Should You Play to Your Signature Strengths or Not?

CuriosityWhen I first came across the VIA Inventory of Character Strengths back in my 2007 MAPP class, I was curious to know whether all 24 strengths are the same in terms of their relationship to well-being. We’d read the 2005 research paper by Seligman and colleagues that suggests that using your strengths in new ways is an effective way to lastingly increase your well-being and alleviate depression. Then we were directed to read Park, Seligman, and Peterson’s 2004 study which looked at the correlations between the 24 VIA strengths and life satisfaction, naming five particular ones (curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope and love) as the ones with the strongest links.

I remember a great deal of rivalry in my MAPP class as to whose signature (highest) strengths included one, two or preferably all five of these. In the process, the other 19 strengths became somehow less attractive to own. It’s funny how classrooms make everything into a competition.  Anyway, as those with curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope and/or love in their signature strengths preened their happiness feathers conspicuously, those without were noticeably crestfallen and sat back in their seats dejectedly.

So when we explore our VIA strengths during the Positive Psychology Masterclasses that I now co-facilitate, I point out to delegates that you can’t tell that much from the standard VIA assessment other than the relative order. For instance you can’t see whether your strengths are bunched up close together, or spread out. To my way of thinking just because curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope and/or love are not in your top strengths doesn’t mean that it’s not worth attending to them.

Applying Your Strengths

The message about strengths has been very straightforward so far:

Step 1:  Identify your strengths using any of the strengths assessment tools:  the VIA, Clifton StrengthsFinderStrengthscope™ and CAPP’s Realise-2

Step 2: Apply your strengths.

It really couldn’t be simpler.

Now some new research from René Proyer and colleagues at the University of Zurich suggests that not all strengths are equal and that strengths-based interventions should focus on those strengths which are correlated highly with life satisfaction.  But fortunately for those who do not have curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope and/or love in their signature strengths, all is not lost!

New Strengths Research

In this particular study there were three groups: Group 1 participated in activities based on the strengths that are usually highly correlated with life satisfaction;  Group 2 participated in activities based on strengths that usually demonstrate a low correlation; Group 3 was a wait-list control group.

Group 1 (n =56) Group 2 (n = 62) Group 3 (n = 60)
1. Curiosity Activity:
conducting 4 activities which are new to you [which address exploration & absorption] & write about them in a short report
1. Creativity Activity:
completing tasks for practicing creativity such as sentence completion tasks
Wait-list control group
2. Gratitude Activity:
writing a gratitude letter
2. Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence Activity:
keeping a beauty log – noticing & recording beauty
3. Hope Activity:
‘One door closes, another door opens’ exercise
3. Love of Learning Activity:
learning with different materials in written, aural, or visual form
4. Zest Activity:
doing a physical activity/sport or having social contact
4. Kindness Activity:
counting kindnesses
5. Humor Activity:
taken from McGhee’s 8 step humor training program
5. Open-mindedness Activity:
thinking about pros & cons of various topics, writing about new insights & emotions felt


Note: Humor appears instead of ‘love’ as the fifth strength in Group 1 for a number of reasons, including humor having the highest mean score (strongest endorsement) in a multinational study involving 54 nations reported by Park and colleagues in 2006; being among the highest-ranked strengths in terms of correlations with life satisfaction; the availability of a pre-tested humor activity; and also, I suspect, because one of the researchers happens to be an expert in humor.

Participants completed the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) before and after. They also provided subjective ratings for their perceived change in cheerfulness, happiness, positive mood, and satisfaction with life afterwards.

The purpose of the study was to test whether activities targeting specific strengths would lead to an increase in life satisfaction. The expectation was that both Group 1 and Group 2 would show an increase compared to Group 3 and that the increase in life satisfaction in Group 1 would be stronger than in Group 2. At the same time, the study was also interested in whether people benefit more (or less) if they exert their highest strengths, that is, if the strengths featured in Group 1 and 2 activities were the same as the participant’s signature strengths.

In terms of study limitations, the design was such that it didn’t test single activities but a group of five activities together, and was only measured using a cognitive measure of well-being (SWLS) not an affective one. The drop-out rate of 30% may suggest that the activities tested weren’t really suitable for younger participants or may have required more persistence and self-regulation than these participants had.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

The main findings were as follows:

  • Only those in Group 1 experienced an increase in life satisfaction (medium effect sizes) when measured with the SWLS. Interestingly, those in Group 2 reported a numerically higher life satisfaction score to start with. This score was more or less stable before and after the study.
  • In Group 1, in most cases, lower initial measurements of the five trained strengths was related to greater enhancements in life satisfaction, as if practicing strengths that were lower at the beginning of the study promoted well-being more strongly. This was particularly evident for curiosity.
  • The presence of other strengths facilitated the enhancement of life satisfaction. For example, higher expressions in persistence, honesty and modesty were associated with greater increases in life satisfaction scores.
  • Self-regulation seemed to play a key role as it yielded significantly positive correlation coefficients in Groups 1 and 2. Researchers reported that between 18.5% – 25% of the variance in gain in self-regulation were shared with the gain in life-satisfaction.
  • In Group 1, a gain in zest was strongly related to greater life satisfaction.
  • In Group 2, open-mindedness and appreciation of beauty and excellence were robustly related to an increase in life satisfaction.
  • Gains in life-satisfaction were related neither to the number of activities completed nor to the number of activities that participants subjectively found beneficial.
  • Both Group 1 and 2 participants saw themselves as more cheerful and having higher life satisfaction and positive mood after the test than the members of wait list Group 3. Thus the activities did have an impact on the self-evaluations of Group 2, even though they didn’t report higher life satisfaction when objectively measured with the SWLS.

30 Days of Gratitude at a Glance Not All Strengths Are Equal

The researchers suggest a rule of thumb, “Primarily interventions on the highly correlated strengths should be pursued.” They don’t go so far as to say “Don’t bother with activities which target other strengths,” even though this study doesn’t actually support the idea generally accepted in positive psychology that applying any strength leads to an increase in well-being. Instead they go along with Seligman’s comments in Flourish that living one’s core strengths may facilitate well-being through the experience of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

It’s worth noting, though, that participants’ subjective impressions of increases in cheerfulness, happiness, positive mood, and life satisfaction suggest that both Groups 1 and 2 benefited from doing the strengths-based activities.

In this study participants also gained more when they had lower expressions of the targeted strengths at pre-test. This is at odds with other studies. Seligman and colleagues reported in 2005 that applying one’s signature (highest) strengths was effective in enhancing life satisfaction and alleviating depression. Going back to my 2007 MAPP class, I’m sure my fellow students who were low in those five strengths that correlate highly with well-being wouldn’t feel quite so bad about that now.


Diener, E., Emmons, R.,  Larsen, R. & Griffin, S. (1985). . Journal of Personality Assessment. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa4901_13. The scale itself is available here.

McGhee, P. E. (2010). Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World: The 7 Humor Habits Program. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. doi:10.1521/jscp.23.5.603.50748. Abstract.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.  (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi:10.1080/17439760600619567

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Proyer, R., Ruch, W. & Buschor, C. (2012). Testing strengths-based interventions: A preliminary study on the effectiveness of a program targeting curiosity, gratitude, hope, humor, and zest for enhancing life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, DOI 10.1007/s10902-012-9331-9.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410.


Curiosity courtesy of hlkljgk

Hope: Menage a Moi courtesy of bearpark

30 Days of Gratitude at a Glance courtesy of aussiegall

This article by Bridget Grenville-Cleave first appreared on Positive Psychology News on 25th June 2012.

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