones that humanity universally values.
“…if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” –Aristotle
When Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson sought to discover and classify commonly held strengths and virtues across cultures, they created a classification of core virtues that humans morally value regardless of their cultural, racial, and religious differences. Take the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire to determine your top three signature strengths: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx (Note: you will have to register on the Authentic Happiness website first to take the test. This is a short form that should take only a few minutes to complete).
In addition to the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire, there are also other strengths classifications, including: Strengths Finder, the Virtues Project, and Realize 2. Each classification is unique and is based upon different studies of talents, virtues, or strengths.
Current research indicates that you are most likely to value a job, relationship, hobby or institution that aligns with your core signature strengths and allows you to regularly utilize them. In fact, research indicates that one of the best ways to boost your long-term happiness is to use your strengths in new ways and situations, rather than focusing on your weaknesses. For instance, a 2010 study of college students found that individuals who used their signature strengths made more progress in reaching their goals (and improving their well-being) (1). In addition, a seminal study in 2004 found that certain character strengths, including hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity, show a stronger link to life satisfaction (2).
The use of strengths and virtues is therefore well in keeping with the philosophy of positive psychology: to focus on the positive in your life, not the negative!
1. Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.
2. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23 , 603–619.
The Philosophy of Strengths & Virtues
The work of positive psychologists like Seligman appears to show that the happiest people are those who have discovered their unique strengths (such as kindness and curiosity) and virtues (such as humanity and wisdom), and use these strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals (Seligman 2001).
We see this idea developed at length in Aristotle, who defined happiness simply as “the exercise of virtue (arête).” This Greek philosopher teaches us that happiness is more a matter of actualizing your full potential as a human being rather than merely obtaining pleasure, wealth, or other external goods. A key notion for Aristotle is that pleasure is an intrinsic component to the exercise of virtue; hence it would not be possible to possess the virtues unless one took a natural delight in them (Nicomachean Ethics Book II). This closely parallels Seligman’s idea that our ‘signature strengths’ are those virtues we enjoy, and that therefore our happiness will be increased if we find novel ways to apply them (Peterson 2005)
The Confucian thinker Mencius’ concept of the greater and the lesser self also serves to clarify the distinction between two kinds of happiness. The lesser self seeks satisfaction and happiness through satisfying biological desires such as food and sex, and the greater self seeks a deeper form of happiness through the realization of a higher purpose. Whereas many western thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, see morality as the triumph of reason over our physical inclinations,
Mencius thinks that both the greater and lesser parts of ourselves are natural, seeking different kinds of nutrition to grow and flourish. In the same way that we enjoy eating for physical nourishment, we need to perform acts of humanity to feed our spiritual selves, and the more we perform such acts the better we feel. From Mencius’ perspective we have been programmed to think that virtues such as humanity and righteousness are simply duties we have to fulfill, instead of natural inclinations that can bring us a profound sense of joy. Thus, like Seligman, Mencius does not see these two concepts of happiness as contradictory. The Junzi uses the lesser self in the service of the greater self. The harmony between these two selves produces a deep sense of joy. As Mencius writes: “when they (the sprouts of virtue) are rejoiced in, they will grow. Once they begin growing, how can they be stopped? As they cannot be stopped, unconsciously one’s feet begin to dance and one’s hands begin to move.”
The third connection to ancient wisdom concerns Seligman’s virtues of spirituality and love, which signify the three “theological virtues” of Thomas Aquinas: hope, faith, and charity (love). These theological virtues together with the 4 cardinal virtues of the Ancient Greek philosophers make up the 7 virtues which closely parallel the universal virtues that Seligman and Peterson found in their worldwide study. It turns out that the “virtues of the heart,” viz, hope, gratitude and love are the ones that are most highly correlated with Subjective Well Being (SWB) rather than the intellectual virtues such as love of learning and curiosity (Park et.al 2004)
Here are comprehensive reviews of each key study, simply click on each study’s citation:
Emmons, R. A., and McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2): 377–389.
Among the world’s literature concerning religion, ethics, and morality, there is a consensus that the construct of gratitude is invaluable as an aspect of human personality that influences relationships, lifestyle, and much more. However, among the scientific community, the relationship between gratitude and health, well-being, and positive functioning still remains unknown, as research on gratitude is still emerging.
As a construct, gratitude has been conceptualized in a variety of different ways – as a personality trait, a virtue, a habit, an attitude, or as an emotion (Emmons and McCullough 377). Thematically, gratitude is complex, and is associated broadly with the recognition or appreciation of a gift given altruistically (378). Previous literature suggests that gratitude is linked with positive emotions, such as contentment, happiness, pride, or hope (Walter and Pitts, 1998; Overwalle, Mervielde, and De Schuyter, 1995). In a 1998 Gallup survey of American adolescents and adults, over 90% of survey respondents said that expressing gratitude aided them in feeling happy (either “extremely happy” or “somewhat happy”) (Emmons and McCullough, p. 377).
The objective of this research investigation was to examine the impact of grateful thinking (“a grateful outlook”) on psychological and physical well-being in daily life, and to thus obtain a better understanding of the benefits of gratitude. Emmons and McCullough (2003) investigated whether a focus on “counting one’s blessings” is associated with improved psychological or physical functioning.
This study has been identified as a key study due to its emphasis on understanding the relationship between gratitude and subjective well-being through the “counting blessings” psychological intervention.
In this research study, the sample consisted of undergraduate participants (n=201) who were enrolled in a psychology course in a public university. Nine participants were removed due to missing or incomplete data, thus the total number of participants was n=192. Initially, at the beginning of the academic quarter, the participants were all given a packet of weekly reports. The packets were organized into three different groups, thus representing three experimental conditions, and were randomly distributed during the second session. Participants in the gratitude condition were given instructions to write about gratitude-inducing experiences over the past week. Those in the “hassles” condition wrote about annoyances that had occurred in their lives over the past week. In the “events” condition, participants wrote about events that had affected them over the past week, and coding thereafter revealed that 40% of the events were rated as positive,30% as negative, and 30% as neutral, thus demonstrating that the research team had been successful in creating a neutral control. The weekly form also included mood ratings and questionnaires regarding physical symptoms, time spent exercising, reactions to social support received, and two life appraisal questions.
In the second study, the sample consisted of 157 undergraduate participants who were enrolled in a psychology course at a public university. Study 2 was very similar to Study 1, with the exception that in Study 2: (1) diaries were kept on a daily basis over a 2-week period, (2) the life events group was replaced with a downward-social comparison group, and (3) a broader range of well-being outcomes were included than those in Study 1. In the downward-social comparison group, participants were told to write about the ways in which they were better off than others.
Because some of the effects of Study 1 were not replicated in Study 2, Emmons and McCullough also conducted Study 3, which had the following objectives: (1) to extend the experimental period to three weeks; (2) to broaden the participant base and instead recruit adults with chronic diseases; and (3) to examine whether the affective benefits in the second study could be replicated, and if they could be observed in the person’s closest relation. Thus, the dependent variables also included spouse-related affect and life satisfaction in the third study.
The sample was composed of 65 individuals who either had a congenital or adult-onset neuromuscular disease (NMD). The participants were assigned to either the gratitude condition or the control condition. In the control condition, the participants only completed the affect, well-being, and global life appraisals each day.
