Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
Articles by Ryan are here.
When it comes to deciding whether strengths are signature strengths, if you have only one question to ask someone, make it:
“What strengths are most essential to who you are and define you as a person?
This appears to be the single most important criterion in determining whether character strengths are “signature,” or not. Other questions such as, “Is the strength energizing?” “Is it easy to use? and “Is it used across settings?” are important, but are subsumed under this more important question. If you want to get to the heart of the matter, ask about identity.
How Do People Experience Signature Strengths?
When I lead workshops, groups, or guest lectures, I have participants take the VIA Survey of strengths prior to the event. I then ask the participants about their experiences with this activity. A 17-year-old adolescent in one of my lectures characterized the importance of one of his signature strengths when he stood up and exclaimed the following:
“I learned that appreciation of beauty is one of my signature strengths. I never would have framed it that way, but that is exactly how I have approached everything in my life. When I’m studying, I try to spend time in nature. When I’m with my friends and they’re complaining, I look for the truth in what they’re saying – and I see that truth as beautiful. I see beauty in new technologies, old technologies, TV shows, and people. I look for it in colors and patterns, dimensions and sounds. I see things that others seem to walk right on by. It seems to occupy a foreground in my mind and heart as I go about my day. Wonder and awe are always there for me.”
This young man speaks to how his signature strength describes who he is (identity) and also how he approaches life (action).
Our signature strengths say something about our positive identity and about the way in which we take action in this world.
How Frequently do Different Strengths Appear as Signature Strengths?
Table 1 offers a description of the essence of each character strength and the frequency in which each appears in the top 5 of an individual’s profile on the VIA Survey of strengths. While an individual’s top 5 are not necessarily all signature strengths, this is a good proxy or starting point.
Table 1: VIA Classification strengths and frequency of appearance in respondents’ top 5.
© Copyright 2009-2015, VIA Institute on Character. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
|Character Strength||Snapshot View||Frequency
in Top 5
|Creativity||Originality that is useful||25%|
|Judgment||Critical thinking & rationality||33%|
|Love of Learning||Systematic deepening of knowledge||28%|
|Perspective||The wider view||13%|
|Bravery||Facing fears, overcoming adversity||14%|
|Perseverance||Keep going, overcome all obstacles||17%|
|Zest||Enthusiasm for life||9%|
|Love||Genuine, reciprocal warmth||33%|
|Kindness||Doing for others, compassion||32%|
|Social Intelligence||Tune in, then savvy; insight into what makes others tick||15%|
|Teamwork||Collaborative, participating in group effort||15%|
|Fairness||Equal opportunity for all||35%|
|Leadership||Positively influencing others||14%|
|Forgiveness||Letting go of hurt, showing mercy||17%|
|Humility||Achievement does not elevate worth||9%|
|Self-Regulation||Self-management of vices||4%|
|Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence||Seeing the life behind things||25%|
|Spirituality||Connecting with the sacred||19%|
Research on Signature Strengths
In the field of positive psychology, one would be hard-pressed to find an intervention with more specific and successful intervention studies than helping people deploy their signature strengths. In a recent study of older adults, signature strengths used in new ways even beat out the other common positive intervention of counting blessings.
This intervention has three steps: take the VIA Survey, identify one of your signature strengths, and use it in a new way each day.
In randomized, controlled trials, this intervention consistently leads to increases in happiness and decreases in depression, sometimes with effects lasting six months.
This exercise has been further validated by revealing benefits across a number of populations, including youth, older adults, employees, people with traumatic brain injuries, suicidal people, as well as in various locations such as China, Australia, UK, USA, Canada, and Europe.
Here are a few examples of additional research outcomes specific to signature strengths and character strengths. Go to The VIA Site for a review of over 200 peer-reviewed studies.
- The use of 4 or more signature strengths at work is a cutoff for more positive work experience and work-as-a-calling.
- The use of signature strengths is connected with work engagement and work satisfaction.
In many cases, knowing your strengths is not enough. you must deploy them in your life too.
- Character strengths are linked with a better workplace climate.
- Character strengths are connected with the various elements of well-being such as engagement, meaning, positive emotions, and positive relationships.
- Character strengths are linked with improved achievement and performance.
- Character strengths help to buffer stress and improve coping ability.
Come back tomorrow for a follow-on article about translating this research into practice.
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, 965-971. Abstract.
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, 15, 1347-1361. Abstract.
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, 1233-1252. Abstract.
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, 14, 1241-1259. doi: 10.1007/s10902-012-9380-0
Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2012). When the job is a calling: The role of applying one’s signature strengths at work. Journal of Positive Psychology. Abstract.
Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2014). The role of character strengths for task performance, job dedication, interpersonal facilitation, and organizational support. Human Performance, 27(3), 183-205. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08959285.2014.913592. Abstract.
Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2015). The relationships of character strengths with coping, work-related stress, and job satisfaction. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 165. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00165
Linkins, M., Niemiec, R. M., Gillham, J., & Mayerson, D. (2014). Through the lens of strength: A framework for educating the heart. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.888581
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, 71-83.
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. Abstract.
Niemiec, R. (2013). Mindfulness and Character Strengths. Hogrefe.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of College and Character, x(4), 1-10. Abstract.
Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2014). Positive psychology interventions in people aged 50–79 years: long-term effects of placebo-controlled online interventions on well-being and depression. Aging and Mental Health, 18, 997-1005. Abstract.
Rust, T., Diessner, R., & Reade, L. (2009). Strengths only or strengths and relative weaknesses? A preliminary study. Journal of Psychology, 143(465-476). Abstract.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.