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Two Strengths that Together, Reduce the Risk of Suicidality

Brand new research on resilience

For psychologists that travel cross-country, how we describe our career determines whether or not we get five hours of intrigue or inside access to a decaying marriage and an inability to resist maple iced glazed Krispy Kremes. The oversized Dr. Dre headphones don't help. Even carefully placed jargon such as body morphology and intuitive embodiment fail to dissuade the passenger hell bent on telling their story of childhood abandonment [the last person told me about a visceral playground image when they were 7 and so excited to come down the "big slide" only to discover that by the time her feet touched ground, her friends had moved on to play kickball.....a reminder that traumatic events are relative]. I no longer say I am a clinical psychologist. I no longer say I am a psychologist. I no longer say I study happiness. I study strengths and well-being. And since this change, I have yet to quit a conversation to turn my ipad to Season 4 of True Blood (which sucks).

One thing my research team noticed is that when it comes to studying or trying to cultivate psychological strengths, researchers and people on the frontlines prefer the one at a time route. Now this approach is great for single titled books that (over)sell the significance of one dimension of humanity.

Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver

Before you accuse me of being a judgmental prick, notice my 5-star review of each of these stellar contributions. Let's be precise, I am a self-loathing, judgmental prick who did the same thing with my first book:

Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life

The problem with focusing on one strength, and referring to it as the greatest strength, is that people are multi-dimensional. Just because we don't observe something doesn't mean its not present. I might be overly focused on rewarding my employee's positivity and while doing so, I might ignore their courage, curiosity, and moral compass which often have nothing to do with how positive someone feels and thinks. To alter this trend, we started to get interested into what we call "strength constellations." Here is an excerpt from a 2011 article we wrote on the topic (p. 112-113):

By ‘strengths constellations’, we mean the unique profiles of strengths from person to person.Currently, many practitioners focus – somewhat arbitrarily – on their client’s ‘top 5 strengths’, most often meaning those that the client most heavily endorses on a strengths measure. We feel there is much to be gained by looking at specific pairings or groupings of strengths. The science of psychology is replete with examples in which researchers have found it advantageous to examine concepts in tandem rather than in isolation. Take the construct of ‘subjective well-being’ (Diener, 1984) for example. Subjective well-being consists of specific components (life satisfaction and positive and negative affect).While it is instructive to assess each of these individually, it is more sophisticated to understand how each of these affects the others (Schimmack, 2008)...the usefulness of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® in organizational settings rests, in part, on its ability to distinguish different ‘types’ (e.g., an extroverted personality type that is coupled with a leaning toward ‘thinking’ is different than an extroverted personality type coupledwith a leaning toward ‘feeling’)...currently, we know very little about how specific strengths interact with one another or manifest in real world circumstances.

And so my graduate students and I wanted to test whether the combination of arguably the most powerful interpersonal strength, Gratitude, and the most powerful intrapersonal strength, Grit, work together to create the optimal psychological profile for adults. In our study, we tested whether these two strengths offer resilience to the worst possible outcome - someone reaching a point of desperation where they wanted to kill themselves. What we found is that while it was great that adults could be very grateful or in turn, very gritty, neither was sufficient to understand who was at risk for suicidal thoughts. But when these strengths emerged in tandem, we exposed a tapestry of resilience. Those adults characterized as being both grateful and gritty experienced near-zero suicidal thoughts over a month's time.

Now you might ask, why gratitude and grit when there is a massive universe of strengths out there from compassion and storytelling to positivity. We wanted to capture complementary strengths. Gratitude is about being focused on the outside world (kind people, fresh air, and succulent unagi rolls) whereas grit is about internal determination to perserve through life's obstacles. Gratitude is about attending to the past (the financial support of parents) and present (a colleague befriends your wife) whereas a gritty person is willing to absorb future pain to follow through with meaningful goals. A person with this strength duo - with a healthy time orientation towards the past, present, and future - might be the most resilient to suicide. And this is what we found. And to add one more layer to the story, we found that grateful, gritty adults were resilient to suicide because they experienced a profound sense of meaning in their lives. Grateful, gritty adults found pockets of meaning in their social world, their accomplishments, through a nostalgic lens of the past, a mindful attitude in the present, and an optimistic outlook of the future. Synergy versus artificial simplicity.

Strength constellations. When we capture the complexity of people, we can intervene most effectively. This is just the start of going deeper into strong leadership....

Kleiman, E.M., Adams, L.M., Kashdan, T.B., & Riskind, J.H. (in press). Grit and gratitude indirectly reduce risk of suicidal ideations by enhancing meaning in life: Evidence for a mediated moderation model. Journal of Research in Personality

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. His new book, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology was published in April 2013. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, see the contact information at