The findings of this study revealed that participants in the gratitude condition rated their life more favorably on two items – the rating of one’s life as a whole, and the upcoming week’s expectations. Furthermore, the gratitude group also demonstrated fewer symptoms of physical illness than those of the other two conditions. Interestingly, people in the gratitude condition also spent significantly more time exercising (nearly 1.5 hrs more weekly) than participants in the “hassles” condition. Gratitude did not appear to influence positive or negative affect. The first study was limited in that participants completed only one report per week, and emotional well-being might be more pronounced with a more involved intervention.
In the second study, the standard mean difference between the “gratitude” and “hassles” condition was much larger in Study 2 (d = 0.88) than in Study 1 (d = 0.56), thus suggesting that Study 2’s daily tasks produced a stronger effect in facilitating gratitude. Furthermore, in Study 2, participants in the gratitude condition reported significantly more positive affect (p < 0.05) than those in the “hassles” condition. The social comparison group showed no significant differences when compared to the gratitude or hassles conditions. In contrast to the first study, no differences in physical symptomatology (nor in time spent exercising) were reported. In the second study, individuals in the gratitude group were more likely to report that they had offered emotional support to others (p < 0.05) than individuals in the “hassles” or “social comparison” group.
A one-way ANOVA was conducted, and the mean gratitude rating over 21 days was used as the dependent variable, while the two experimental conditions (Gratitude vs. Control) were used as the two levels of the independent variable. The gratitude condition elicited more gratitude than did the control (M = 8.91, SD = 2.55). Just as in Study 1, the participants in the gratitude condition reported higher levels of life satisfaction and felt more optimism about their upcoming weeks. They also felt more social connectedness with others than did the participants in the control. The participants in the gratitude group also were rated higher in positive affect and life satisfaction than participants in the control condition.
This research study was one of the most seminal studies to examine the benefits in well-being that occur when one is focused on gratitude or gratitude-inducing exercises. Three separate studies within this investigation aimed to elucidate the gratitude-well-being relationship. Study 1 demonstrated that a weekly listing of one’s blessings was associated with more positive life appraisals, more time spent exercising, and less physical symptomatology. Study 2 demonstrated that daily gratitude exercises had a positive relationship with higher levels of positive affect, and it confirmed that gratitude may serve as a moral motivator. Study 3 revealed that the gratitude intervention was associated with less negative affect.
Noted Limitations/Future Directions
One of the key limitations of this study was that not all of the findings were replicated across the three studies. This limitation was hypothesized to occur because of the short time-frame (2-3 weeks). In terms of future directions, further research should seek to understand long-term methods through which gratitude can actually be cultivated in one’s daily actions and thoughts. Furthermore, clinical research may seek to examine the extent to which gratitude interventions can influence individuals with affective disorders.
Linley, P., Nielsen, K., Wood, A., Gillett, R., and Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1): 8–17.
In previous research concerning both coaching psychology and positive psychology, the use of character strengths has been demonstrated to be associated with both subjective and psychological well-being. In the social science literature, most strengths researchers often utilize an outcome based approach aimed at establishing a consensus that strengths use leads to positive outcomes, such as happiness or improved work performance. However, this approach does not take into account the specific ways, or mechanisms, through which the use of strengths may lead to improved well-being or other psychological benefits.
One potential answer lies in the relationship between strengths and motivation. The VIA Classification implicitly suggests that the use of strengths is intrinsically motivated for the most part, and that strengths use is concordant with an individual’s own interests and intrinsic values/morals. Alternatively, signature strengths may be utilized to pursue personal goals, and may thus aid in creating beneficial outcomes. However, the strengths-goals conceptual model must take into account the types of goals that are pursued, as well as the motivation behind the pursuit, as elucidated in the Self Concordance Model by Sheldon and Elliot (1999). They write that individuals who pursue self-concordant goals (goals consistent with their interests and values) put more sustained effort into pursuing and achieving those goals – and are thus more likely to attain their goals.
The primary objective of this investigation is to examine possible mechanisms in which the use of character strengths produces higher well-being, and the relation that character strengths and well-being have in enhancing goal pursuit and attainment. Here, Linley, et al (2010), hypothesized that the use of one’s signature strengths will contribute to goal progress, thus leading to greater well-being through attaining an experience that satisfies one’s needs (self-concordance).
This study has been identified as a key study because it was one of the first to use a repeated measures cross-sectional model to find evidence linking the use of personal strengths to improved goal progress, fulfillment of psychological needs, and improved well-being.
In this study, participants (n = 240) were composed of second-year college students in England, with a mean age of 19.95 years. The sample was largely female (191) and also included 49 males. The sample was predominantly white (78.8%) or Indian (8.8%).
The measures that were utilized include: the VIA Inventory of Strengths, the Positive and Negative Affect Scales (PANAS), the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), the Semester Goals of the students, the Basic Psychological Needs Satisfaction Scales (BPNSS), and questions pertaining to General Strengths Use and Goals-Strengths Use. In regard to General Strengths Use, participants were asked to respond to the question: “How much have you used each of your signature strengths in your life in general so far this semester?” To assess Goals Strengths Use (the extent to which participants were using each of their five signature strengths in pursuit of their top three semester goals), they responded to the following question: “How much have you used each of your signature strengths in working towards the [first/second/third] goal you identified for this semester?” General Progress and Goal Progress were also assessed.
The participants were recruited through a practical module that was part of an undergraduate course. At the first class, they completed baseline measures (paper and pencil), including the VIA Inventory of Strengths, the PANAS, and the Satisfaction with Life Scale. They also recorded their top three semester goals. Following six weeks after baseline, they again completed the PANAS and the Satisfaction with Life Scale, as well as the Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction Scales. They also completed the General Strengths Use and Goal Strengths-Use measures, as well as the questions that assessed general life progress and goals progress. These measures were completed again after 10 weeks from baseline.
To examine goal-strengths use and well-being, a composite measure of goals-strengths use and a composite measure of subjective well-being were created. The results from their repeated-measures cross-sectional study revealed that the use of signature strengths is associated with increased goal progress, which is then associated with greater psychological need satisfaction. Greater need satisfaction and goal progress are both in turn associated with higher levels of well-being.
These findings support the consensus in the literature (namely, studies by Sheldon and Elliot (1999) and Sheldon and Kasser (1998)) that demonstrate that self-concordant goals are associated, in specific, with greater well-being. Furthermore, the results from this study suggest that the well-being that occurs as a result of goal progress and need satisfaction may reinforce further goal progress, thus creating a learning loop of sorts.
This research investigation was one of the first to examine the association between character strengths use, goal progress, and well-being. With a repeated measures cross-sectional experimental design model, direct evidence was found linking the use of personal strengths (thus, involved in self-concordant goals) to improved goal progress, the fulfillment of psychological needs, and enhanced well-being.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions
In this study, the sample was composed of college students, and the sample was non-diverse in many ways, such as race/ethnicity, age, and more. Linley, et al (2010), thus note that the results must cautiously be generalized to the wider population, if generalized at all. In addition, because strengths use was measured and modeled as a composite score, the findings might not hold true for all strengths in an equal manner. Future research could also utilize a longitudinal experimental design, as the current study used a repeated measures cross-sectional design.
Mongrain, M., and Anselmo-Matthews, T. (2009). Do positive psychology exercises work? A replication of Seligman et al. J Clinical Psychology 68(4): 382 – 389.
Within the discipline of positive psychology, positive psychotherapy has emerged as a new type of intervention and may serve to teach individuals different pathways to increase subjective well-being and psychological functioning. The objective of this investigation is to critically examine and replicate a seminal study performed by Seligman and colleagues (2005), whose results demonstrated the benefits of positive psychology exercises.
