Anyone Can Boost Happiness With This Simple Exercise
In one of the most cited intervention studies in positive psychology, Seligman et al. (2005), participants were tasked with using their signature strengths in new ways for 1 week. The results… mind-blowing! Those individuals reported significantly higher levels of happiness and decreased levels of depression with a lasting effects for up to 6 months!
But, this study was conducted years ago… could the outcomes be replicated?
When researchers want to know whether or not an intervention has been effective over the years, they conduct a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a formal process for bringing together the studies on a particular topic. This year, researchers Nicola Schutte and John Malouff from Australia published a meta-analysis on signature strengths use. Using strict criteria for only the best quality studies (e.g., studies with control groups) they aimed to see what, if any, positive effects emerged for this very simple intervention.
As a refresher, the intervention called “use your signature strengths in new ways” asks people to take the VIA Survey, choose one of their highest strengths, and then use that strength in a new way each day for one week. This type of activity is about as “bare bones” as you can get. In other words, if something this simple can be shown to be effective, that is remarkable. In this intervention, there is no therapist, no coach, no helping professional, no multi-layered activities surrounding the intervention, no long-term approach in which someone does something over an extended period of time, and no group interaction/support from others. Instead, it is simply this – use one of your best qualities more.
Then, what is even more remarkable is that study after study, across cultures, shows this activity brings significant benefits for people. In the meta-analysis, the outcomes that were found to be examined the most in these studies are happiness, life satisfaction, and depression. The results were clear: using signature strengths in new ways boots happiness and life satisfaction and lowers depression.
The meta-analysis also showed that there are additional outcomes that have been studied less frequently – the variables of flourishing, use of strengths, and negative emotions. Although with fewer studies, using signature strengths brought significant benefit to flourishing and to the use of strengths more. The intervention did not show not have an effect on negative emotions.
What Does This Mean for You?
There is no person on this planet who doesn’t have room to express their signature strengths more. No one uses their signature strengths all the time. No one uses their signature strengths perfectly. Growth can be had by all. The benefit in doing so is becoming more and more clear.
And, if you become happier and less depressed, this can have a positive impact on others, even if it’s an indirect effect. Research has found that happiness is contagious and can spread throughout our social networks. In one massive study of nearly 5,000 people over a 20-year period, researchers at Harvard and the University of California found that happy people have happier friends whose friends’ friends are also happier (that’s 3 degrees of separation from the original happy person). Your happiness can spread to others. Clearly, having greater happiness is not a selfish act.
There are many pathways to happiness, and many are not a surprise to people; these include generating more meaning in your life and building more positive relationships. But, what people tend to not be as tuned into is the reality that your own internal qualities – your most core strengths – can serve as a trigger for your well-being. In a world in which people’s minds are quick to harshly stereotype and judge others and quick to self-criticize, we need more well-being tools.
The invitation here is to expand upon your signature strengths. Widen their use. If you are typically only curious at work, expand your curiosity to your neighbor and your relative. If you usually only think of teamwork when you are out in your community volunteering, bring teamwork to your relationship partner. If you think you’re already kind, get creative and do 30-second acts of kindness each day for different people in your life. If you’re already quite socially intelligent in how you operate your business, increase and widen this strength by being more empathic to each of your family members.
For tips on new ways you can use any of your 24 strengths, click here.
Schutte, N. S., & Malouff, J. M. (2018). The impact of signature character strengths interventions: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9990-2
Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ, 337, a2338. DOI:10.1136/bmj.a2338