Depression: Here's One Forgotten Approach

The emerging science of character strengths offers support and hope.

Posted Jul 07, 2015

VIA Institute
Source: VIA Institute

Joan, a middle-aged woman, a longtime sufferer of depression, was studying mindfulness and character strengths and was particularly impacted by the character strengths components. Over the decades, she had been a regular customer of psychotherapy and medication to treat her depression. After she had practiced working with her highest strengths (called signature strengths) for three weeks, I asked her about her progress:

“How has your strengths practice been going?”

“I discovered I have to take my signature strength pill every day,” Joan replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When I use my curiosity or kindness or gratitude in a new way, I feel better that day. When I forget to mindfully use a signature strength, I feel worse. My strengths acts like a pill for me.”

“Tell me more about that,” I commented with curiosity.

“It’s like this – when I take a fresh approach with a signature strength, my roof or ceiling opens up and I see the world more clearly. I see the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the trees. I want to connect with people. I feel better. I’m taking action and I’m taking action with my core parts.”

“Sounds a bit like psychological exercise!”

“Exactly, just like running on a treadmill, it keeps me in a healthy place of taking action.”

Joan’s practice with signature strengths is a good example of the science-based exercise – "take the VIA Survey, identify one of your signature strengths, and use it in a new way each day." In randomized, controlled trials, this intervention consistently leads to increases in happiness and decreases in depression for people, sometimes with effects lasting six months.  This exercise has been further validated by revealing benefits across a number of populations, including youth, older adults, employees, people with traumatic brain injuries, suicidal people, as well as across various cultures such as China, Australia, UK, US, Canada, and Europe.

To be clear, using character strengths is not a cure for depression. It is an important adjunct. In fact, it's an often forgotten aspect of depression therapies. This is surprising because it couldn't be easier for people with depression or their therapists to integrate strengths into treatment.

Here are 2 ways to start:

  1. Take the free VIA Survey online and bring your test results to the next session.
  2. Explore questions relating to personal identity: What are your best qualities? What parts of yourself are most core to who you are? Which personality aspects of yourself give you the most energy? How would you describe "the real you"? How might you bring these universal, human character traits forth more strongly in your life?

Pilot research on depression has found that therapists (who practice CBT) that focus on their depressed client's CBT strengths get better outcomes and their clients have less depression relapse (compared to therapists who focus on their depressed client's CBT weaknesses)! There is something important about helping people to not forget what they are good at.

You might be asking yourself the question: Why is it that using signature strengths is successful for boosting well-being? This is still a new question needing further investigation but there are many initial reasons that science has uncovered. One reason is that when we use our signature strengths we are making progress on our goals. Another reason is our highest strengths are connected with our life passions. Yet another reason is our basic needs get met when we use our strengths - needs for relationship with others, independance, and a sense of control. All of these reasons bode well for people suffering from depression.

But, the benefits of using signature strengths does not stop there. Here are some examples of what other scientists have found:

  • The use of 4 or more signature strengths at work is a cutoff for more positive work experience and work-as-a-calling.
  • The use of signature strengths is connected with work engagement and work satisfaction.
  • In many cases, knowing your strengths is not enough, you must deploy them in your life too.
  • Using signature strengths is especially powerful for people who are less self-aware.
  • Character strengths are linked with a better workplace climate.
  • Character strengths are connected with the various elements of well-being such as engagement, meaning, positive emotions, and positive relationships.
  • Character strengths are linked with improved achievement and performance.
  • Character strengths help to buffer stress and improve coping ability.

For a review of these and over 200 peer-reviewed studies on character strengths, go to www.viacharacter.org

Interested in the latest book on character strengths? Check out Character Strengths Matters, edited by Shannon Polly and Kathryn Britton. They've compiled engaging stories, practices, tips, and research on character strengths from several leaders in the field. All of the book's proceeds go to support the Christopher Peterson Memorial Fellowship. Highly recommended!

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