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By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

A bimonthly, 2-minute briefing on the latest in the science and practice of character strengths.

The Study

A group of Canadian researchers (Lobna Cherif, Valerie Wood, and Christian Watier) studied a sample of 75 adults. The subjects ranged from young adults to middle-aged adults, and were randomly assigned to an experimental group (the “strengths challenge” condition) or a control group. Those in the strengths challenge condition received daily emails for 24 days to focus on a particular character strength that day. Each email included the what, the why, and the how of the character strength for that day, as detailed in The Power of Character Strengths. They also received the motto for the strength and a worksheet to write down how they used the strength. Using the character strength of fairness as an example:

  • "The what” of fairness involves the types of fairness reasoning, the role of personal bias and morality, and the belief that everyone’s opinion counts.
  • “The why” of fairness highlights the research findings – or benefits of fairness – such as taking the perspective of others, engaging in positive prosocial behaviors, and less involvement in illegal/immoral behavior.
  • “The how” of fairness notes 10 impactful strategies such as inviting different viewpoints when approaching a problem, and making adjustments in time spent with family and friends in order to be fairer to them and yourself.

The control group also received an email each day for 24 days, but the e-mail only contained the strength motto. An example of a character strength motto is: “I seek out situations where I gain new experiences without getting in my own or other people’s way” (curiosity motto).

The researchers measured (only) happiness at three time points – before, immediately after the study, and at one-month follow-up. The results revealed a steady incline in happiness for the “strengths challenge” group from the start to the end of the study and out to the one-month follow-up. At one-month follow-up, there was a significant difference between the strengths challenge group and the control group in happiness (the control group was mostly unchanged).

The researchers describe this as a minimalist intervention – noting that even the “bare minimum” in trying to improve character strengths – can reveal a positive benefit. These subjects simply received one e-mail per day for 24 days – that’s the extent of the intervention! How much each individual took action with it was up to them, although on average this minimalist effort with character strengths revealed significant benefits for happiness.

Applying the Research

  • Set up your own strengths challenge:
    • Many people say that they set aside a week per strength or a month per strength. They read about the strength, journal on the reflection questions, examine their own overuse, underuse, and optimal-use, and engage in at least one behavioral use of the strength each day. This approach can be taken for each of your signature strengths; each of the strengths most associated with happiness; each of your lowest strengths; or simply going through the strengths within a particular virtue category.
    • Make your own challenge! I have taken an approach like this for my own development using a different framework. About a year ago, I spent one week with each of the 24 character strengths in my mind. I selected a new strength each week for half of a year. While the insights I journaled about could fill up a book, I would summarize them saying, I was able to create each of the 24 strengths into a mindset for operating in my life, I could apply each in a myriad of ways in daily life, I felt each in my body, and I made daily changes in behavior with each strength to benefit myself and others.




Cherif, L., Wood, V. M., & Watier, C. (2020). Testing the effectiveness of a strengths-based intervention targeting all 24 strengths: Results from a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Reports. DOI: 10.1177/0033294120937441.