Psychological Strength Research That Everybody Needs to Know

Using psychological strengths to treat depression

Posted Feb 11, 2015

Which diseases and injuries lead to the greatest premature loss of life years? Researchers recently asked this question by examining 291 diseases and injuries in 187 countries from 1990 to 2010. The most costly disorders are psychological, led by major depressive disorder. How have we fared since 1990, with an enormous investment in understanding and treating depression? Not good, as the years lost to depression increased from No. 15 to No. 11 on the global burden list. In the two decades, we have witnessed a 37 percent increase in the burden of sufferers.

Elsevier/The Lancet

Based on these sobering numbers, we need to learn how to treat and prevent depression more effectively and efficiently.

This is not a comprehensive review of all the novel ideas for how to reduce the burden of depression. I want to focus on one intriguing line of research—can leveraging a person's psychological strengths be more helpful in treating depression than the prototypical approach of addressing deficits?

When most scientists test whether strengths matter, they conduct an intervention and then after the fact, examine which strengths measured before treatment predicted a reduction in depressive symptoms. Dr. Jennifer Cheavens and her colleagues did something different. They took an idiographic approach—examining strengths and deficits in each person and from this unique profile, randomly assigned them to cognitive behavioral treatment strategies for depression. Some of them ended up in a strengths-based intervention that targeted skills they are already proficient in and others ended up in a deficit-based intervention that targeted underdeveloped skills. Which leads to greater well-being—bolstering strengths or remediating weaknesses? A great question that has evaded scientific scrutiny. Without this question being asked, a cottage industry has formed around the assumption that when people are suffering, you should obviously remediate their weaknesses first. Hence, my excitement to read whether this assumption holds merit.

In a 16-week treatment, imagine therapists selecting treatment modules that map onto each individual's strengths or deficits. People are viewed as individuals, not interchangeable creatures. Are you good at paying attention to what is happening in the present moment before deciding how to act (or do you rely heavily on habits and what worked in the past)? Are you able to tolerate distress without feeling compelled to get rid of it immediately (or do you go out of your way to avoid feeling anxious, angry, or embarrassed)? Are you good at leveraging your social support network in times of need (or do you tend to isolate yourself)? Based on these and other questions, people received an intervention tailored for them that might emphasize adding pleasant events, developing more realistic views of themselves and the world and working on assertiveness, self-respect, and strategies for enhancing social interactions and relationships.


What did these researchers find? That the assumption held by allied health professionals might be wrong. Intentionally building an intervention that capitalizes on a person's strengths outperforms an intervention that compensates for deficits. As for how these benefits manifest, a look at the adjacent Figure shows that people in the strength-based intervention experienced a faster drop in depressive symptoms (in the first three weeks) and this gap continued to widen through the next 12 weeks.

There are few guidelines on how to best help those who are suffering from emotional difficulties. These findings challenge conventional wisdom that if someone has deficits, these should be fixed before moving on to what makes them strong/great/superior in their everyday life.

Question the status quo.

You might just find a better way of doing business.

You might inch a tiny bit closer to reducing the amount of suffering in the world.

You might inch a tiny bit closer to bridging the gap between potential and true accomplishment.

For details, see:

Cheavens, J. S., Strunk, D. R., Lazarus, S. A., & Goldstein, L. A. (2012). The compensation and capitalization models: a test of two approaches to individualizing the treatment of depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50(11), 699-706.

NOTE: this paper has beed cited a mere 9 times! Think of all the books being written on strengths, the amount of papers published on strengths in academic journals. Let me know about other orphan papers - great science that has been ignored.

****Read this blog post for research on strengths that might be most effective to capitalize****

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: