Summary of Research Findings
“Signature strengths” refers to those character strengths that are most essential to who we are. In addition, they are strengths that usually (but not always) appear toward the top of one’s profile of results after taking the free VIA Survey. Interventions and practical exercises around signature strengths are some of the most popular, frequently discussed, and widely investigated areas in the field of positive psychology.
A signature strengths in new ways intervention group of high school girls in Japan showed significant gains in possibility-seeking and effort-to-possibility (elements of self-formation consciousness) and feelings/understanding of their top strengths (Morimoto, Takahashi, & Namiki, 2015).
Morimoto, Y., Takahashi, M., & Namiki, K. (2015). Using a character strengths program to increase self-formation consciousness of high school girls. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology, 63(2), 181-191. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5926/jjep.63.181
A character strengths course in China over 8 weeks was found to generate immediate and sustained benefits to students’ self-efficacy, positive affect, and academic performance (Li & Liu, 2016).
Li, T., T., & Liu, X. M. (2016). A longitudinal intervention study on senior high school students and secondary vocational school students' character strength. Chinese Journal of Applied Psychology, 3.
A qualitative study of seminarians finding that the practice of signature strengths was related to the strengthening of vocation, more relatedness, competence, autonomy, enhancement of self-esteem, and decrease in negative emotions, which contributed to an increase in life satisfaction (Fernandez, 2016).
Fernandez, E. (2016). The experiences of active engagement of signature strengths on the well-being among Indian college going seminarians: An intervention study. Unpublished dissertation.
Theoretical argument for the importance of signature strengths being used across many situations, as well as phasic character strengths that can be drawn upon in particular situations (Escandón, Martinez, & Flaskerud, 2016).
Escandón, S., Martinez, M. L., & Flaskerud, J. H. (2016). Exploring character strengths: Forging a relationship between nursing students and community youth. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 37(11), 875-877. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/01612840.2016.1149748
In a study that suffered from high dropout (295 subjects started and 72 completed the study), all positive interventions and placebo increased significantly in happiness and decreased in depression, and it was the signature strengths in new ways group that had the most substantial benefits (Woodworth et al., 2016).
Woodworth, R. J., O’Brien-Malone, A., Diamond, M. R., & Schuz, B. (2016). Web-based positive psychology interventions: A reexamination of effectiveness. Journal of Clinical Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22328
A study of workers found that using signature strengths in new ways combined with a 10-minute structured debriefing was beneficial for increasing strengths use and the number of goals set compared to a group that only used signature strengths in new ways (Butina, 2016).
Butina, B. L. (2016). An investigation of the efficacy of the using your signature strengths in a new way exercise to enhance strengths use in work settings (Doctoral dissertation). Northcentral University, Scottsdale, AZ. Manuscript submitted for publication
Randomly controlled study of a multi-step, single-session intervention focusing on signature strengths. The intervention showed significant increases in well-being and decreases in depression and anxiety in the long-run while stress levels decreased in the short-run (Duan & Bu, 2017).
Duan, W., & Bu, H. (2017). Randomized trial investigating of a single-session character-strength-based cognitive intervention on freshman’s adaptability. Research on Social Work Practice. DOI: 10.1177/1049731517699525
- Randomized, controlled trial involving 3 groups - adults who targeted top 5 strengths, adults who targeted bottom 5 strengths, and a placebo group. The 2 intervention groups showed benefits to happiness for up to three months and depression benefits as well. Those with initially higher strength levels tended to benefit more from working on lower strengths while those initially lower in strengths levels tended to benefit more from working on higher strengths (Proyer et al., 2015).
Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: A randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00456
- Although not using VIA strengths, studies from different disciplines have shown that targeting the strong – a capitalization model – is superior in important ways to a focus on remediating deficiencies – a compensation model. Examples from psychotherapy (Cheavens et al., 2012) and the workplace (Meyers et al., 2015) are referenced here.
1. Cheavens, J. S., Strunk, D. R., Lazarus, S. A., & Goldstein, L. A. (2012). The compensation and capitalization models: A test of two approaches to individualizing the treatment of depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50, 699-706.
2. Meyers, M.C., van Woerkom, M., de Reuver, R., Bakk, Z., & Oberski, D.L. (2015).
Enhancing psychological capital and personal growth initiative: Working on strengths or
deficiencies? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(1), 50-62. doi: 10.1037/cou0000050.
- In a rare positive psychology intervention study of older adults (aged 50-79), the group assigned to work on using a signature strength in a new way was the most effective intervention overall as it lead to both increases in happiness and decreases in depression. Other interventions were effective for one or the other, for example, gratitude visit and 3 good things benefited happiness levels while 3 funny things reduced depression levels (Proyer et al., 2014a).
Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2014a). Positive psychology interventions in people aged 50–79 years: long-term effects of placebo-controlled online interventions on well-being and depression. Aging & Mental Health, 18(8), 997-1005.
- Examines several positive interventions (e.g., signature strengths in new ways, three good things) and the type of person x intervention fit in predicting happiness/depression over 3.5 years. Finds continued practice, effort, preference, and early reactivity to be good predictors of happiness and/or depression (Proyer et al. 2014b).
