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Sustainable self-improvement: Why you may want to consider a strength approach

Most of us would admit that we want to change some things about our personalities. When reflecting on our character, we tend to focus on our flaws and weaknesses, what we would most like to improve, rather than our strong points. After all, the wish to change stems from thinking that we are not ‘good enough’ somehow. However, personality change does not seem to happen all that easily (if it did, our behaviour would be pretty unpredictable…).

It takes a long time and a lot of repetition to change habits and traits. Although our behaviour tends to fluctuate depending on the ebbs and flows of our moods and demands of our day-to-day lives, our traits are relatively stable across the lifespan (Caspi & Roberts, 2009). In other words, we tend to revert back to our “old selves” quite easily. Improving our weaknesses takes a lot of effort and energy and is not necessarily motivating in itself. Although we might find the idea of change motivating for various reasons (e.g., the prospect of job success or popularity we might gain through that change), we usually do not get enjoyment and energy from the actual process of working on our weaknesses. Therefore, these efforts often fall short for the same reason that most diets or ambitious new year’s resolutions fail. The motivation to keep working at it for long enough will most likely run out before proper (lifestyle) change can occur. We bounce back to where we were before.

It has also been shown that if people try to behave against their natural tendencies, they sometimes experience increased levels of fatigue and negative emotions as a result (Jacques-Hamilton et al., 2019). For example, people tend to experience more positive emotions by being more sociable and outgoing, but the less sociable they are to begin with, the more negative effects it will have for them to try to behave more sociable. According to this research, acting out of character can actually be detrimental to our well-being in some cases, even if we are trying to develop a trait that is usually linked to positive emotions!

This may all seem quite discouraging. Now, why do people sometimes want to change their traits to begin with? Non-surprisingly, people want to be happier with themselves and their lives and wish to improve their well-being (Hudson & Fraley, 2016). We wish to have more of those positive traits that will boost our self-esteem and confidence, ultimately making us happier and more successful at the things we want to pursue. Other than focusing on weaknesses, what could be a more effective route towards higher self-esteem and increased well-being?

Strength interventions and their benefits

In recent times, psychology researchers have started focusing on the benefits of identifying and capitalizing on one’s strengths. Strength, in this context, refers to positive qualities such as kindness, honesty, creativity and bravery, to name a few (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Possessing these character traits means having a natural tendency to engage in activities that use these traits as we go about our lives, such as helping others (kindness) or coming up with creative solutions to problems (creativity). It involves being naturally good at or likely to engage in certain activities and being energized by them, valuing and enjoying them in their own right and not because of some other rewards they may bring (like status or money). Those strengths that best describe a person are sometimes called signature strengths. So-called “strength interventions” often involve helping people identify these signature strengths and capitalizing on them.

Since engaging in strength-related activities brings people joy and a sense of meaning in life (Schutte & Malouff, 2019), one would assume that using ones’ strengths regularly improves well-being. Research findings suggest that this is indeed the case. A recent review of 18 studies showed that strength interventions increase people’s average well-being (Ghielen et al., 2017). This means that, on average, people who participate in these interventions report feeling happier, less depressed, and more satisfied with life than people on a waitlist or receiving some alternative intervention. The same review also showed that the benefits include increases in the will and striving to improve as a person. This has been called personal growth initiative. Another review of 8 studies also showed similar results on well-being, plus an increased sense of self-efficacy among students (Quinlan et al., 2012). Self-efficacy is the belief and confidence in one’s ability to accomplish things. It is no surprise that discovering and using ones’ strengths to a greater extent leads to improved self-confidence. This is not restricted to school contexts. On the contrary, strength interventions have been shown to improve engagement and performance at the job as well (Ghielen et al., 2017). It is clear then that these interventions have important and wide-ranging benefits.

Is the strength approach superior?

