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In order for character strengths research, education, and practice to soar like a bird, it needs two wings. I think of these two wings as the wing of well-being and the wing of adversity. This briefing shares about these wings, some of the research on each, and ways to bring the research into practice.
Character strengths for well-being seems to get all the attention. Happiness, engagement, work meaning, and physical health. It is indeed attention well-deserved. Psychology and related fields have long focused on problems and suffering and the science of positive psychology has rightfully worked hard to bring attention to what is going well. Character strengths have been positively linked with every well-being area I am aware of (more than 20 areas by my count). This is what is meant by focusing on what is strong instead of what is wrong.
That is half of the equation. One wing. You cannot fly with that wing alone.
What about the adversity wing? Using what’s strong to handle what’s wrong?
The truth is people care much more about suffering than well-being. There are few people running around saying, “I want more work engagement” or “give me more of that well-being.” But there are many saying, “I would like to be less lonely” or “I want to manage my stress better.”
We are hardwired to attend more to our suffering, to become preoccupied and overwhelmed by it, and to want to relieve it. Fortunately, character strengths can have an impact.
Because it gets less attention in the positive psychology field, I will focus here on the wing of adversity research.
Research on Adversity
Suffering comes in many forms. We are learning that character strengths can be part of the solution – the understanding, the prevention, the embracing, and in some cases, the overcoming of adversity.
Below are a sample of studies on character strengths helping with suffering and its many faces. As you read these examples, pay attention to not just the specific study but also to what is being said, collectively, about the role of character strengths for adversity.
Very Serious Suffering
Suicidal ideation: Among older adults, character strengths were associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation (Cheng et al., 2020).
Paranoia: Strengths use was positively associated with positive self-beliefs and moderated the relationship between paranoia and life satisfaction (McTiernan, Gullon- Scott, & Dudley, 2020).
Trauma: The more traumatic events reported by an individual, the higher the character strengths scores (with a few exceptions) (Peterson et al., 2008).
Traumatic brain injury: Randomized study found that a signature strengths activity boosted happiness among people with traumatic brain injury (Andrewes, Walker, & O’Neill, 2014),
Perfectionism / Need for approval: Character strengths buffer people from vulnerabilities that can lead to depression and anxiety, such as perfectionism and the need for approval (Huta & Hawley, 2010).
Depression: Meta-analysis reveals that randomized-controlled trials using the intervention “use a signature strength in a new way” leads to greater well-being, flourishing, strengths levels, and less depression (Schutte & Malouff, 2019).
Anxiety: Individuals with (and without) social anxiety were able to be correctly diagnosed (with nearly 90% accuracy) based on their patterns of character strengths overuse and underuse (Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, & Niemiec, 2017).
Grief: Character strengths showed stability across three time points among adults experiencing a loss; some strengths were associated with less impairment and depression (Blanchard, McGrath, & Jayawickreme, 2021).
Chronic pain: Of the 24 character strengths, zest was the highest associated with pain self-efficacy, and a zest intervention boosted this variable and the capacity to function despite pain (Graziosi et al., 2020).
Chronic illnesses: A systematic review found character strengths interventions helped chronic illnesses by boosting self-efficacy and reducing depression (Yan et al., 2020).
COVID-19 coping: Character strengths were shown as having a positive impact in several COVID studies; this study reviewed ways character strengths buffer mental illness, bolster mental health, and broaden capacities (Waters et al., 2021).
Childhood illness: Among children with a life-threatening illness, character strengths predicted positive change in life satisfaction over time (Chaves et al., 2016).
- Alcohol use: Students who abstained from drinking alcohol had higher scores than drinkers on all six virtues of the VIA classification (Logan, Kilmer, & Marlatt, 2010).
War & terrorism: Among more than 1,000 adolescents exposed to long periods of war, terrorism, and political conflict, numerous character strengths were found to negatively relate to psychiatric symptoms (Shoshani & Slone, 2016).
Natural disasters: Among people in China who experienced a natural disaster, there was a strong relationship between character strengths/virtues and resilience and the former contributed strongly to posttraumatic growth (Duan, Guo, & Gan, 2015).
Community adversity: Elevation of several character strengths in a U.S. sample (but not a European sample) were found following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 (Peterson & Seligman, 2003).
Homelessness: Signature strengths of character were connected with resilience, self- worth, and well-being of individuals without a home (Cooley et al., 2019).
Workplace: Character strengths were connected with improved coping with work stress and a decrease in the negative effects of stress (Harzer & Ruch, 2015).
Stress/resilience: Several character strengths were associated with bouncing back from stressors among military cadets (Cherif, Wood, & Wilkin, 2020).
Dementia caregivers: Caregiver burden was connected with lower character strengths scores on hope, zest, social intelligence, and love (García-Castro, Alba, & Blanca, 2019).
7 Conversation Starters about Strengths and Adversity
After people take the VIA Survey, and you query the link between their character strengths and well-being, try asking the following questions relating to adversity:
When you experience stress these days, which are the first character strengths you turn to for support? How do you use them?
As you look back on your life and consider your most painful life suffering, what character strengths did you turn to at that time? How did you use your strengths then, even if it wasn’t intentional?
Can you think of an example in which you used one or more of your character strengths to completely overcome or heal a problem or conflict in your life?
Which character strengths offer you some antidote when you feel lonely or isolated? When you feel physically unwell? When you feel emotionally upset?
When you overuse one of your character strengths and it negatively impacts someone, which character strength do you use to balance the situation?
When you are having an argument with someone, what is the best character strength for you to turn to in yourself? Is there a character strength you can appeal to in the other person?
Which character strengths would you like to develop to support you with future stressors you are likely to experience?
For a full list of every citation listed in this briefing, see our Research Findings.
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Every other month Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA's Education Director, sends a newsletter to connect with researchers, strengths practitioners and educators from around the world. He offers things such as a character strengths research finding, a practical nugget, and/or a character strengths story or dialogue he's found inspiring. His hope is that it will prime your day and week with character strengths. Also, let it serve as a reminder that you can reach out at anytime to share your study, your strength applications, and your latest innovations! To receive character strengths briefings in real-time, click to subscribe.