In this article, I explore what strengths interventions research states about how using our strengths can contribute to our wellbeing and offer the outcomes findings of gratitude intervention studies.
Of the strengths intervention research studies from the positive psychology literature that I have studied, key findings were that identifying and developing one’s character strengths consistently produces increases in well-being in adults (Seligman et al. 2005; Proctor et al. 2011b; Mitchell et al. 2009; Rashid 2004, Govindji and Linley 2007 and many others).
An interesting example of the above from Seligman et al. (2005), is an on-line study of participants, who were required to use one of their top character strengths every day for a week in a new way. They showed significant improvements in happiness that lasted 6 months. Interestingly, those who noted their top five strengths and simply used them more often were not as impacted, highlighting that benefits of strengths come from using them not simply identifying them (Quinlan, 2012).
Identifying and developing one’s character strengths consistently produces increases in well-being in adults.
Character strengths being used in a new & unique way, also resulted in the positive outcomes of increased happiness and decreased depression for 3-6 months (Gander et al., 2012, Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012, MacDougall, 2018, Seligman et al., 2005).
A meta-analysis conducted by Schutte & Malouff, 2018, using signature strengths in a new way, also found that the intervention had a positive impact on not only happiness and depression but on life satisfaction as well. They also noted a positive impact on strengths use and flourishing, as did Butina (2016).
Proyer (2013) also agrees that intentional activities focused on one’s character or signature strengths, and which encourage their practice in a new way has been evidenced as highly effective. One of his examples, include an intervention where a group working on using their signature strength in a new way, was the most effective group, with results in decreases in depression and increases in happiness levels (Proyer et al., 2014a).
Seligman (2011) summarises that practicing your highest characteristic or signature strengths, leads to experiencing more: positive emotions, accomplishment, meaning and better relationships, which also form the foundation of his well-being theories elements, known as PERMA.
Strengths also act as mechanisms for positive psychological functioning (Proyer, 2013). Linley (2010) concurs with the above findings, concluding that there is a strong connection between interventions that use one’s character strengths and their wellbeing, namely because strengths use support individuals in progressing on their own unique goals and meeting their basic needs for competence and independence.
The above findings from this literature review, points to the considerable grounded research and empirical evidence that supports using ones signature strengths in new ways to produce positive outcomes.
A specific positive intervention or activity we can link to the context of using a strength, is using gratitude in a new way, such as daily gratitude journal writing. Much research theory and empirical evidence highlights its immense benefits as follows.
Increasing evidence shows the wide range of benefits psychologically, physically, and socially of gratitude interventions (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; McCullough et al., 2001). Many positive psychology research studies, briefly reviewed below, have highlighted gratitude’s positive outcomes on physical health, mental health/psychological functioning and subjective wellbeing.
Not only does gratitude protect individuals from stress (Wood et al. 2008), but it is also related to positive emotions, feelings, moods (Mills et al, 2015). Fritz and colleagues (2019) study findings also indicated that gratitude writing exercises led to fewer negative emotions over the four week intervention period.
In addition, each time an individual expresses gratitude, dopamine in the brain is released, which is associated with a reward (Carter, 2009), connecting the gratitude with feeling happy.
Wong and Brown’s (2017) gratitude intervention study interestingly concluded that gratitude does four things:
These findings are similar to research done by Emmons (2003) and others.
In their gratitude interventions study, Emmons & McCullough (2003), randomly assigned participants to the conditions of: listing hassles, counting blessings, or no-treatment. Individuals who counted blessings and kept weekly gratitude journals felt more positive about their whole life and were more optimistic compared to the other groups. In another similar study, by the same authors, the daily gratitude journal exercises led to high levels of enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy compared to the other two groups.
Overall research generally shows that adult gratitude interventions consistently result in positive benefits, many which endure over time.
Gratitude interventions in summary lead to:
Lomas et al. (2014) notes however that, despite the encouraging results of gratitude interventions, there is a vast amount of unknown territory, related to whether children can gain similar benefits from gratitude interventions. Quinlan (2012) as well, in term of strengths interventions, points to the lack of agreed clinical guidelines to judge results. For example, he considers that the criticising of various strength intervention studies based on them delivering ‘moderate’ results is inapt because the implications in well-being have not been quantified either in real life or over time.
Another gap in character strengths interventions noted by Hart and Sasso (2011) is the fact that most of the research has been focused on individual well-being with almost no connection to significant others in contexts such as home or work.
Govindji and Linley (2008) also note that further research is needed in common use of a shared strengths vocabulary to support the analysis of wider scope interventions.
Although strength’s interventions foster strengths knowledge, in his research paper that reviewed 8 studies, Quinlan (2012) believes that not all of them led to wellbeing and increased strengths use. His suggestion for future improvement is that a better understanding of activities and stages of effective strengths intervention and their mechanisms can support the designing of more effective interventions. These mechanisms he explains can include “relational and contextual factors as well as individual factors such as strengths use, psychological needs satisfaction and valued goal-striving” (Quinlan, 2012, p1160) Other areas for future direction in research overall that he notes include, “exploring new and different ways of developing strengths, measuring a broader range of outcome variables, and assessing the impact of contextual factors on their effectiveness” (Quinlan, 2012, p1160).
Written by Aisha Meguid
Well-Being Teacher, Educator, Consultant & Coach
This article is an excerpt from an essay written during my Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (Melbourne University)