Although there is convincing evidence that strength interventions effectively improve well-being and other positive outcomes, it is unclear whether focusing on strengths is more effective than focusing on weaknesses. However, there is some early evidence pointing in that direction. Meyers and colleagues (2015) designed two workshop interventions for university students that both had the same goal: to help students improve in areas that are important for them as students and in their future careers. Two groups were assigned to a strength intervention, and two groups were assigned to a weakness intervention. All groups were assessed at four time-points: before the intervention, right after the intervention, and one and three months after the intervention. Both interventions were designed to be similar in most ways so that it would be possible to determine the effect of the strength part of the intervention. For example, they required an equivalent amount of social interactions, reflection and focus on students’ present and future.

In the strength intervention, the students were supposed to identify, reflect on and discuss their strengths. They were then presented with some job advertisements that aligned with their educational backgrounds, asked to compare their strength profile to the requirements of the job positions and consider how they could use and develop their strengths in these jobs. In the weakness intervention, on the other hand, the students reflected on their qualities and pitfalls and discussed in groups how they could overcome their challenges. The focus was on communications, especially in dealing with conflict situations, which are essential for the student’s future careers. They then practiced their communication weaknesses through role-play and provided each other with feedback.

The researchers were interested in looking at the effects of the different interventions on five positive outcomes that were measured with self-report questionnaires. These were personal growth initiative, self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience. It is not hard to imagine that these qualities would be related to higher well-being and stronger motivation to improve as a person. The results were such that the students in the strength intervention had a larger increase in personal growth initiative, hope and resilience than the students in the weakness intervention. In fact, the strength intervention led to increases in all of the qualities, whereas the weakness intervention led to increases in all but resilience. The effects in all groups were maintained three months after the interventions, showing that the interventions lead to at least somewhat lasting benefits.

Thus, it seems that although both strength and weakness interventions can help improve some positive qualities in people, focusing on strengths may, at least in some contexts, have some advantages over focusing on weaknesses. More research is needed to confirm this and see whether this generalizes to people of all ages who are not university students.

What implications does it have if strength interventions are generally more effective at improving people’s lives? Should we stop trying to work on our weaknesses? Most people would probably agree that it is not so simple. Of course, we want to and sometimes really need to work on important weaknesses that seriously restrict us. Many people have communication issues that affect almost every aspect of their lives. And many people suffer (or will do sooner or later) from some mental health issues, involving weaknesses like hopelessness and troubles with controlling ones’ emotions or impulses.

If identifying and using strengths is (a) energizing and enjoyable, (b) increases people’s motivation to improve as people (personal growth initiative), and (c) provides them with hope and a feeling of being capable of doing what is needed to see such improvements (through self-efficacy), then this should complement interventions that focus on weaknesses. When people wish to change some part of their personalities, there is a mismatch between their desired self and their true self. This tends to be detrimental to their well-being, especially if bridging this gap between who one is and who one wants to be is difficult (Hudson & Fraley, 2016). Therefore, strength interventions may serve as an important set of stepping-stones by fostering a sense of confidence and hope, motivating people to do the hard work required to improve their weaknesses.

For example, someone who starts to act on their strengths of kindness and gratitude may find themselves engaging more often in meaningful conversations with people to whom they express their compassion and appreciation. This, in turn, is likely to help them build better conversation skills or at least become more motivated to do so. It is also very possible that identifying one’s strengths puts one’s weaknesses in a new light in some cases. Many people are impulsive and spontaneous, tending to think before they act, sometimes leading to avoidable mistakes and embarrassing moments. But it appears that such disinhibition may actually foster creative thinking (Kipper et al., 2010). Impulsivity and unrestrained thought often go hand-in-hand, and less restrained thinking allows for original ideas. Further capitalizing on such strength may then “overshadow” what previously seemed to be an unfortunate trait. In that way, the aim may not always be to fix some deeply rooted “weaknesses” but rather to reframe or work around them.

