The Power of Positive and Strength Psychology

By Jack Merenda

When I was in graduate school quite some time ago, Positive Psychology was not that well known.  But every time I read authors that talked about optimism or vibrant, healthy functioning, I came alive.  I knew deep down that as a psychologist, I needed to study more than just mental illness.  I wanted to learn all I could about healthiness and optimal functioning—discovering the very best of what people could be.  I searched to find other counselors who were similarly interested.  I was sure then, and I have not been disappointed, to find that studying human strengths and “flourishing,” not only transforms our counseling approaches but also greatly benefits our own personal mental well-being as well as our close relationships. Now that’s a win-win-win scenario!

It’s true. As we come to know our gifts and strengths—and then nurture those abilities—this brings great motivational “wind into our sails.”  When our character strengths and optimism increase, they begin to crowd out that which is dysfunctional and destructive, to a noticeable extent.

In the past 20-plus years, positive- and strength-psychology has grown rapidly, and it is proving to be very helpful in not only increasing personal strengths but diminishing personal weaknesses.  

We now have research evidence that:

Learning and practicing positive psychology improves your quality of life while decreasing your negative psychological symptoms.  It is also true that, when you build upon your strengths, it clarifies your identity and purpose, while making your life’s work and life mission more enjoyable and fulfilling.

People who are more optimistic than the general population (and by the way, realistic optimism can be learned), these people are also more creative, have more stable relationships, have more income, are more generous, are healthier overall, and live longer than those with less optimism. That’s not just a notable difference, it’s a remarkable one.

Positive Psychology has identified at least 14 (and counting) interventions that raise levels of optimism and happiness, while simultaneously relieving negative symptoms from a variety of disorders—at a rate that is as-good-as or better than conventional counseling and medications, with proven long-term results!  [For example, see Seligman, Martin E.P. et. al., (2005) Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.  American Psychologist 60, 410-421.]

These interventions (learned skills and activities) which provide effective results include:  Increasing gratitude, discovering and employing your strengths, learning healthy lifestyles, practicing kindness, increasing mindfulness and meditation, developing compassion and forgiveness, and adopting optimism as a way of life.

Let’s look at just the first two interventions that you could try (and also share with a friend):

Expressing Gratefulness

  1. Name 4-5 people you are grateful for (they’ve been kind, helpful, well-intentioned), and say why.  Think about that for awhile. Express in your mind or out loud your appreciation for them.
  2. Jot down 3 things in the past 24 hours that you feel good about and would want to see continue in your life or in the lives of others.
  3. Record 2-3 things you did, that you thought were good, right, brave, kind, or noble.

Practice this gratefulness at the end of each day, for two weeks.  Research has shown that this can have a powerful effect on our sense of well being.

Also, consider a Gratitude Visit:  Pick one person who has been especially helpful or meaningful to you.  Write a 1-2 page letter of sincere appreciation.  Laminate or frame it.  Send the letter to that special person.  And if you can, take it to that person, read the letter to them, and then leave the letter with them.

Building On Strengths

You can better know your strengths in at least 2 different ways:

One method is to peruse the 24 strengths (listed below) that have been found to be universal character strengths across cultures, and select what you believe to be your top 4 or 5.  Invite a couple of good friends to weigh in on this selection.

*Identifying Character Strengths 

  • Creativity (originality, ingenuity)
  • Curiosity (interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience)
  • Open-mindedness (judgment, critical thinking)
  • Love of learning: (mastering new knowledge and skills)
  • Perspective (wisdom)
  • Bravery (valor)
  • Persistence (perseverance, industriousness)
  • Integrity (authenticity, honesty)
  • Vitality (zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy)
  • Love: (valuing close relationships of sharing and caring)
  • Kindness (generosity, nurturance, care, compassion)
  • Social intelligence (emotional intelligence, personal intelligence)
  • Citizenship (social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork)
  • Fairness
  • Leadership
  • Forgiveness and mercy
  • Humility / Modesty
  • Prudence: (being careful about one’s choices)
  • Self-regulation (self-control)
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence (awe, wonder, elevation):
  • Gratitude: (thankfulness)
  • Hope (optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation)
  • Humor (joy of laughter, playfulness)
  • Spirituality (faith, higher purpose, drawing close to the Divine)

*The VIA Signature Strength Survey is a 240 question survey that has been taken by thousands of people. The VIA Signature Strengths Survey measures 24 character strengths that are taken from Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Oxford University Press, 2004.

The other way to clarify your strengths is to take the VIA Strengths Assessment, which is free and can be found at: 
https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter

Just scroll down to the Engagement Questionnaires within the Questionnaire Center.

Either way (selecting your strengths or taking the online assessment), you can then proceed to:

  1. First, consciously increase the time/energy that you give to your top strengths.  Do at least one activity each day that taps into one of those strengths.  Try this for at least one week, and you will likely sense that you are happier, en route to  “becoming who you are meant to be.” 
  2. Next, use one of your areas of strength to help you address and develop one of your “areas for growth.”  For example, one of my strengths according to the assessment, is “A love for learning.”  I can intentionally use that strength to explore two areas that I want to develop further—creativity and a sense of humor—to nurture those “virtues.”

The small examples of effective interventions detailed above (Expressing Gratefulness and Building On Strengths) have been shown to help increase a sense of well-being as well as decrease unwanted negative symptoms of depression and distress.

But don’t stop there.  Keep moving forward to search out the other researched strength-building interventions, as well as the new interventions that continue to be developed!

http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx.