Character Strengths and Adversity, Disorders, and Problems
Summary of Research Findings
The use of character strengths to impact human suffering is an area of study that is grossly lacking. It seems that all “positive psychologists” are in agreement that research and practice should not only help people use their strengths to become stronger but also to find ways to use their strengths to improve upon or better manage “what is wrong.”
- Building off the ever-increasing science of character, this article offers a new theory of character strengths for thriving across the adversities/struggles and opportunities/positives of life. In mapping across time orientations, six character strengths functions are articulated: the priming and buffering functions (future); mindfulness and reappraisal functions (present); appreciation and resilience functions (past) (Niemiec, 2019).
Niemiec, R. (2019). Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and opportunity: A theoretical perspective. Applied Research in Quality of Life. DOI: doi:10.1007/s11482-018-9692-2
- Examines differences in character strengths before, between, and after two terror attacks in Paris in 2015 and compares these differences with the U.S. and Australia during the same time periods. While several significant findings emerged, no clear pattern was discovered and effect sizes were very small (Lamade et al., 2019).
Lamade, R. V., Jayawickreme, E., Blackie, L. E.R., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). Are sequential sample designs useful for examining post-traumatic changes in character strengths? Journal of Positive Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1610481
- A sample of 115 caregivers of people with dementia were examined in a study on caregiver burden and character strengths. Higher caregiver burden was connected with lower scores on hope, zest, social intelligence, and love and hope was the strength that best predicted caregiver burden and explained the relationship between stress and burden (García-Castro, Alba, & Blanca, 2019).
García-Castro, F. J., Alba, A., & Blanca, M. J. (2019). Association between character strengths and caregiver burden: Hope as a mediator. Journal of Happiness Studies. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00138-2
- Qualitative study of adults with ADHD that compared core themes from interview analysis with the 24 character strengths (Sedgwick, Merwood, & Asherson, 2018).
Sedgwick, J. A., Merwood, A., & Asherson, P. (2018). The positive aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A qualitative investigation of successful adults with adhd. ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12402-018-0277-6
- In a study of thousands of community participants, two subgroup profiles were found – an “at-strengths” group who was high in strength groupings of caring, inquisitiveness, and self-control – and an “at-risk” group who was low on the strength groupings. The former had higher psychological well-being and less negative emotional symptoms while the latter showed worse mental health outcomes (Duan & Wang, 2018).
Duan, W., & Wang, Y. (2018). Latent profile analysis of the three-dimensional model of character strengths to distinguish at-strengths and at-risk populations. Quality of Life Research: An International Journal of Quality of Life Aspects of Treatment, Care & Rehabilitation. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11136-018-1933-1
- In this study of depression subtypes, an emphasis is made on eliciting strengths in assessing depression because strengths are often overlooked in treatment modalities, strengths offer powerful tools that can help people with depression, and as focused in this study, depressed individuals who present with strong character strengths may be experiencing a substantially different subtype of depression (Barton, Barkin, & Miller, 2017).
Barton, Y. A., Barkin, S. H., & Miller, L. (2017). Deconstructing depression: A latent profile analysis of potential depressive subtypes in emerging adults. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4(1), 1-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/scp0000126
- A study of the relationship between resilience and character strengths found that several categories of character strength (emotional, interpersonal, intellectual, and restraint-oriented strengths) were positively related to resilience and one category (theological strengths) was not. Strengths predicted variance in resilience above demographic variables, social support, self-esteem, life satisfaction, positive affect, self-efficacy, and optimism (Martínez-Martí & Ruch, 2016).
Martínez-Martí, M. L., & Ruch, W. (2016). Character strengths predict resilience over and above positive affect, self-efficacy, optimism, social support, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1163403
- Among 1078 adolescents living in southern Israel and being exposed to long periods of war, terrorism, and political conflict, character strengths of temperance, transcendence, and interpersonal categories were found to negatively relate to psychiatric symptoms. Supports a resilience function of character strengths (Shoshani & Slone, 2016).
Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2016). The resilience function of character strengths in the face of war and protracted conflict. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02006
- Examined the VIA Classification virtues and three coping strategies among college students and found that wisdom was positively correlated with behavioral coping and cognitive coping. More strengths were positively associated with behavioral coping strategies (16 strengths) than cognitive coping strategies (4 strengths) (Gustems-Carnicer & Calderón, 2016).
Gustems-Carnicer, J., & Calderón, C. (2016). Virtues and character strengths related to approach coping strategies of college students. Social Psychology of Education, 19(1), 77-95. DOI: 10.1007/s11218-015-9305-y
- Two studies explored the link between VIA virtues and posttraumatic growth among people in China who had experienced the trauma of a natural disaster (first study) or a range of traumatic experiences (second study). Results revealed significant, positive correlations between virtues and posttraumatic growth (Duan & Guo, 2015) and a significant relationship between virtues and trait resilience where the former contributed more to posttraumatic growth while the latter was a strong predictor of PTSD (Duan, Guo, & Gan, 2015).
