Nurturing Character Strengths Can Make Us Happy

Interventions that foster character strengths appear to boost positive affect.

Posted May 25, 2018

According to a recent meta-analysis, character strength interventions are associated with positive results, such as a reduction in symptoms of depression and an increase in happiness and life satisfaction.1

What are character strengths?

To understand character strengths, we must first discuss virtues.2 Virtues are traits that are often regarded as valued and morally good. Courage, justice, and wisdom, are examples of virtues.

Character strengths are the ingredients of virtues; they are the path to achieving virtues. For instance, the virtue of wisdom may be achieved through use of strengths such as curiosity, open-mindedness, creativity, and love of learning.

How can we decide if some behavior or ability qualifies as a character strength?  The influential book, Character Strengths and Virtues, lists ten detailed criteria, such as: The characteristic must contribute to various aspects of what constitutes the good life; it must be good and valued in itself (not considered good only because it results in some positive outcome); its use should not be associated with negative outcomes for others; the characteristic must generalize across situations; it must be measurable; it must be embodied in common role models; it needs to be a characteristic that is cultivated and sustained by rituals and societal institutions.

Based on such criteria, the following 24 positive characteristics, clustered into six groups, can be considered character strengths:

Signature strengths are those character strengths that one enjoys using and exercising on a regular basis. These are strengths that are intrinsically motivating and energizing, strengths that often feel central to one’s authentic identity

Signature strengths are different for different people. While one person might consider her signature strengths to be related to justice and humanity, another might view courage as more central to her authentic sense of self.

In general, people yearn to act in accordance with their signature strengths, learn new ways to express them, and to create projects that center on the usage of these characteristics.

Character strength interventions

The character strengths model suggests that when people reflect on their strengths and integrate them into their life, they will obtain positive outcomes. Indeed, previous research has shown that integrating these characteristics into one's daily life can result in happiness, positive self-perception, and a greater sense that life has meaning.1

Using the above model, researchers have created a number of character strength interventions. According to Schutte and Malouff, the authors of the present paper, a typical character strength intervention might include the following components:

“(1) Individuals completing a self-report measure of character strengths, (2) providing the individuals with feedback on their signature strengths, and (3) asking them to use these strengths for at least a week in their daily lives.”    

Based on previous research, use of signature-strengths is associated with better self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy, higher levels of subjective well-being, greater work performance and work satisfaction, superior academic performance, greater progress toward goals, even greater citizenship behaviors.

The Study's findings

In the present study, over 2,400 studies were identified, of which only 14 met the specific inclusion criteria in the meta-analysis. For instance, the researchers used studies that investigated only strength-based interventions (not in combination with any other intervention), ones that had included control groups for comparison, etc.  

The result of the meta-analysis was as it follows: The analysis of nine studies that examined the impact of signature strength interventions on happiness showed a significant positive effect of these interventions.  Similarly, across seven studies, the findings showed that strength interventions significantly reduced symptoms of depression.  Lastly, based on analysis of seven studies, strength based treatments significantly increased life satisfaction.

In short, these interventions increased positive affect (happiness) and life satisfaction, and decreased depression.  

For those interested in finding out about your own signature character strengths, a free test is available here. (Registration and an email address are required.)

References

1. Schutte, N. S., & Malouff, J. M. (2018). The impact of signature character strengths interventions: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-018-9990-2

2. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press