What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

The 5 Happiness Strengths

Boosting your strengths that are connected with greater well-being

The science of positive psychology has revealed several character strengths that are particularly connected with higher levels of happiness. Over and over again studies show these five strengths might be considered “the happiness strengths”:

  • Zest
  • Hope
  • Gratitude
  • Curiosity
  • Love

Are you high in any of these character strengths? According to research by the VIA Institute, over 75 percent of people have one of these strengths in their top 5.

Looking to boost one of these strengths? No problem. There are plenty of tips to go around and research studies are revealing good benefits for people that focus on boosting these strengths. Here are some activities to get you started:

Activity to Boost Zest:
Get active! Engaging in physical exercise has been shown to increase energy levels and improve endurance. All you need is 30 minutes a day and you will notice a difference in your spirit and vitality. Pick a physical activity that sounds fun to you, such as ice-skating, hiking, touch football, skiing, etc. and do it! You will be boosting your strength of zest AND improving your physical and psychological wellness.

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  • Why zest? When you use your zest strength you are being enthusiastic and excited about what’s going on in your life. You are doing what psychologists call—behavioral activation—because you are lifting your energy levels by taking action with your body and mind.


Activity to Boost Hope:
Take a moment to think about the upcoming year and imagine your best possible self coming forward. Imagine that you are engaging in activities that are pleasing and you are working towards goals that are important to you. After you get a clear image write out the details. Writing about your best possible self helps to create a logical structure for the future and can help you move from the realm of foggy ideas to concrete, real possibilities.

  • Why hope? To be hopeful means to be good at thinking about the future and the various goals you want to accomplish. Hopeful people are great at considering many different pathways to reach their goals and they have the confidence and motivation that they can get there!

Activity to Boost Gratitude:
Put you pen to paper (or your fingers to your keyboard) and write a letter to someone you are grateful to. Think of a person who has had a particular impact on you that you have not properly thanked. Reflect on how you have positively benefited from their actions and then write them a letter expressing your gratitude. You might consider taking an additional step by calling the person on the phone or arranging to meet them in person and read the letter aloud to them. The experience will likely be rewarding for you and the other person!

  • Why gratitude? When we express gratitude we cause an immediate shift in our thinking and feeling. We feel positive emotions and think outside of our autopilot mind. Gratitude moves us outside of ourselves to connect with other people and thus can be viewed as a mechanism for building positive relationships.

Activity to Boost Curiosity:
Think of an activity that you dislike, such as washing dishes, paying bills, or folding laundry. Next time you are engaging in this activity focus on three novel or unexpected features of the action. For instance, if your low-interest activity is dish-washing, maybe focus on the smell of the soap, the heaviness of the pot, and the warmth of the sudsy water. Can you find one thing surprising about this humdrum activity?

  • Why curiosity? The exercise of the curious part of our mind leads us to pursue the new and the different. It brings us to explore our world, ourselves, and other people. This, in turn, leads us to new discoveries and personal growth…and greater well-being.

Activity to Boost Love:
Engage in loving-kindness meditation. Find a comfortable space to sit quietly and practice wishing yourself and others happiness and peace. The standard loving-kindness mediation studied by researchers and used in mindfulness programs is as follows:

  • May I/you be filled with loving-kindness.
  • May I/you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
  • May I/you be well in body and mind.
  • May I/you be at ease and happy.

This type of meditation has been connected with many physical and psychological benefits.

  • Why love? The strength of love involves both the giving and receiving of warmth and closeness with others. This is foundational for building healthy, positive relationships, which are viewed by researchers as one of the best pathways for boosting our happiness.


Conclusion

Try one of these exercises and watch the benefits unfold.

Let me know what you observe in yourself and others. Add your comments below!

 

Want to learn more about character strengths?

VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)

VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)

VIA Survey (the research-validated test)

VIA resources for practitioners

 

References

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062.

Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2012). Strength-based positive interventions: Further evidence for their potential in enhancing well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). What is the optimal way to deliver a positive activity intervention? The case of writing about one’s best possible selves. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 635-654.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23, 603–619.

Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 161-172.

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, 149–156.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Buschor, C. (2012). Testing strengths-based interventions: A preliminary study on the effectiveness of a program targeting curiosity, gratitude, hope, humor, and zest for enhancing life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Salzberg, S. (1995). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Shimai, S., Otake, K., Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Convergence of character strengths in American and Japanese young adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 311–322.

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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