Home All Should You Play To Your Signature Strengths or Not?

Should You Play To Your Signature Strengths or Not?

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 25 June 2012
Curiosity by hlkljgk

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

When 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 


Hope by Ménage a Moi

Hope by Menage a Moi

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 by aussiegall

30 Days of Gratitude at a Glance by aussiegall

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


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oz 25 June 2012 - 9:21 pm

Bridget – I have commented on PPND regularly about all strengths not being equal – and also the importance of self reg.

{I believe this to be [Edited]} flawed thinking

Denise Quinlan 27 June 2012 - 7:08 pm

Hi Bridget,
this is an interesting study and to their credit the authors have worked hard to assess a range of activities and to recruit a range of participants who are not college students.

However, my primary concern is that this study does not pay any attention to context. We don’t know if the people doing the activities valued those strengths themselves, or equally, if they were operating in environments where those strengths would be recognised and rewarded or ignored.

I think it’s likely that there are some strengths that will be more associated with well-being than others – and that they will most likely be strengths whose use brings us closer to others. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate to take a construct such as a strength and treat it as if it can have a specific dosage effect independent of environment.

We could just as easily hypothesise that the strengths in group 1 were more likely to be more valued and attract positive recognition than those in Group 2 [with the possible exception of kindness] and that it is difference that accounts for the difference in well-being changes.


Amanda Horne 27 June 2012 - 7:23 pm

Bridget, thank you for writing about this study, which I’d heard about but not explored in any detail.

It’s interesting to note that the five strengths which correlate with high life satisfaction (curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope and love) not only all appear on Barbara Fredrickson’s list of positive emotions, they also appear in the top half of Chris Peterson’s Strengths Tradeoffs map, i.e. strengths of the heart. Therefore I was disappointed that the researchers left love out of Group 1. (Oz commented on not all strengths being equal, this is the same for positive emotions).

I find their research somewhat confusing and am not sure what to make of this if I were to pass on tips to others. For example, the actitivies were dictated in the study, however in reality individuals would find many other ways to express strengths. Could it be that writing a gratitude letter has no impact on a participant in the study, but a different gratitude activity would impact life satisfaction? There is also a level of complexity when strengths are combined in different ways, to different degrees and according to the situation / context. Add to this the purpose or intention when using strengths and we have different outcomes again.

Thank you for provoking thinking on this.
(by the way, many people I know enjoy using the VIA to promot intentional engagement with life, work, relationships etc.)

Bridget 28 June 2012 - 4:20 am

Hi Oz

Thanks for your comments. I can’t speak for the VIA Institute’s approach to using strengths of course but perhaps in pos psych pehaps the message that ‘all strengths are equal’ is one of those conclusions which has somehow found its way into the public arena even though no-one ever put it quite like that. Acacia Parks referred to this problem in Aaron Jarden’s recent book, Positive Psychologists on Positive Psychology. As Denise says (in the next comment), context/environment is an important factor, the impact of which is difficult to unravel.

I’ve read about self-reg being a key concept in well-being in other literature too, before this study came along; interesting that it tends to fall quite low down in people’s lists of strengths.


Bridget 28 June 2012 - 4:23 am

Thanks for your comments Denise, you make some interesting points.

Yes the researchers deserve a lot of credit for excluding psychology students from the study – a real rarity!

I do think the study was a good one to carry out – if certain strengths are more closely associated to well-being, it makes sense to see if they would lead to greater well-being whether or not they’re a signature strength for you personally.

What is a ‘signature strength’ is still a big question though. Just because a strengths isn’t in your top 5 doesn’t mean it’s not a lot like you (and vice versa)- you could have many more than 5 strengths closely bunched together, or they could be miles apart. You’d need a more detailed report to know that.

In the original study (where using your strengths in a new way was linked to higher well-being over the longer term) I don’t think they assessed whether participants valued their strengths either. In our Masterclasses we sometimes get people who don’t like/want/value their top 5. It’s would make for an interesting piece of research – using strengths which you do/don’t value.


Oz 28 June 2012 - 6:08 am

denise – we could equally hypothesise that the benefits of strengths interventions are associated with positive priming. i have to agree that context matters and we know very little about it – yet people still {…edited… [do]} strengths interventions.

Ryan M. Niemiec 9 July 2012 - 10:57 am

It is VERY important to note that:

• the “life satisfaction” strengths are correlated with life satisfaction at a level that they only account for about 10% or so of the variance of life satisfaction
• they are the result of group research, which means that a group of people might as a group become more satisfied as a result of developing these strengths, but the research does not imply the best pathway for an individual
• individuals with higher VIA scores and less variability in their 24 scores have higher levels of life satisfaction and flourishing, indicating that the best pathway to satisfaction for an individual is to robustly express their signature strengths and to work on select others that have personal relevance.

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.
Chairman – VIA Institute on Character

Kathryn Britton 9 July 2012 - 2:55 pm

Thanks, Neal, for adding this clarification. It does raise a question I’ve had for years: How can people who have taken the VIA tell whether they have “less variability in their 24 scores”? I know it is possible to get actual scores in at least some of the VIA survey reports. But is there a baseline for comparison that lets an individual see whether he or she has more or less variability than the population at large?

I’ve been curious about this for years, ever since I heard Chris Peterson talk about it.


Oz 10 July 2012 - 4:59 am

neal, could you reference the research supporting your last bullet point – thanks oz

Ryan M. Niemiec 10 July 2012 - 1:17 pm

Thanks Kathryn and Oz.

It’s a nice idea, Kathryn, but this has not yet been created in the VIA system. As you mention, individuals can see their own variability between strengths (ipsative, which is what the VIA Survey was created to be) when they get one of the more extensive, in-depth reports, particularly the VIA Pro Report.

Oz, this is based on a sample of around 450,000 or so…the strength of the relationship is about 0.35 based on VIA’s unpublished research…and based on what Nansook Park reports in her research in a chapter from a 2012 book by Corey Keyes (the chapter is on flourishing and is written by Keyes, Barbara Fredrickson, and Park).

Oz 10 July 2012 - 3:25 pm

neal or ryan – is there a study that compares the incremenral benefit when compared with zest curiosity etc. my hunch is that it would be beneficial. as an aside don’t you think the strengths exercises are all based on zest hope and curiosity.

also my final hunch – self reg is probably the only other strength worth developimg – again reinforced by the abive study

Scott Crabtree 8 November 2012 - 4:52 pm

Thanks for a very interesting article and comments, Bridget and all.

I’m sitting at Blizzard Entertainment, about to do a 3.5 hour workshop I call “Truly Tapping Your Strengths–and Those of Your Team”. This article and comments are really helpful.

Two questions/comments: Have you read the article in the Journal of Positive Psychology by Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, and Minhas? I find it an interesting exploration of taking strengths development to the next level.

Also, I’m curious about sample size in the above study. I’m not an academic but since I’ve just been reading about the importance of sample size in “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman, I wanted to ask if the sample sizes are enough to avoid misleading results?

Thanks again!


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