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What Do We Know about Signature Strengths?

written by Ryan Niemiec 28 April 2015
Strengths lens

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 many books including Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of The Power of Character Strengths and Positive Psychology at the Movies. Longer bio. 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%
Curiosity Exploration/novelty seeking 34%
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%
Honesty Being authentic 31%
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%
Prudence Wise caution 9%
Self-Regulation Self-management of vices 4%
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence Seeing the life behind things 25%
Gratitude Thankfulness 29%
Hope Positive expectations/goals 14%
Humor Offering pleasure/laughter 27%
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.

VIA Institute (2010-2015). Unpublished research.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Beauty in nature courtesy of Allie’s.Dad
Through a strengths lens courtesy of Winnie Liu // photography + art

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Judy Krings 28 April 2015 - 5:49 pm

Great chart, Ryan. I will add it to the resources I will use in my MentorCoach Positive Psychology Coaching class beginning this Monday, May 4th. The young man’s testimonial was very poignant. I remember being shocked that Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence was my #1 strength, too. Now I take joy in having even more awe savoring it and being grateful. It often elevates meaning for me and helps me focus on what is right about the moment. Many thanks!

Ryan Niemiec 29 April 2015 - 2:31 pm

Thanks Judy. Indeed, it is amazing how much of a “new world” opens up for people when they are asked simple questions about their best qualities and when they are given the opportunity and/or exercises to apply this in their life. Applicable across age range and culture, both of which have the initial support of empirical research (this wide range of research studies is something that most PP exercises do not actually have).

Seph Fontane Pennock 30 April 2015 - 12:27 am

Interesting findings Ryan. Especially the fact that self-regulation came in as the least common of the 24 character strengths surprised me a bit. I remember it to be in my top 5, or even top 3.

What this young man described almost made me feel guilty of not appreciating or paying attention to (the little) things in my everyday life that I’m completely taking for granted. Since I took up TM, I feel like I have already become more appreciative and able to find beauty in whatever appears, but I still have a long way to go and I’m going to favour every step of it!

Looking forward to reading your next post on how to apply this knowledge. Thank you so much.

Ryan Niemiec 30 April 2015 - 9:04 am

Hi Seph…yes, self-regulation consistently appears in the bottom 5 and this has been found and replicated in 2 published studies across 75 countries as well (see McGrath, 2014). Self-regulation is #23 or #24 in the averages across most countries. That said, the self-regulation scale of the VIA Survey is a bit narrow. As we know, self-regulation can apply to a wide range of domains not measured by VIA such as the self-regulation of attention (which is what mindfulness actually is), the self-regulation of emotions, and so on. The VIA Surveys are undergoing some substantial revisions by quantitative methodologists so look for improvements in this scale and others in the near future (although I bet self-regulation will continue to be low in people’s profiles). You should celebrate the uniqueness of it being in your top 5 or 3.

Also, hi to my friend Hugo Alberts in Holland…you all are doing good work!


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