Proyer, R. T., Wellenzohn, S., Gander, F., Ruch, W. (2014b). Toward a better understanding of what makes positive psychology interventions work: Predicting happiness and depression from the person × intervention fit in a follow-up after 3.5 years. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. doi:10.1111/aphw.12039
- Strengths-based career counseling was compared with conventional career counseling and both client groups had an increase in daily strengths use but only the former had enhanced self-esteem. At 3-month follow-up, the strengths-based career counseling group had a higher rate of employment (81%) than the conventional career counseling group (60%) (Littman-Ovadia, Lazar-Butbul, & Benjamin, 2014). Another study examining career work examined the relationship between vocational personalities (e.g., artistic, social, etc.) and character strengths; for example, the strength of love of learning explained nearly 10% of the "investigative personality" (Littman-Ovadia, Potok, & Ruch, 2013).
1. Littman-Ovadia, H., Lazar-Butbul, V., Benjamin, B. A. (2014). Strengths-based career counseling: Description and evaluation. Journal of Career Assessment. 2. Littman-Ovadia, H., Potok, Y., & Ruch, W. (2013). The relationship between vocational personalities and character strengths in adults. Psychology.
- This randomized-controlled study showed the relationship between strengths use (the previous day) and positive mood the following day, as well as a connection between decreased mood (the previous day) and strengths use the following day. Finally, this study showed that a relationship intervention (writing a brief letter to a loved one daily) amplified the positive effects of strengths deployment on mood (Lavy, Littman-Ovadia, & Bareli, 2014). Click for full reference.
Lavy, S., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Bareli, Y. (2014). Strengths deployment as a mood-repair mechanism: Evidence from a diary study with a relationship exercise group. Journal of Positive Psychology.
- A normal population was randomly assigned to an Internet intervention (involving strengths work, gratitude, kindness, and other validated exercies) or a control group and the intervention group had improved balance of positive to negative affect over time (Drozd et al., 2014).
Drozd, F., Mork, L., Nielsen, B., Raeder, S., Bjorkli, C. A. (2014). Better days – A randomized controlled trial of an internet-based positive psychology intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.910822.
- Both signature strengths and strengths balance (framed as "jack of all strengths" from the phrase "jack of all trades") uniquely predicted higher well-being. In addition, subjects had stronger implicit associations with signature strengths than with their lower strengths (Young, Kashdan, & Macatee, 2014).
Young, K. C., Kashdan, T. B., & Macatee, R. (2014). Strength balance and implicit strength measurement: New considerations for research on strengths of character. Journal of Positive Psychology.
- In a study examining the relationships (moderators) of signature strengths use, signature strengths level, life calling, and life satisfaction, individuals low in calling and high in signature strengths level had the strongest connection between signature strengths use and life satisfaction. A key finding here is that the use of signature strengths is particularly important for those low in meaning and purpose (Allan & Duffy, 2013).
Allan, B. A., & Duffy, R. D. (2013). Examining moderators of signature strengths use and well-being: Calling and signature strengths level. Journal of Happiness Studies. DOI 10.1007/s10902-013-9424-0.
- A strengths training intervention (involving noticing when, where, and how top strengths are used and writing about this) was found to be effective in boosting life satisfaction in the short-run and long-run in the Chinese education context. The placebo effect was ruled out by having some participants informed of the purpose of the study and some not and finding that this had no long-term effect on life satisfaction (Duan, Ho, Tang, Li, & Zhang, 2013).
Duan, W., Ho, S. M. Y., Tang, X., Li, T., & Zhang, Y. (2013). Character strength-based intervention to promote satisfaction with life in the Chinese university context. Journal of Happiness Studies. DOI 10.1007/s10902-013-9479-y.
- The VIA Institute conducted four studies investigating the initial concept, criteria, and suggested quantity of "signature" strengths in individuals. Studies 1 and 2 used two different approaches to signature strengths criteria defining the strength as energizing, natural, and essential to one's core character. More than half of the subjects in each study identified having 11 or more signature strengths according to this more general definition. Studies 3 and 4 used more stringent criteria/methods. In these two studies about one third of individuals identified having 11 or more signature strengths and nearly 50% reported having 7 or fewer signature strengths. Additionally signature strengths were found to have significantly higher VIA scores than non-signature strengths. These results support the construct of signature strengths and indicate that the average number of signature strengths that people think of themselves as having is larger than positive psychology researchers originally proposed. Narrowing the criteria results in fewer strengths being identified as signature (Mayerson, 2013).
Mayerson, N. M. (2013). Signature strengths: Validating the construct. Presentation to International Positive Psychology Association, Los Angeles, CA, 82-83. DOI: 10.1037/e574802013-112.
- Using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2012). Strength-based positive interventions: Further evidence for their potential in enhancing well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies.
- The use of signature strengths elevates individuals’ harmonious passion (i.e., doing activities that are freely chosen without constraints, are highly important, and part of the individual’s identity). This then leads to higher well-being (Forest et al., 2012).