In the research study conducted by Seligman and colleagues (2005), happiness interventions were tested through the Internet, with a convenience sample composed of 411 participants, and with a random-assignment, placebo-control experimental design. The interventions consisted of daily positive psychology exercises (PPEs) performed over the course of one week. Those in the placebo control wrote about their early memories every night for one week. Data on happiness and depressive symptoms were collected immediately before and after the intervention, as well as the 3- and 6-month follow-up point after the intervention. The results of this study revealed that the two most effective exercises were the (1) “three good things in life” exercise, where participants wrote about three good things that happened that day and the reasons for the event, and (2) the “using signature strengths in a new way” exercise, in which the participants identified their signature strengths and used them in a new and unique way every day for one week. Both exercises led to positive results when mood changes were considered for a long-term period; that is, differences in happiness were exhibited at the 1-month, 3-month, and 6-month follow-up points, upon comparison with the control group.
In the current investigation, the goal was to replicate these results and enhance the scientific rigor of the same work conducted by Seligman et al. (2005). The methodology of the current study was the same, with the exception that the early memories (control condition) was modified because research indicates that this exercise may improve well-being. Two modified control groups were thus utilized – one in which participants recalled “early” memories, and one in which participants recalled “early positive” memories.”
This study has been identified as a key study because it replicated the results (with enhanced scientific rigor) of the same seminal study conducted by Seligman, et al (2005).
Participants (n=1,447) were recruited through online advertisements on Facebook, and the sample was composed of predominantly White (78%), Canadian (84%) females. All participants were over 18, and the mean age was 33. The participants received $30 remuneration upon completion of the post-test follow-up assessments.
The measures included the Steen Happiness Index (SHI) and the CES-D (a measure of the incidence of depressive symptoms).
The procedure was identical to that of Seligman et al. (2005). The participants completed the measures online to assess their baseline measures of happiness and current depressive symptoms. They were then assigned to one of four conditions: (1) expectancy control (early memories); (2) positive placebo (positive early memories); (3) three good things; (4) using signature strengths in a new way. Each exercise required approximately 10 minutes per day, and after the week-long period, the participants completed the CES-D and the SHI, which were also completed at the 3- and 6-month follow-up assessment points.
Although 1,447 participants initially registered to participate with initial questionnaires, only 344 (24%) completed all study requirements, including the follow-up assessments.
In the study performed by Seligman et al. (2005), the statistical analysis required ANOVAs to determine which intervention was effective in increasing happiness over the 6-month period. This analysis was replicated by Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews (2000). The results indicated that participants increased in self-reported levels of happiness over time (p < 0.001). In addition, by conducting a planned contrast, the current study also demonstrated that the positive placebo was associated with sustained gains in happiness.
In regard to the “three good things” exercise, happiness levels significantly increased at the 1 week point (p = 0.004), and were sustained and elevated at the 3-month point (p=0.001) and the 6-month point (p = 0.02). In regard to the “using signature strengths in a new way” exercise, happiness levels were significantly increased when compared with baseline levels at 1 week (p < 0.001), at 1 month (p = 0.03), and at 6 months (p = 0.01). Thus, the findings for happiness replicated those found by Seligman and colleagues (2005). The effects of the exercises surpassed those of the expectancy control, but not those of the positive placebo.
Depressive Symptoms Results
For the current study, parallel analyses were conducted with depressive symptoms for the goal of determine how the positive psychology exercises affected depressive symptoms over time. An ANOVA was conducted, and the participants were demonstrated to have significantly decreased depressive symptoms over the 6-month study, but because of time. The results do disagree with some of the findings by Seligman et al., (2005), because the current study’s results demonstrate that the PPEs did not produce significantly greater reductions in depression over time, compared to the control group. This may have been due to differences in the control groups, or because participants in the current study were slightly more depressed than those in Seligman’s study. Furthermore, the participants in Seligman’s study may have had higher levels of motivation, since the attrition rate for the previous study was 29%, whereas the attrition rate for the current study by Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews (2009) was 76%.
In this research study, Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews (2009) conduct a replication of a seminal study performed by Seligman and colleagues in 2005, in which they examined the short-term and long-term effects of positive psychology exercises (PPEs) upon happiness and depressive symptoms. The results of Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews demonstrate PPEs may not have such a strong effect upon depressive symptoms as was originally thought by Seligman and colleagues (2005). Furthermore, the results of the current study also demonstrate that the PPEs, as well as the positive placebo, did indeed lead to sustained increases in happiness.
Noted Limitations/Future Directions
In the future, Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews (2009) note that research studies concerning positive psychology exercises ought to seek to investigate the mechanisms by which mood improvements occur. This goal can be accomplished through studies that emphasize methodological rigor and a strong experimental design (e.g. RCTs).
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York: Springer.
In this review chapter of Well-being and Cultures: Perspectives on Positive Psychology, Niemiec provides a comprehensive background to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues, as well as the VIA Inventory of Strengths. He provides crucial information on the prevalence of various character strengths, the conceptualization and meaning of “character,” and establishes a systematic review of the empirical research concerning character strengths and life satisfaction, as well as research studies that have delved deeply into a particular character strength.
In regard to prevalence of character strengths, the most commonly endorsed strengths are: kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, and judgment. In contrast, the least endorsed strengths are prudence, modesty, and self-regulation (Park et al. 2006). When compared across cultures, the VIA strengths are similarly distributed, but with some variations. For example, in a study by Shimai et al. (2006), researchers found that young adults in Japan and the United States had higher strengths of kindness, humor, and love; they both also had lower strengths of prudence, modesty, and self-regulation.
This systematic review has been identified as a key study because of the vast breadth of perspectives provided by Niemiec’s review, including different strengths-and-virtues theories, diverse empirical evidence, historical perspectives, and both basic/applied research concerning strengths and virtues.
When discussing practical applications of character strengths, Niemiec focuses on utilizing studies with results that can be applied in the practitioner’s three-step process of “aware, explore, and apply” (Niemiec 19). In this model, the practitioner first encourages the client to become more aware of their existing strengths initially. The practitioner then helps the client explore their strengths further, based on their past. Finally, the “exploration” step is followed by the “application” step, in which the practitioner and client create an action plan to target a strength.
Niemiec writes that it is crucial for strength-spotting (Linley 2008) to be utilized throughout the three phases. Strength-spotting includes resource priming before strengths are identified. The VIA PRO report is also a way for practitioners to provide more information to clients regarding their character strengths.
Niemiec does not provide a description of the methodology that he utilized to find, compile, or review relevant studies. Thus, this chapter serves as more of an overall survey of all recent research concerning the VIA character strengths.
In this chapter, Niemiec describes exercises related to signature strengths, which are character strengths that are often displayed in relevant settings, are “owned” by the individual, and are easily recognized as authentic or characteristic of the individual (Niemiec, p. 10). Niemeic describes a variety of interventions that describe new and unique ways to utilize signature strengths. For example, one randomized controlled study assigned participants to one of three groups: (1) a group instructed to use two signature strengths, (2) a group instructed to use one signature strength and one bottom strength, and (3) a control group. The results of this study revealed that there were significant increases in life satisfaction in the two treatment groups, compared to the controls, but there were no differences between the treatment groups (Rust et al. 2009).
Niemeic then delves into great detail when specifically describing the overarching categorizations of character strengths: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Within each categorization, Niemiec describes relevant and recent research studies across cultures, ages, and settings.
Niemiec’s chapter provides a strong outlook into the theory and empirical evidence surrounding character strengths in individuals. In addition to the strong historical perspective he provides, he also summarizes some of the contemporary basic and applied research concerning strengths and virtues. These studies are of high importance to any practitioner or individual who is interested in learning about a key arena within positive psychology.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions
Although Niemiec provides a strong and systematic review of research studies concerning character strengths and virtues, further research is needed as related to character strengths and relationships, the variables that individuals use to judge character strengths in peers, and the relationship that character strengths have with talents. Furthermore, Niemiec’s chapter does not detail the methodology that was utilized to find, compile, and survey the studies that he analyzes.
Park, N., Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 23 : 603–619.“
In 2004, Peterson and Seligman developed the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths, a handbook that details character strengths existing across cultures and across time. In addition, to assess positive traits in the classification, other assessment tools were created, such as the VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), which is a self-report questionnaire allowing individuals to assess their different character strengths. In this research investigation specifically, the objective was to examine the relationship between different character strengths and subjective well-being (specifically, life satisfaction) among 5, 299 adults who took the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths. Two key questions guided the work of Park, Peterson, and Seligman (2004): (1) Do certain strengths exhibit a stronger association to life satisfaction than do other strengths?, and (2) Do character strengths taken to an extreme decrease well-being or life satisfaction?
This study has been identified as a key study due to its evidence revealing that particular character strengths (hope and zest, in particular) were positively associated with life satisfaction, while others (modesty and intellectual strengths) were least associated with life satisfaction.
Three samples of adult volunteers were recruited over the Internet in 2002 and 2003. Sample 1 was composed of 3,907 volunteers and was obtained from the Authentic Happiness Website. Sample 2 (n=852) and Sample 3 (n=540) were both recruited from the Values in Action Website. On average, respondents were 35-40 years of age, and 70% of respondents were female; 80% were American citizens. The measures that were utilized included: the VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS). The measures were placed online with demographic questions.
The results of this research study revealed that the character strengths of hope and zest were positively associated with life satisfaction. Other strengths were related to life satisfaction, including gratitude, love, and curiosity. Modesty, appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, and love of learning shared only a weak association with life satisfaction.
To examine whether character strengths taken to an extreme decrease well-being, the individual scaled scores within a sample were categorized into 20 groups, according to magnitude. These were separated for each character strength. A one-way ANOVA was conducted, with each grouping as the independent variable and life satisfaction taken as the dependent variable. All of the ANOVAs were significant (ps<0.05), with the exception of appreciation of beauty, creativity, and modesty. This indicates that the “more intense the strength, the more life satisfaction” (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, 2004, p. 612).
The strong association of zest to life satisfaction is classified implicitly as a “virtual tautology” (p. 612), and the curiosity finding may also represent a “psychological tautology as well” (p. 612). Park, Peterson, and Seligman hypothesize that the associations between life satisfaction and love, hope, and gratitude are not tautological in nature. In exemplifying gratitude, one is able to connect (happily) to the past, and in terms of hope, a person would be able to connect (in a positive manner) to the future. Love is said to serve as the “domain in which ongoing life plays itself out in the most fulfilling way” (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, p. 11).
In this empirical study, researchers investigated the relationship of character strengths to life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Their results suggested that as character strengths, hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and love are most strongly associated with life satisfaction. In contrast, modesty and intellectual strengths are least associated with life satisfaction.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions:
One limitation of this research study was the strategy of obtaining participants, as they were recruited from the Internet and from positive psychology websites. Thus, it is difficult to judge with accuracy whether the sample is representative of a particular target population. Furthermore, the Sample 1 participants were recruited from Seligman’s Authentic Happiness book on positive psychology, indicating that the participants may have already been familiar with the concepts in positive psychology or character strengths and virtues. Future studies may seek to further elucidate whether character strengths are actually responsible for causing life satisfaction, which may require a longitudinal approach.
Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beerman, U., Park, N., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology 2: 149–156.“
Within the overarching discipline of positive psychology, character and virtues are key topics of investigation for researchers in the social sciences. The VIA (Virtues in Action) Classification is one way in which individual components of character, strengths, and virtues are assessed individually (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). This classification allows for a “comparative psychology of character” and includes six broad virtues, under which 24 universal character strengths are organized: (1) wisdom and knowledge (encompassing creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective); (2) courage (bravery, honesty, perseverance, and zest); (3) humanity (kindness, love, and social intelligence); (4) justice (fairness, leadership, and teamwork); (5) temperance (forgiveness, modesty, prudence, and self-regulation); and (6) transcendence (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, and religiosity) (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, 2004).
Within this classification, certain positive traits (love, hope, gratitude, curiosity, and zest) have been demonstrated previously to often correlate strongly with well-being, when measured in different ways. Even in a longitudinal study, these five character strengths were indicative of life satisfaction months later (Park and Peterson, 2006).
However, there are indeed different paths through which individuals can be happy. One path to happiness lies in the concept of hedonism, in which pleasure is maximized and pain is minimized (through immediate sensory gratification). Hedonism was championed by both Artistuppus and Epicurus, and is now known as the field of hedonic psychology (Kahneman, Diener, and Schwarz, 1999). Another route to happiness is accomplished through the state of flow, in which the individual is highly engaged in what he or she does (Czsikszentmihalyi, 1990).. Flow is described as nonemotional, nonconscious, and invigorating. The third pathway through which individuals are happy is Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia (being true to one’s inner self). In this model, happiness encompasses identifying one’s virtues, cultivating the virtues, and living in accordance with them. These three pathways to happiness were then modeled into three “orientations to happiness:” pleasure (hedonism), engagement (flow), and meaning (eudaimonia) (Peterson, et al., 2007).
The objective of this investigation was to examine why certain character strengths correlate so strongly with well-being, while others are less strongly associated with happiness or life satisfaction. Specifically, the investigators question whether different character strengths were related to the “orientations of happiness,” and if these associations may help to explain which strengths produce the most satisfaction. Thus, in this paper, Peterson, et al (2007) investigate the associations among character strengths, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction in two different samples: American adults completing online self-report measures, and Swiss adults completing paper-and-pencil self-report measures in German.
This study has been identified as a key study due to its investigation of character strengths, orientations of happiness, and life satisfaction in two different samples (American adults and Swiss adults).
In the American sample, there were 12,439 respondents from the United States who accompanied three questionnaires on the Authentic Happiness website between Sept 2002 and Dec 2005. The respondents were a self-selected group, but where more diverse and numerous than the typical research sample. The sample encompassed more females than males (71% vs. 29%) and the typical age was 40 years of age.
The Swiss sample consisted of 445 adults from Switzerland, who were recruited through advertisements in public places, advertisements to members of senior clubs/residence homes, or as undergraduate college students. Interested respondents completed the questionnaires by mail. Like the US sample, there were more females than males (61% vs. 39%). The typical age of a respondent was 50 years of age. The respondents completed German translations of the same questionnaires.
As measures, the investigators utilized the: Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), the Orientations to Happiness Scale, and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).
The Swiss and US samples were comparable, with three particular exceptions. The first is that the Swiss reported higher life satisfaction than did the Americans (t = 54.8, p<0.001). This difference echoes other findings in cross-national comparisons of happiness and life satisfaction (Diener, et al, 1995). However, it is important to note that the mean life satisfaction score for the US sample was several points lower than what is usually found for US participants. The second key difference is that the US sample reported greater religiosity than did the Swiss sample (t = 11.0, p<0.001), which is also replicated in the literature. The third difference, which is also a new finding, was that the US participants had higher scores on an orientation/pathway to meaning than did the Swiss participants (t=43.4, p<0.001), although the orientations to engagement and pleasure were nearly identical.
