Character Strengths Research: Which Areas are Soaring, Emerging, and Ripe with Potential?

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Character strengths research is in bloom, especially over the last ten years. For a special issue of the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, devoted entirely to VIA character strengths, I was invited to write an article on what has been happening with the research and practice of character strengths. Here I will focus on the research sections of that article, which I wrote with Ruth Pearce. Click here for the full article.

There are many areas of research in character strengths that have become focal points, for example, workplace, education, healthcare, and parenting. We categorized several examples of research domains as soaring, emerging, and ripe with potential. I outline how those were defined and give several examples.

Soaring

Research areas that are soaring were defined as having at least 25 studies that explored the science of character in that domain in the last 10 years. There are two domains that fit these criteria – work/organizations and education. At present, the former has more than 60 studies. Despite the popularity of these areas, there is still far more that we don’t know about the impact of character strengths in these areas. Specifically, these areas need to establish more causal connections between character strengths and particular outcomes, further replication of findings, advance newer character strengths concepts (e.g., phasic strengths, strengths collisions, and interpersonal dynamics), and expand from the focus on the individual to the system-as-a-whole.

Workplace: from job satisfaction, work performance, and work-as-calling to improved stress coping, employee self-efficacy, and work climate, strengths have been associated with seemingly just about every positive outcome at work. However, what is needed are intervention studies. What positive outcomes do character strengths *cause *for employees?

Education: the education context has revealed a myriad of positive findings for young students such as improved well-being, achievement, positive emotions, and classroom climate. The intervention studies that have been conducted – across a myriad of cultures (e.g., New Zealand, China, UK, US, India) – have revealed positive results for the critical importance of character strengths. While this area is soaring, there is enormous work to do in these complex, multifaceted systems that pose unique access challenges.

Emerging

Research domains classified as emerging will have at least 10 peer-reviewed/scholarly articles on character strengths and have been published recently (within the last 5 years) to indicate a spike of interest. This points to a new literature beginning to emerge, perhaps reflecting enthusiasm from research groups and scholars claiming interest in the area. The following two areas were highlighted in the paper.

Health/medicine: There has been a recent influx of publications (mostly from Austria) studying the character strengths profiles of medical staff, the role of signature strengths among physicians, and the mutual impact of strengths use and a positive hospital climate. Surprisingly, the area of prevention, health promotion, lifestyle adjustment, and chronic disease management has been grossly understudied in regard to character strengths. The studies that have been published in these areas have shown the connection between character strengths and physical health is an important one to explore.

Mindfulness: The area of mindfulness has become a household term and has amassed (literally) thousands of studies in the last 20 years, however, less attention has focused on the mutual impact of character strengths and mindfulness. This is beginning to change. Theoretical links between the areas have been validated and a systematic protocol for applying mindfulness and character strengths together (referred to as MBSP – mindfulness-based strengths practice) has impressive findings in a short period of time. These include improved performance at work (as measured by supervisor ratings), improved well-being and meaning in life, decreased loneliness and stress, improved relationships, and enhanced problem-management.

Ripe with potential

For this category, we selected research areas that seem to offer robust, synergistic connections with character strengths, however, minimal research has been conducted (between zero and three studies). True to the name, these areas hold great potential for character strengths to make a positive impact. Each has seedlings emerging at present, yet is wide open for scientific investigation and eventually (hopefully) best practices.

Environmental behaviors/nature connectedness: There is a strong relationship between individuals feeling connected to nature and exhibiting positive-environmental behaviors (i.e., actions that help the climate). Independently, both are important for planet Earth and both make people feel good as part of something vital outside of themselves. It would stand to reason that individuals might use their character strengths to connect with the natural world and to exhibit behaviors (e.g., enhanced recycling, decreasing consumption behavior, and decreasing one’s carbon footprint) that strive to improve the environment. There are now several character strengths research “camps” in at least five countries that are beginning this work.

Spirituality: Spirituality has been described time after time by researchers as the search for, or communing with, the sacred. How might character strengths enhance one’s spiritual life (referred to as the grounding path)? How might spirituality contribute to what is known about character strengths (referred to as the sanctification path)? There are two articles on this topic in the Frontiers special issue – each was independently conceptualized, written, and published – yet they both happen to highlight a similar core message that the VIA Classification offers a “common language” for the human spirit.

Peace/conflict studies: Consider the multiple levels of peace such as personal/inner peace, relational peace, intragroup peace, intergroup peace, and community peace. Consider the types of peace known as positive peace (increasing harmony, equity, and balance) and negative peace (reducing violence, aggression, and conflict). The science and practice of character strengths can offer a stunning array of connections to these levels and types through the lens of specific character strengths (e.g., kindness, perspective, bravery), character strengths concepts (e.g., signature strengths, strengths overuse), and character strengths dynamics (e.g., reducing interpersonal collisions, managing hot buttons). The potential for creating greater peace for individuals, relationships, and groups is substantial.

There are additional domains of research that could be plugged into this tripartite conceptualization or additional categories could be framed. Some examples include the integration of character strengths and military, positive psychotherapy, positive parenting, intellectual/developmental disability, workplace/team roles, overuse/underuse/optimal-use, stress management, positive relationships, social/racial justice, positive leadership, addictions, psychopathology, and sport/performance psychology. Each of these are important to explore as well.

If you would like to read the full article, click here.

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