Forest, J., Mageau, G. V. A., Crevier-Braud, L., Bergeron, L., Dubreuil, P., & Lavigne, G. V. L. (2012). Harmonious passion as an explanation of the relation between signature strengths’ use and well-being at work: Test of an intervention program. Human Relations, 65 (9), 1233-1252.
- Using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness for 6 months and decreased depression for 3 months (Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012).
Mongrain, M., & Anselmo-Matthews, T. (2012). Do positive psychology exercises work? A replication of Seligman et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68 (4), 382-389.
- Student evaluations in an undergraduate psychology course that used blogs for students to explore the use of signature strengths in new ways and gratitude exercises were significantly higher than student evaluations in the same course that did not use blogs (Bridges, Harnish, & Sillman, 2012).
Bridges, K. R., Harnish, R. J., & Sillman, D. (2012). Teaching undergraduate positive psychology: An active learning approach using student blogs. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 11 (2), 228-237.
- Among youth, the use of signature strengths in novel ways along with personally meaningful goal-setting led to increases in student engagement and hope (Madden, Green, & Grant, 2011).
Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, A. M. (2011). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6 (1), 71-83.
- A qualitative study examined the use of VIA strengths by women in the workplace and found that in all cases, strengths led to a “virtuous circle” in which the strengths use helped them overcome obstacles that had impeded strengths use. All subjects derived unique value from using character strengths at work (Elson & Boniwell, 2011).
Elston, F., & Boniwell, I. (2011). A grounded theory study of the value derived by women in financial services through a coaching intervention to help them identify their strengths and practice using them in the workplace. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6 (1), 16-32.
- In a longitudinal study, strengths use was found to be an important predictor of well-being and led to less stress and increased positive affect, vitality, and self-esteem at 3-month and 6-month follow-up (Wood et al., 2011).
Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Matlby, J., Kashdan, T. B., & Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 15-19.
- Exploratory study of experienced psychotherapists and their perceptions of how signature strengths enhance their work. Three themes emerged: meaningful work, higher energy levels, and enabling work environment conditions (Piquette-Tomei & Atkinson, 2010).
Piquette-Tomei, N., & Atkinson, K. E. (2010). Psychotherapists’ views of using signature strengths in the workplace: An exploratory study. Database: OAlster. University of Lethbridge.
- There is a strong connection between well-being and the use of signature strengths because strengths helps us make progress on our goals and meet our basic needs for independence, relationship, and competence (Linley et al., 2010).
Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5 (1), 6-15.
- From student interviews it was found that those who are the best of the best at using signature strengths also maintain social support and build on their success which give them further confidence in their strengths use (Bowers & Lopez, 2010).
Bowers, K. M., & Lopez, S. J. (2010). Capitalizing on personal strengths in college. Journal of College and Character, 11 (1).
- Random assignment to a group instructed to use 2 signature strengths or use 1 signature strength and 1 bottom strength revealed significant gains in satisfaction with life compared with a control group but no differences between the 2 treatment groups (Rust, Diessner, & Reade, 2009).
Rust, T., Diessner, R., & Reade, L. (2009). Strengths only or strengths and relative weaknesses? A preliminary study. Journal of Psychology, 143 (5), 465-476.
- The identification of signature strengths followed by discussion with a friend about strengths and use of three signature strengths in daily life boost cognitive (but not affective) well-being at three months follow-up (Mitchell, Stanimirovic, Klein, & Vella-Brodrick, 2009).
Mitchell, J., Stanimirovic, R., Klein, B., & Vella-Brodrick, D. (2009). A randomised controlled trial of a self-guided internet intervention promoting well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 749–760.
- The use of one’s top strengths leads to a decreased likelihood of depression and stress and an increase in satisfaction in law students (Peterson & Peterson, 2008).
Peterson, T. D., & Peterson, E. W. (2008). Stemming the tide of law student depression: What law schools need to learn from the science of positive psychology. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics, 9 (2). Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1277303
- Focusing on a therapy client's strengths for 5 minutes prior to a session improves the therapeutic relationship, therapy outcomes, mastery experience, and strengths activation in the session; note that "strengths" focused on are not VIA strengths per se (Fluckiger et al., 2009; Fluckiger & Grosse Holtforth, 2008).
1. Fluckiger, C., Caspar, F., Grosse Holtforth, M., & Willutzki, U. (2009). Working with patients’ strengths: A microprocess approach. Psychotherapy Research, 19(2), 213-223. 2. Fluckiger, C., & Grosse Holtforth, M. (2008). Focusing the therapist’s attention on the patient’s strengths: A preliminary study to foster a mechanism of change in outpatient psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 876-890.
- Using one’s signature strengths in a new and unique way is an effective intervention: it increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, 2005).
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.
Video on Spotting Signature Strengths
Montage of several positive psychology leaders speaking of their signature strengths. The researchers, practitioners, and educators featured in this video include Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Ed Diener, Ph.D., Donna Mayerson, Ph.D., Cynthia Pury, Ph.D., Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., and Anthony Grant, Ph.D.