In the American sample, the character strengths with the strongest correlation to life satisfaction were: zest, hope, love, gratitude, and curiosity. In the Swiss sample, the strengths most correlated with life satisfaction were: zest, hope, love, curiosity, and perseverance. In both of the samples, each orientation to happiness was associated with life satisfaction; however, the correlation between life satisfaction and meaning was stronger in the American sample than in the Swiss sample (z = 3.42, p<0.001). In addition, the strengths that were most strongly linked to life satisfaction were strongly linked to the orientations to happiness.
Peterson, et al. (2007), also identified the character strengths that were associated with each orientation to happiness. In a life of pleasure, the character strength that was most evident was humor. The strengths linked most strongly to a life of engagement pleasure included zest, curiosity, and perseverance. Interestingly, a life of meaning was very strongly associated with religiosity.
Through statistical analysis, the results also revealed that all three orientations to happiness had a positive association with life satisfaction. The “engagement” and “meaning” paths were stronger than the “pleasure” route. Furthermore, diverse character strengths were associated with life satisfaction in all three routes. In addition, certain character strengths could be classified as “more” or “less” associated with certain orientations to happiness. The researchers also note that one finding in particular should be emphasized – that the “direct” effects of character strengths (in particular, love and gratitude) on life satisfaction were stronger than the mediating paths involving an orientation to happiness.
Peterson, et al (2007), conclude their research study by noting that the character strengths most associated with life satisfaction were those associated with orientations to pleasure, to engagement, and to meaning – thus suggesting that the most fulfilling strengths are those that make it possible for an individual to have a “full life.” However, many questions still remain regarding the mechanisms that link character strengths and well-being, and how these mechanisms might vary cross-culturally.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions
In this study, Peterson, et al (2007), note that both the US and Swiss samples were non-representative convenience samples, and that more research is needed to replicate the findings that concern national differences between Switzerland and the US. However, the results were consistent across samples, languages, and research strategies (pencil and paper vs. Internet). There may have been an element of self-selection bias of the US respondents, who completed the positive psychology surveys on the Internet through their own direction, thus indicating that perhaps the American sample was composed of individuals who may not be as happy with their lives (thus having less life satisfaction reported than in the Swiss sample). In addition, further research studies may find it useful to utilize more advanced methods of design, such as a multimethod assessment of constructs and prospective cohort designs.
Quinlan, D., Swain, N., and Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2012). Character strengths interventions: building on what we know for improved outcomes. J Happiness Studies 13: 1145-1163.“
In the early 2000s, the study of character strengths became a key area of interest within the discipline of positive psychology, as strengths were demonstrated to represent a factor influencing well-being and happiness. There are currently a variety of approaches to identifying and classifying strengths, including StrengthsFinder, the Virtues Project, the Values in Action (VIA) Inventory of Character Strengths, and Realise 2. These diverse strengths classifications vary according to their goals, definitions of “strengths,” and nomenclature, among other factors.
The VIA Inventory of Character Strengths is a 24-strength classification that was initially based on a review of character traits valued across time and across cultures. In this classification, character strengths are defined as “morally valued traits whose use contributes to fulfillment and happiness” (Quinlan et al., 2012). In contrast, StrengthsFinder is a classification designed to support success in the workplace, as well as personal development. It is based on workplace research studies of talents, which are conceptualized as having the potential to develop into strengths. Both VIA and StrengthsFinder take the approach that it is more beneficial for the individual to work on one’s strengths, rather than one’s weaknesses. Furthermore, both also encourage the individual to identify his or her top five “signature” strengths, which can then be specifically utilized in interventions. The Virtues Project, in contrast, is based on identifying 52 virtues, through which virtuous behavior and well-being are promoted through the use of all virtues. Similarly, the Realise 2, a more recent classification, identifies 60 strengths, which are categorized for the individual as either “realized” or “unrealized” strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses (Quinlan et al., 2012). Primarily, Realise 2 is utilized in the workplace or in coaching.
Broadly, psychological strengths have been defined as “ways of behaving, thinking, or feeling that an individual has a natural capacity for, enjoys doing, and which allow…optimal functioning” (Quinlan et al., 2012). Strengths interventions often are aimed at increasing well-being or personal achievement through the identification and development of strengths.
In this comprehensive review, the objective was to examine (1) validated strengths interventions, (2) the effectiveness of such interventions, and (3) the mechanisms through which these interventions may prove effective.
This study has been identified as a key study because it investigates the mechanisms that underlie strengths interventions, as well as different strengths interventions themselves.
The authors located English-language studies concerning strengths interventions by utilizing a variety of strategies, including searching EBSCOhost, Web of Science, and PsycINFO online databases. They used the keywords “strengths,” “intervention,” “activities,” “exercises,” “character strengths,” “well-being,” “life satisfaction,” “positive psychology,” “strengths inventory,” and “strengths classification.” Colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and the US also provided references. Ultimately, studies were included that had the explicit goal of teaching or using a strengths classification to enhance well-being. Thus, studies that aimed at enhancing well-being through cultivating one particular strength were excluded. Other initial criteria consisted of: the study must have pre- and post-intervention measures; it must include a comparison group; and the study must publish effect sizes. Most of the studies that followed these guidelines were those that used the VIA, so for three studies, the criteria were waived (and noted in the paper).
Thus far, only a small number of strengths intervention studies have been conducted to date, but these have been consistent in their findings – that identifying and developing one’s character strengths produces small increases in well-being in both adults and high-school-age students (Mitchell et al., 2009; Proctor et al., 2011; Rashid 2004; Rust et al., 2009; Seligman et al., 2005).
In Seligman’s 2005 (online) study of self-selected participants, he asked participants to utilize one of their top five strengths in a new way each day for a week. The participants demonstrated significant improvements in happiness lasting 6 months. In contrast, those who noted their top five VIA strengths and simply used them more often for a week received short-lived benefits. Thus, Quinlan, et al. (2012), note that “the benefits of strengths appeared to come from their use rather than…identifying them” (1148). In another intervention, Rust, et al. (2009), asked university students to work on developing two top five strengths, or one signature strength and one “lesser strength.” The students submitted weekly strengths logs to a teacher, who would provide supportive feedback. The two intervention groups demonstrated no significant differences in well-being between each other; however, significantly greater well-being gains were reported when compared to a control group. Upon analyzing gender as a factor, the results indicated that males experienced significantly greater benefits from the development of two strengths than the development of one strength and one weakness.
Minhas (2010) performed a small study utilizing the Realise 2 strengths classification. The study revealed that participants who further developed their known strengths (and often used them) showed increases in psychological well-being and engagement, but not in life satisfaction. Participants who worked on unrealized strengths (strengths that were not previously known or used often) demonstrated increased life satisfaction and engagement, but not psychological well-being. However, this study did have a small sample size and did not use a control group.
In regard to the effectiveness of character strength interventions, past findings have demonstrated that interventions of a longer duration had greater effect sizes. Interventions that introduce new concepts/skills have also demonstrated “sleeper effects,” in which effects of an intervention do not become apparent until six months after training, when participants have internalized the new concepts/skills. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether interventions that target one’s “top strengths” provide stronger benefits than those in which participants also concurrently work upon their weaknesses.