Having what you want or wanting what you have

Given the benefits of the strength approach for general well-being, the question arises whether it might help deal with more serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety. There have been attempts at integrating a strength element to some traditional treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (e.g., Padesky & Mooney, 2012). Research on the effectiveness of such alternative therapies has just begun, and only the future will tell whether they are as effective or even better than traditional therapies. In addition, what remains to be seen is whether the benefits of focusing on strengths and using them more often has lasting benefits. Do people stay motivated to apply their strengths after finishing these interventions or therapies? If using strengths is naturally motivating to people, then intuitively, they are likely to maintain their habits of doing so. But what other reasons could explain why the strength approach is effective? Does it depend on what strengths and weaknesses people have to start with? Do these interventions need to be personalized? It may not always be best to pick the top strengths, the signature strengths. Some people may gain more from focusing on average strengths if they are already aware of their signature strengths and use them often (Proyer et al., 2015). These people may even benefit more from focusing on weaknesses, especially if they have high self-esteem and are not easily discouraged by setbacks, making the efforts less likely to backfire. Meanwhile, persons in the most need and desire to work on their weaknesses might sometimes be the most likely to give up, as they often have lower self-esteem and confidence. And we all know how it can be much harder to be disciplined and motivated when life gets us down, and we struggle to keep afloat with our everyday tasks. People suffering from mental health issues experience a lot of stress and negative emotions, making it much harder for them to change their habits and traits. Therefore, they might be better off starting by focusing on their strengths.

Although simply identifying and using our strengths more often does not change our personalities on its own, it can lead to the results we are most after when fantasizing about personality change. It may make us more confident and happier with our lives, and our positive qualities then shine through much more than they otherwise would. It may even energize us and motivate us to build new strengths and improve our weaknesses. This could lead to more lasting and sustainable changes in our traits than forcing behaviour that simply is not natural to us and drains our energy and motivation. On this note, Hyman Schachtel might have hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have” (Schachtel, 1954, p. 37). One might add: “… and capitalising on what you have”.

Have a think about what positive character traits define you and how engaging in them has energized you and brought you joy in the past. How could you make sure that you use these strengths more often for your own and others’ benefit? You can find what strengths people might have below and take a free survey here to discover your strengths.

 Guðrún

References

Caspi, A., & Roberts, B. W. (2009). Personality development across the life course: The argument for change and continuity. Psychological Inquiry, 12(2), 49–66. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327965PLI1202_01

Ghielen, S. T. S., van Woerkom, M., & Christina Meyers, M. (2017). Promoting positive outcomes through strengths interventions: A literature review. Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(6), 573–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1365164

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2016). Changing for the better? Longitudinal associations between volitional personality change and psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(5), 603–615. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216637840

Jacques-Hamilton, R., Sun, J., & Smillie, L. D. (2019). Costs and benefits of acting extraverted: A randomised controlled trial. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9), 1538–1556. https://doi.org/10.1037/XGE0000516

Kipper, D. A., Green, D. J., & Prorak, A. (2010). The Relationship Among Spontaneity, Impulsivity, and Creativity. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 5(1), 39–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401381003640866

Meyers, M. C., van Woerkom, M., de Reuver, R. S. M., Bakk, Z., & Oberski, D. L. (2015). Enhancing psychological capital and personal growth initiative: Working on strengths or deficiencies. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(1), 50–62. https://doi.org/10.1037/COU0000050

Padesky, C. A., & Mooney, K. A. (2012). Strengths-Based Cognitive–Behavioural Therapy: A Four-Step Model to Build Resilience. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 19(4), 283–290. https://doi.org/10.1002/CPP.1795

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4317046

Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: A randomised placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3389/FPSYG.2015.00456

Quinlan, D., Swain, N., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2012). Character strengths interventions: Building on what we know for improved outcomes. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(6), 1145–1163. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10902-011-9311-5/TABLES/1

Schachtel, H. J. (1954). The real enjoyment of living. E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

Schutte, N. S., & Malouff, J. M. (2019). The impact of signature character strengths interventions: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(4), 1179–1196. https://doi.org/10.1007/S10902-018-9990-2/TABLES/3

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