1. Duan, W., & Guo, P. (2015). Association between virtues and posttraumatic growth: Preliminary evidence from a Chinese community sample after earthquakes. PeerJ, 3 , e883. https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.883
2. Duan, W., Guo, P., & Gan, P. (2015). Relationships among trait resilience, virtues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and post-traumatic growth. PLOS One . DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125707
- Individuals with early psychosis (N = 29) identified their character strengths on the VIA Survey which led to higher positive affect and cognitive performance, with no effect on self-esteem or self-efficacy (Sims et al., 2015).
Sims, A., Barker, C., Price, C., & Fornells-Ambrojo, M. (2015). Psychological impact of identifying character strengths in people with psychosis. Psychosis: Psychological, Social and Integrative Approaches, 7(2), 179-182. DOI: 10.1080/17522439.2014.925485
- In a Korean study, addiction to smart-phones was associated with less temperance character strengths, while Internet addiction was associated with higher wisdom character strengths and lower courage character strengths (Choi et al., 2015).
Choi, S. W., Kim, D. J., Choi, J. S., Ahn, H., Choi, E. J., Song, W. Y., Kim, S., & Youn, H. C. (2015). Comparison of risk and protective factors associated with smartphone addiction and Internet addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4(4), 308-314. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1556/2006.4.2015.043
- Among 214 undergraduates, psychiatric and non-psychiatric cases did not differ in character strengths, life satisfaction, or positive affect. Gratitude, hope, forgiveness, and curiosity were examined and found to each predict unique outcomes such as mental health and life satisfaction (hope and gratitude), positive affect (gratitude, hope, curiosity), self-esteem (hope, gratitude, and exploratory curiosity but not absorption curiosity which negatively predicted self-esteem) (Macaskill & Denovan, 2014).
Macaskill, A., & Denovan, A. (2014). Assessing psychological health: The contribution of psychological strengths. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 42(3), 320-337. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2014.898739
- A qualitative study examining the strengths and posttraumatic growth of ex-offenders in South Africa re-integrating into society and found important evidence for the strengths of hope, gratitude, and spirituality (Guse & Hudson, 2014).
Guse, T., & Hudson, D. (2014). Psychological strengths and posttraumatic growth in the successful reintegration of South African ex-offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 58(12), 1449-1465. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0306624X13502299
- This study examined whether strengths predict depression or whether depression leads to decreases in strengths, testing character strengths such as gratitude, hope, and perseverance every 3 months for a year. They found that character strengths reduced depression while depression did not significantly reduce character strengths (Disabato et al., 2014).
Disabato, D. J., Short, J. L., Kashdan, T. B., Curby, T. W., & Jarden, A. (2014). Do character strengths reduce future depression or does depression reduce character strengths? Presentation for the American Psychological Association. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/e542342014-001
- Studies examined the relationship between character strengths and the anxiety disorder of gelotophobia (the fear of being laughed) which was found to be highly related to lower hope, zest, and love. It also found that the joy of being laughed at was positively related to humor, zest, and social intelligence, while the joy of laughing at others was widely unrelated to character strengths but humor was the highest coefficient (Proyer, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2014).
Proyer, R. T., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2014). Character and dealing with laughter: The relation of self- and peer-reported strengths of character with gelotophobia, gelotophilia, and katagelasticism. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 148(1), 113-132. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2012.752336
- Discusses how character strengths might relate to psychological disorders including how psychopathology can represent the opposite, absence, or excess of character strengths (Seligman, 2014).
Seligman, M. E. P. (2014). Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork: The real mental illnesses. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.888582
- Character strengths changes were examined in groups before and after three tragedies that occurred in diffferent parts of the U.S. Significant changes in strengths were found for one of the tragedies and changes were not consistent across the three (Schueller et al., 2014).
Schueller, S. M., Jayawickreme, E., Blackie, L. E. R., Forgeard, M. J. C., & Roepke, A. M. (2014). Finding character strengths through loss: An extension of Peterson and Seligman (2003). Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.920405
- Feasibility study of impact of signature strengths exercise and gratitude exercise for people with traumatic brain injury. Random assignment found the interventions group to be superior to the control group on happiness and mood with no significant improvement on self-concept (Andrewes, Walker, & O'Neill, 2014).
Andrewes, H. E., Walker, V., & O’Neill, B. (2014). Exploring the use of positive psychology interventions in brain injury survivors with challenging behavior. Brain Injury, 28 (7), 965-971.
- Several character strengths were examined in relation to mental health stigma and found that social intelligence and kindness were associated with less stigma, while those with judgment/critical thinking were less likely to hold those with disorders personally responsible for aquiring the condition (Vertilo & Gibson, 2014).
Vertilo, V., & Gibson, J. M. (2014). Influence of character strengths on mental health stigma. Journal of Positive Psychology, 9 (3), 266-275.
- An exploratory, feasibility study of suicidal inpatients found that there was good benefit to applying positive psychology exercises for this population. Clinically relevant benefits including improved levels of hopelessness and optimism were found. Exercises included deliberate use of a character strength, gratitude letter, acts of kindness, best possible self, commitment to values-based living, and others (Huffman et al., 2013).
Huffman, J., C., DuBois, C. M., Healy, B., C., Boehm, J. K., Kashdan, T. B., Celano, C. M., Denninger, J. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Feasibility and utility of positive psychology exercises for suicidal inpatients. General Hospital Psychiatry.
- Reviewed the research on positive psychology interventions and addictions and recovery (Krentzman, 2013); one of the focus areas examined character strengths and drinking behaviors. For example, Logan, Kilmer, and Marlatt (2010) found those students who abstained from drinking had higher scores than drinkers on all 6 VIA Classification virtues with significantly higher scores on justice, temperance, and transcendence. Not surprisingly temperance was the most robust virtue across each analysis.
1. Krentzman, A. R. (2013). Review of the application of positive psychology to substance abuse use, addiction, and recovery research. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27 (1), 151-165. DOI: 10.1037/a0029897.
2. Logan, D. E., Kilmer, J. R., & Marlatt, G. A. (2010). The virtuous drinker: Character virtues as correlates and moderators of college student drinking and consequences. Journal of American College Health, 58, 317–324.
- Character strengths buffer people from vulnerabilities that can lead to depression and anxiety, such as the need for approval and perfectionism (Huta & Hawley, 2010).
Huta, V., & Hawley, L. (2010). Psychological strengths and cognitive vulnerabilities: Are they two ends of the same continuum or do they have independent relationships with well-being and ill-being? Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 71–93.
- In psychiatric rehab programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the act of simply taking the VIA Survey is experienced as a positive intervention with most participants reporting positive outcomes; an additional intervention used is veterans carrying a prompt with them (i.e., a strengths card") which serves as a reminder of their signature strengths (Kobau et al., 2011).
Kobau, R., Seligman, M. E. P., Peterson, C., Diener, E., Zack, M. M., Chapman, D., & Thompson, W. (2011). Mental health promotion in public health: Perspectives and strategies from positive psychology. American Journal of Public Health, 101 (8), e1-e9. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2010.300083
- Tayyab Rashid (2009; Rashid & Ostermann, 2009) discusses the rationale, importance, tenets, cautions, and conceptual framework for the use of character strengths in clinical psychology practice. For example, he argues that psychotherapists should assess and construct therapeutic exercises not just around transgressions but also compassion, not just targeting grudges and vengeance but also gratitude and forgiveness, not just negativity but also love and kindness.
1. Rashid, T. (2009). Positive interventions in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65 (5), 461-466.
2. Rashid, T., & Ostermann, R. F. (2009). Strength-based assessment in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65 (5), 488-498.
- Hope, kindness, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perspective buffer against the negative effects of stress and trauma (Park & Peterson, 2006c; Park & Peterson, 2009a).
1. Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006c). Methodological issues in positive psychology and the assessment of character strengths. In A. D. Ong & M. van Dulmen (Eds.), Handbook of methods in positive psychology (pp. 292-305). New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009a). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of College and Character, 10 (4), np.
- Character strengths encompass an estimated 60-70% of the programming and interventions that make up positive psychotherapy which has been found in trials to be beneficial for people suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, nicotine dependence, and borderline personality (Rashid & Anjum, 2007; Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).
1. Rashid, T., & Anjum. A (2007). Positive psychotherapy for children and adolescents. In J. R. Z. Abela & B. L. Hankin (Eds.), Depression in children and adolescents: Causes, treatment and prevention (pp. 250–287). New York: Guilford Press.
2. Seligman, M. E. P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61, 774–788. 3. Rashid, T. (2014). Positive psychotherapy: a strength-based approach. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.920411
- Persistence, honesty, prudence, and love were substantially related to fewer externalizing problems such as aggression (Park & Peterson, 2008a).
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2008a). Positive psychology and character strengths: Application to strengths-based school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12 (2), 85-92.
- Hope, zest, and leadership were substantially related to fewer problems with anxiety and depression (Park & Peterson, 2008a).
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2008a). Positive psychology and character strengths: Application to strengths-based school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12 (2), 85-92.
- Posttraumatic growth in various dimensions corresponds with particular character strengths: improved relationships with others (kindness, love), openness to new possibilities (curiosity, creativity, love of learning), greater appreciation of life (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, zest), enhanced personal strength (bravery, honesty, perseverance), and spiritual development (religiousness; Peterson et al., 2008; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995).
1. Peterson, C., Park, N., Pole, N., D’Andrea, W., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2008). Strengths of Character and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21 (2), 214–217.
2. Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- The more traumatic events an individual reports, the higher the character strength scores (with the exception of gratitude, hope, and love; Peterson et al., 2008).
Peterson, C., Park, N., Pole, N., D’Andrea, W., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2008). Strengths of character and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21, 214-217.
- Hope is negatively related to indicators of psychological distress and school maladjustment (internalizing and externalizing behaviors; Gilman, Dooley, & Florell, 2006).
Gilman, R., Dooley, J., & Florell, D. (2006). Relative levels of hope and their relationship with academic and psychological indicators among adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 166-178.
- Gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork all increased in a U.S. sample (but not a European sample) two months after the September 11th (2001) attack on the World Trade Center in New York City; ten months after September 11th, these character strengths were still elevated but to a lesser degree (Peterson & Seligman, 2003).
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science, 14, 381-384.
Updated July 2019