In terms of mechanisms underlying character strengths, Seligman’s (2005) study was one of the first to suggest that it is beneficial for individuals to use and develop their strengths, in contrast to simply identifying them. In addition, Govindji and Linley (2007) also found that although strengths knowledge did not predict subjective well-being, strengths use did predict subjective well-being. More recent research studies have also concluded that the use of character strengths is associated with goal progress, which in turn is associated with need satisfaction and well-being (Linley et al. 2010). However, it is still unclear as to how exactly certain interpersonal or group cultural factors may provide a framework or serve as part of mechanisms that underlie strengths interventions.
Quinlan et al. (2012), note that all character strengths interventions are aimed at the development and classification of strengths; however, interventions often differ based on their specific aims and origins in classification systems. It is thus crucial to consider the situation and context when considering the most appropriate strength classification to be utilized. Furthermore, it is also important to take into account an individual’s background when considering strategies to be used, based on gender or cultural factors. The mechanisms that underlie strengths interventions are varied, and may include relational, contextual, or individual factors (such as psychological needs satisfaction and valued goal-striving). Among published studies, longer strengths interventions showed more efficacy than shorter studies; however, the longer, more time-intensive interventions demonstrated only moderate results in increasing well-being (yet the long-term implications of “moderate results” have not been quantified). There are thus many varied directions for future studies concerning character strengths interventions.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions:
Currently, studies of character strengths interventions are still at a pivotal, emerging point. Going forward, studies may seek to examine different ways to measure the development of strengths over time and that different outcome variables (in terms of both the short- and long-term perspectives) are also further elucidated. Quinlan et al (2012) also note that in order to be successful, strengths interventions must be as carefully designed as any behavioral intervention, with a goal-driven rationale, engaging activities, and the presence of supportive people and habits that would help to sustain the use of strengths. Furthermore, another area of future study concerns the influence of other individuals (significant others) on strengths interventions that are often focused on “individual well-being.”
Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., and Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311.
Positive psychology pertains to education and schooling through the area of “positive education,” which is aimed at providing knowledge of the traditional skills surrounding academic achievement, as well as the skills surrounding happiness and well-being. With the rise of depression among young people around the world, researchers currently estimate that compared to 50 years ago, depression is approximately ten times more common now than it was then (Wickramaratne et al., 1989). Interestingly, the high prevalence of depression does not echo the improvements in individual environments over the past fifty years; with more purchasing power, increases in the size of homes/cars, improvements in education, and more social justice, progress has clearly been made. However, human morale has not experienced a similar type of progress, with the average individual and average national happiness only improving slightly, if at all.
To improve well-being, Seligman et al. (2009), propose that well-being should be taught in schools, as a vehicle that demonstrates increases in learning, improvements in attention, and more holistic and creative thinking. Furthermore, schools are important targets for well-being initiatives because of the time children and adolescents spend in school, as well as their in-depth interactions with educators, coaches, and peers. Thus, the objective of this investigation is to examine the story of integrating positive education skills into an entire school, the Geelong Grammar School (Australia), and to explore the hypothesis that positive education forms the foundation for a politic in which both well-being and traditional achievement are found to be invaluable.
This study has been identified as a key study due to its focus on positive education programs for youth, particularly with classroom-based interventions at the Geelong Grammar School.
Positive Education Programs for Classroom-Based Interventions
In this investigation, two different positive education programs were tested for schools: (1) the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) and (2) the Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum.
In the first program (PRP), the educational goal was to increase the ability of students to handle daily stressors that often occur during adolescence and to do so by teaching students to think more realistically and flexibly about the challenges they face. In the past 20 years, 17 studies compared PRP to a control group, and most of the 17 studies utilized randomized controlled trials. A meta-analysis of the 17 studies demonstrated significant benefits associated with PRP at all follow-up assessment points, which occurred immediately after the intervention, as well as at 6- and 12-months following the program. The meta-analysis also revealed that PRP significantly reduced hopelessness and significantly improved optimism. Most studies included in the meta-analysis showed significant, long-lasting effects of PRP on anxiety (both in terms of prevention and reduction). Thus, most studies demonstrate that PRP is associated with significant positive improvements in students’ well-being.
The Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum is the first empirical study of a positive psychology curriculum for adolescents. Seligman’s research team performed a randomized controlled evaluation of the curriculum by assigning 347 ninth-grade students to Language Arts classes that either contained the positive psychology curriculum or did not contain the curriculum. The curriculum itself consisted of 20-25 80-minute sessions, which often involved the discussion of character strengths, an activity, and a real-world homework assignment, as well as a reflection. Questionnaires were completed by students, their parents, and teachers before and after the program, and at a two-year follow-up point. The questionnaires measured students’ strengths, social skills, behavioral challenges, and enjoyment of school; furthermore, students’ grades were measured. The goals of the curriculum were bifold: (1) to aid students in identifying signature character strengths, and (2) to increase the students’ usage of these strengths in their daily lives.
Seligman et al. (2009), also note two examples of exercises that were included in the curriculum. The first example is the “Three Good Things” exercise, in which students wrote down, for a week, three good things that happened during each day. They also write a reflection on why the positive event happened, or what the event signified to them for the present as well as the future. In the second exercise, students took the VIA Signature Strengths test for children, and identified, developed, and applied their strengths in new ways.
Geelong Grammar School: A School-wide Positive Education Experience
At the University of Pennsylvania, the Positive Psychology Center also trained American and British teachers in positive educational techniques; these techniques were then utilized in controlled studies of individual classrooms, and in particular, an entire school – the Geelong Grammar School (GGS) in Australia. Fifteen University of Pennsylvania trainers taught positive psychology skills to 100 faculty members of GGS. Several trainers were then in residence at GGS and a dozen scholars visited GGS each week to continue instructing faculty.
In terms of engagement in learning, enjoyment of school, and achievement, this study revealed that the positive psychology curriculum improved students’ strengths related to learning and engagement in school, such as curiosity, the love of learning, or creativity. The reports of enjoyment and engagement in school also increased as a result of the positive psychology curriculum. In students of non-honors classes, the curriculum enhanced Language Arts achievement through eleventh grade.
In terms of social skills, the positive psychology program was associated with improved social skills, as per reports by mothers and teachers. However, the positive psychology program did not improve other outcomes, such as reports of depression or anxiety symptoms, character strengths, or participation in extra-curricular activities.
Geelong Grammar School
At the Geelong Grammar School, Seligman et al (2009), report that no systematic data is currently available at this early stage of the investigation. However, the impression of the research team and the GGS faculty was that the program was incredibly successful, so different anecdotes are described in a narrative format. For example, students began by investigating their VIA signature strengths and conducted interviews of family members to develop a “family tree” of strengths. They then learned how to build positive emotion by writing gratitude letters to parents, writing blessing journals, and learning how to overcome negativity bias. Positive education was then integrated further into the curriculum in many different ways that allowed students to “live” positive education (Seligman, et al., p. 306-307).
Seligman, et al (2009), conclude by demonstrating the need for a “new prosperity,” in which both well-being and wealth are simultaneously valued for members of our society. This new conceptual model must begin in the early years of schooling, sparked by positive education and curricula that make use of positive psychology.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions
This research study demonstrates the need for future research concerning positive education in the years of early schooling. Now that general well-being is able to be quantified, it is crucial that research studies measure the impact that Positive Education makes upon students’ well-being and achievement in a quantitative manner.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist 60: 410–421.“
Since 2000, the field of positive psychology has been rapidly expanding, with the initial version of the Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV) published in 2004 by Peterson and Seligman. Seligman writes that the aim of CSV was, broadly, to accomplish for psychological well-being what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) did for elucidating disabling psychological disorders and conditions. The CSV is a classification built upon six overarching virtues recognized across nearly every culture: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In each virtue, particular strengths are recognized that meet a variety of criteria, such as being ubiquitous, fulfilling, morally valued, measurable, and more (Seligman et al. 2005, p. 411). The CSV serves as a framework that serves as a guide for future investigations and psychological interventions.
In this review article, Seligman et al. (2005), examine recent developments within the arena of positive psychology and discuss how the VIA Inventory of Character Strengths may serve as a complement to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The authors then present cross-cultural research findings revealing the omnipresent nature of character strengths and virtues. The authors also discuss the results of their own well-being intervention, which was tested with a randomized, placebo-controlled experimental design.
This study has been identified as a key study due to its cross-cultural research findings that indicate empirical evidence supporting well-being interventions.
Well- being Interventions
To investigate the efficacy of five positive psychology exercises, Seligman et al (2005) tested each intervention by utilizing a random-assignment, placebo-controlled experimental design. Participants were recruited by the Internet, and the intervention and data collection both took place through the Internet. For the first RCT, five happiness exercises and one placebo control exercise were created. One exercise focused on building gratitude, and two exercises focused on increasing awareness of one’s positive aspects. Two exercises focused on identifying character strengths. The placebo control consisted of journaling for one week about early memories. Each participant in the convenience sample (n=577) was followed for six months, and symptoms of happiness and depression were both measured. Of the 577 participants that completed baseline questionnaires, 411 (71%) completed all follow-up questionnaires. The well-being interventions consisted of the following exercises: (1) Placebo control exercise – early memories; (2) Gratitude visit; (3) Three good things in life; (4) You at your best; (5) Using signature strengths in a new way, and (6) Identifying signature strengths.
Recent developments within positive psychology
Seligman, et al. (2005), write that in 2005, three empirical findings emerged since the initial publication of the CSV. First, Park, Peterson, and Seligman (2005) demonstrated similarities in the endorsement of the 24 character strengths by adults in both global and domestic contexts. In 40 different countries, the most commonly endorsed strengths were: kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude, and open-mindedness. The lesser strengths (“least like me”) encompassed prudence, modesty, and self-regulation. The same ranking is echoed in all 50 of the American states, with the exception of religiosity, which was more evident in the southern United States. The ranking is consistent across gender, age, political affiliation of the states, and educational level. Thus, Seligman et al. (2005) suggest that these findings may reveal something about universal human nature or about the traits needed for a society to survive.
Park, Peterson, and Seligman (2005) also found that hope, teamwork, and zest were more common among American youth than among American adults. Among adults, appreciation of beauty, authenticity, leadership, and open-mindedness were more common. It is thus crucial that future research concerns the ways in which young adults can prevent particular strengths from wearing away as they transition into adulthood.
Another key empirical finding is that certain strengths – that is, “strengths of the heart” (zest, gratitude, hope, and love) – are more strongly associated with life satisfaction than are the “strengths of the head,” including curiosity or love of learning. This pattern is reflected in both adults and youth, and the trend also continues when studied longitudinally.
Two exercises (“using signature strengths in a new way” and “three good things in life”) showed an association with increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. In addition, the gratitude visit was associated with large positive changes in well-being for one month. The two remaining exercises, as well as the placebo control, showed positive, but short-lived, effects on happiness and depressive symptoms. Long-term benefits were mediated by the degree to which participants continued their assigned exercises independently, actively, and with a long-term perspective in mind.
After one week of participating in the assigned exercise, “gratitude visit” participants were happier and less depressed, and in general, showed the largest positive changes in well-being. However, at the three-month follow-up point, participants were no happier (or no less depressed) than they were at baseline.
Those who participated in the “three good things” exercise demonstrated beneficial effects starting at one month after the post-test, which occurred immediately after the exercise. Participants were happier and less depressed at the one-month follow-up point, and remained that way at the three-month and six-month follow-up points. A similar long-term improvement was demonstrated in participants of the “using signature strengths in a new way” study.
Thus, the results of these interventions demonstrate that two interventions were shown to make people happier and less depressed. The two interventions consisted of: (1) writing about three good items that happened each day and why they occurred and (2) using signature character strengths in a new way each day. The positive effects lasted for up to one month for the gratitude visit, and up to six months for the signature strengths usage intervention. The results also demonstrated that adherence to each particular exercise had a significant effect on happiness scores for all time periods
By comparing five happiness interventions to a placebo control, the work of Seligman et al (2005) revealed that specific interventions are associated with making people happier and less depressed. The length of time in which well-being increases are sustained do vary according to the intervention itself. This study was unique in that at the time of its publication (2005), Seligman notes that it was the “most ambitious random-assignment, placebo-controlled test of happiness interventions” (Seligman et al., 2005, p. 420).
Noted Limitations and Future Directions:
Based on this experiment, Seligman et al (2005) suggest that moving forward, the random-assignment placebo control is utilized further in positive psychology, and that these interventions take place in different contexts. For example, rather than delivering exercises electronically through a web site, it may be important to investigate the role of a skilled clinician or therapist in increasing well-being through the delivery of particular exercises or suggestions. In addition, future investigations may seek to increase the amount of time in which participants perform their assigned exercise, as Seligman et al (2005) note that one week may not be enough time for a therapeutic outcome to be established. Furthermore, the question of whether the number of exercises makes a difference (when considering happiness interventions) still remains unanswered.
Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T. B., and Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences 50(1): 15-19.”]
Previous theoretical research in the field of positive psychology has suggested that the possession and use of one’s personal and psychological strengths leads to improved and sustained well-being. However, only very few empirical research studies have, if at all, examined whether the use of strengths is associated with improved outcomes in psychological well-being. Most research has focused on the consequences of having certain levels of a strength (thus demonstrating a focus on possession, rather than utilization). This may have been due to the lack of a psychometric scale that would aid in quantitatively measuring the use of strengths.
In positive psychology, it is important to distinguish between the possession and use of character strengths. Wood et al. (2011) provide an example comparison between a highly creative individual who never utilizes this strength in creativity, and a creative person who does utilize his talent in many different contexts and situations to achieve his goals. Although identifying and possessing a strength may lead to benefits in well-being, the use of the strength is hypothesized to lead to the most benefits in happiness and well-being.
In 2007, Govindji and Linley’s cross-sectional study demonstrated that reports of strengths use were positively correlated with an individual’s reports of well-being. In the intervention, individuals were encouraged to find a new way to use their strengths each day, over the course of a week. This then led to greater well-being, which was sustained over a six month assessment period, when compared to a control condition in which participants wrote about their earliest memories each night for a week. Currently, however, concerns still remain about control conditions in positive psychology research.
The objectives of this investigation are two-fold: (1) to provide a quantitative validation of a new Strengths Use Scale (Govindji and Linley, 2007), and (2) to present the results of a longitudinal empirical study determining whether the use of strengths naturally leads to increased well-being over time. The outcome variables included: measures of the emotional component of well-being (positive and negative affect); measures of perceived stress; a measure of self-esteem; and a measure of vitality. Because the time frame needed to appropriately assess the impact of strengths use was not known, the research team performed follow-up assessments at three- and six-months.
This study has been identified as a key study because it quantitatively validates the Strengths Use Scale and additionally presents the results of a longitudinal investigation concerning use of strengths and psychological well-being.
In this research study, participants were recruited from local communities in central and northern England. Participants completed all measures at baseline, as well as follow-up assessments measuring well-being after three and six months post-intervention. Two hundred and twenty-seven participants completed measures at baseline, and 218 participants completed measures at the second time point (three months later). Two hundred and seven participants completed measures at the third time point (six months post-intervention). The overall retention rate was 91%.
The research team assessed the use of strengths with the Strengths Use Scale (Govindji and Linley, 2007). Positive and negative affect was measured with Watson’s Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (Watson et al., 1988). Perceived stress was measured with the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen and Williamson, 1988). Rosenberg’s Self Esteem Scale assessed global self-esteem, and vitality was assessed with the Subjective Vitality Scale (Ryan and Frederick, 1997).
At the first time point, all fourteen items assessed on the Strengths Use Scale were subjected to a maximum likelihood factor analysis, in hopes of better examining the structure of the Strengths Use Scale. The “maximum likelihood” allows one to generalize the findings to new participant populations. Upon applying a parallel analysis, the results showed a one-factor solution, demonstrating that all items could be retained to form one total score. To test whether baseline strengths use levels predicted well-being changes, ten multiple regressions were conducted. The results indicated that strengths use led to increases in self-esteem, vitality, and positive affect, and that strengths use led to decreases in stress. Furthermore, the results also revealed that individuals who reported greater strengths use developed greater levels of well-being over time. Even at the follow-up points of three- and six-months, strengths use was positively correlated with greater self-esteem, vitality, positive affect, and lower stress.
Because of the one-factor statistical structure of the Strengths Use Scale, the results indicate that Govindji and Linley’s (2007) Strengths Use Scale would be an appropriate tool for future research because of its strong psychometric properties.
Previous research in positive psychology has focused predominantly on the advantages of the possession of individual character strengths. This research study is unique in being one of the first to utilize a longitudinal design to investigate whether the usage of strengths can predict psychological well-being through a validation of the Strengths Use Scale. Indeed, the results revealed that strengths use led to greater self-esteem, vitality, positive affect, and less stress over a longitudinal period.
Noted Limitations and Future Directions:
This research study does include certain limitations as to its measures and experimental design. Namely, the study exclusively utilized self-report measures, so the authors suggest that the results ought to be best interpreted as the perceived use of strengths. In addition, future research may seek to focus on whether a specific strength is responsible for the relationship to well-being, or whether any strength’s use can lead to improved well-being.
Interested in learning more about strengths and virtues? Click on each citation to read the abstract of each study.
STRENGTHS AND VIRTUES: THE CONSTRUCT
Strengths and Virtues Review Studies
Theory-Based Strengths and Virtues Studies
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., and Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.
Govindji, R., and Linley, P. A. (2007). Strengths use, self-concordance, and well-being: Implications for strengths coaching and coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(2), 143-153.
Park, N., Peterson, C., and Ruch, W. (2009). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction in twenty-seven nations. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(4), 273–279.
Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beermann, U., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 149–156.
Strengths and Virtues in Schools
Peterson, T. D., and Peterson, E. W. (2008). Stemming the tide of law student depression: What law schools need to learn from the science of positive psychology. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics, 9(2), 357–434.
Strengths and Virtues in the Workplace
Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(2), 161–172.
Sumner-Armstrong, C., Newcombe, P., & Martin, R. (2008). A qualitative investigation into leader behavioural flexibility. The Journal of Management Development, 27 (8), 843–857.
Strengths and Virtues among Different Cultures
Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., and Fredrickson, B. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindness intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361–375.
Park, N., Peterson, C., and Ruch, W. (2009). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction in twenty-seven nations. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(4), 273–279.
Park, N., Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character Strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.
Strengths and Virtues in Children & Young Adolescents
Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2006b). Moral competence and character strengths among adolescents: the development and validation of the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth. Journal of Adolescence, 29(6), 891-910.
CLINICAL APPLICATIONS & INTERVENTIONS
General Applications of Strengths and Virtues
Harzer, C., and Ruch, W. (2012). When the job is calling: The role of applying one’s signature strengths at work. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(5), 362-371.
Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., and Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.
Littman-Ovadia, H., & Davidovitch, N. (2010). Effects of congruence and character-strength deployment on work adjustment and well-being. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 1(3), 138–146.
Mitchell, J., Stanimirovic, R., Klein, B., and Vella-Brodrick, D. (2009). A randomised controlled trial of a self-guided internet intervention promoting well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(3), 749–760.
Rust, T., Diessner, R., & Reade, L. (2009). Strengths only or strengths and relative weaknesses? A preliminary study. The Journal of Psychology, 143(5), 465–476.
Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T. B., and Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 50(1), 15-19.
Flood, M., and Phillips, K. D. (2007). Creativity in older adults: A plethora of possibilities. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 28(4), 389–411.
Glück, J., and Baltes, P. B. (2006). Using the concept of wisdom to enhance the expression of wisdom knowledge: Not the philosopher’s dream but differential effects of developmental preparedness. Journal of Psychology and Aging, 21(4): 679–690.
Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., and Fredrickson, B. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindness intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361–375.
Sumner-Armstrong, C., Newcombe, P., & Martin, R. (2008). A qualitative investigation into leader behavioural flexibility. The Journal of Management Development, 27 (8), 843–857.
West, B. J., Patera, J. L., & Carsten, M. K. (2009). Team level positivity: Investigating positive psychological capacities and team level outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(2), 249–267.
Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., and Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773–1802.
McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., and Cohen, A. D. (2006). Writing about the benefits of an interpersonal transgression facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5): 887 – 897.
Diessner, R., Rust, T., Solom, R., Frost, N., and Parsons, L. (2006). Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention. Journal of Moral Education, 35(3), 301–317.
Emmons, R. A., and McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., and Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46(2), 213–233.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73–82.
Key studies concerning strengths and virtues were selected according to methodological rigor, type of investigation, and approach taken in understanding the relationship between the use of strengths and virtues and psychological well-being (or life satisfaction). A 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough was identified as a key study due to its emphasis on understanding the relationship between gratitude and subjective well-being through the “counting blessings” psychological intervention. A 2013 study by Linley, et al, was identified as a key study because it was one of the first to use a repeated measures cross-sectional model to demonstrate evidence linking the use of personal strengths to improved goal progress, fulfillment of psychological needs, and improved well-being. Additionally, a 2009 study performed by Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews was identified as a key study because it replicated the results with enhanced scientific rigor of the same seminal study conducted by Seligman, et al (2005). Niemiec’s 2013 systematic review was identified as a key study because of the vast breadth of perspectives provided in the review, including different strengths and virtues theories, diverse empirical evidence, historical perspectives, and both basic and applied research concerning strengths and virtues.
In addition, Park, Peterson, and Seligman’s 2004 study was identified as a key study due to its evidence revealing that particular character strengths (hope and zest) were positively associated with life satisfaction, while others (modesty and intellectual strengths) were least associated with life satisfaction. Peterson’s 2007 study was also identified as a key study due to its cross-cultural samples (American adults and Swiss adults). Quinlan, Swain, and Vella-Broderick’s 2012 study was identified as a key study because it investigates diverse strengths interventions, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the interventions. Seligman’s 2009 study was identified as a key study due to its focus on positive education programs for youth, particularly in regard to classroom-based interventions at the Geelong Grammar School. In addition, Seligman’s 2005 study was identified as a key study due to its cross-cultural research findings that indicate empirical evidence supporting well-being interventions. Finally, a 2011 study by Wood, et al, was identified as a key study because it quantitatively validates the Strengths Use Scale and additionally presents the results of a longitudinal investigation concerning use of strengths and the influence on psychological well-being.