Developing Character Strengths | Sahaja Online

Character Strengths Guide

How Character Strengths Improve Your Life

What’s Your Signature?

A rapidly growing body of research is revealing the many dimensions in which character strengths promote our health, happiness and well-being. Character strengths are ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that promote human flourishing and facilitate exceptional performance. They’re essential to an individual’s core character.

Each of us have signature strengths, the character strengths most central to our identity. Here are some clues for spotting them: They’ll be displayed the majority of time in relevant settings, readily named and owned by the individual, and easily recognized by others as characteristic of the individual (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Signature strengths have a rapid learning curve, are invigorating to use, involve a sense of authenticity (“this is the real me”) when used, and the very act of using them is energizing and intrinsically motivating (Seligman, 2002).

Identifying our signature strengths allows us to explore them more deeply and translate abstract character traits into concrete actions. We develop self-confidence and a practical wisdom that enables us to use our strengths to manage adversity, solve problems and improve our lives and the lives of others.

Highlights of recent findings on signature strengths include:

  • How many signature strengths do we have? While we’re all different, some VIA Institute studies found that one-half of individuals had 11 or more signature strengths; others found that only one-third of individuals had 11 strengths, depending on how stringent the criteria. Around half of us appear to have 7 or fewer signature strengths. Turns out, the average number of signature strengths that people think of themselves as having is larger than researchers proposed (Mayerson, 2013).
  • Jack of all strengths. We all know someone who’s a jack of all trades… is it possible to become a “jack of all character strengths?” One study suggests it is. Both signature strengths and strengths balance were found to uniquely predict higher well-being. There’s clear evidence that identifying and using one’s signature strengths is beneficial, but by emphasizing signature strengths, do we inadvertently overlook other less-developed strengths that might be as valuable to develop? Studies show that a balanced approach may be the most effective route to creating and sustaining well-being. Strengths balance allows us to develop a larger psychological toolkit, which may better enable us to adapt to the demands of various situations and achieve the best possible outcomes (Young et al, 2014).
  • Harmonious passion. The use of signature strengths elevates one’s “harmonious passion;” that is, engaging in activities that you freely choose without constraints, are highly important to you, and are part of your identity. Harmonious passion then leads to greater well-being (Forest et al., 2012)
  • Using signature strengths in new ways relieves depression, increases hope. Two studies showed that using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness for 6 months and decreased depression for 3 months (Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012; Gander et al, 2012).  Another study showed that, among youth, personally meaningful goal-setting combined with using signature strengths in novel ways led to increases in student engagement and hope (Madden et al, 2011).
  • Progress strengthens well-being. One study revealed that the strong connection between well-being and use of signature strengths was that using our strengths help us realize progress toward our goals and meet our basic needs for independence, relationship, and competence (Linley et al., 2010).

Universality

Character traits are universal across all human beings, all cultures. If we ever doubted that, research is proving it. For example, VIA character strengths studied in the U.S. were found to be remarkably similar across 54 nations (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006). Highly correlated rates of agreement, desirability, and development of character strengths have been found between such disparate cultures as Kenyan Maasai & Inughuit in Northern Greenland and University of Illinois students (Biswas-Diener, 2006).

Highlights of studies demonstrating the universality of character strengths include:

  • The Top 5. The most prevalent character strengths across all cultures are (in descending order): kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, judgment (Park et al, 2006). The most prevalent character strengths in one UK sample were open-mindedness, fairness, curiosity, love of learning, and kindness (Linley et al., 2007).
  • Do men and women differ? In a study of character strength gender differences…
    • Women scored highest on the strengths of honesty, kindness, love, gratitude, and fairness. Men scored highest on honesty, hope, humor, gratitude, and curiosity (Brdar, Anic, & Rijavec, 2011).
    • Life satisfaction… For women, life satisfaction was predicted by: zest, gratitude, hope, appreciation of beauty/excellence, and love. For men, life satisfaction was predicted by creativity, perspective, fairness, and humor (Brdar, Anic, & Rijavec, 2011).
    • Women scored higher on gratitude than men (Mann, 2014).
  • Are character strengths universally heritable? Character strengths are only moderately heritable — the rest is cultivated (Steger et al, 2007).
  • Environmental contagion. Twin studies show that love, humor, modesty, and teamwork are most influenced by environmental factors (Steger et al., 2007).
  • Good character drives “flow.” Pleasure, flow, and other positive illuminative experiences were found to be enabled by good character (Park & Peterson, 2009a; Peterson, Ruch, et al, 2007).

Overall Life Satisfaction

Do character strengths directly cause life satisfaction? Current literature does not seem to conclusively answer this question. Some psychologists interpret the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction as aligning with Aristotle’s notion of eudemonia (or eudaimonia, in Greek), commonly translated as happiness or welfare. The modern view of eudemonia might be best encapsulated by the phrase human flourishing.

Aristotle’s view was that happiness results from a life actively governed by reason and that well-being — happiness and fulfillment — is not an eventual consequence of virtuous action; rather it is inherent in virtuous action. When we do a favor for someone, feeling satisfied about our act is an inherent property of taking “right action,” just as grace is a property of an accomplished dance performance, not an outcome or effect of the dance, or a separable emotional gloss. Plato and his followers framed the concept of eudemonia as: The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

Highlights of research into the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction include:

  • You can never have too much. One study found that excess of any one character strength does not diminish life satisfaction (Park et al, 2004).
  • The Big 4 for life satisfaction. Studies suggest that the big four strengths most closely associated with life satisfaction are: Hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and love. Modesty and intellectual strength were the least correlated with life satisfaction (Park et al, 2004). A second study that confirmed the Big 4 also found that the strengths of hope and spirituality were the best predictors of future life satisfaction (Proyer et al., 2011).
  • Which route to happiness? We all choose our own path to happiness, but may achieve different outcomes depending on our specific character strengths and the path we choose. A series of studies examined 3 different routes to happiness: the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of meaning and the engagement route. The results were:
    • Character strengths most associated with the meaning route to happiness were: religiousness, gratitude, hope, zest, and curiosity (Peterson et al., 2007).
    • Character strengths most associated with the engagement route to happiness were: zest, curiosity, hope, perseverance, and perspective (Peterson et al., 2007).
    • Character strengths most associated with the pleasure route to happiness were: humor, zest, hope, social intelligence, and love (Peterson et al., 2007).
    • And perhaps not surprisingly, the pursuit of meaning and engagement routes were far more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005).
  • Transcendence predicts life satisfaction. In a study that examined how different strengths were relevant for different positive outcomes, transcendence strengths were found to be the strongest predictor of life satisfaction and positive affect (emotional state). Leadership was found to be the strongest predictor of self-efficacy (Weber et al., 2013).

Work Success

  • The virtuous circle. One VIA study of character strengths use by women in the workplace found that the very act of using strengths always created a “virtuous circle:” Strengths use helped women overcome obstacles that had impeded strengths use (Elson & Boniwell, 2011).
  • The Big 5 of work satisfaction. Across occupations, curiosity, zest, hope, gratitude, and spirituality were found to be the Big 5 strengths associated with work satisfaction (Peterson et al., 2010).
  • A zestful “calling?” When we view our work as a “calling,” we tend to view it as a source of fulfillment that’s socially useful and personal meaningful, rather than as financial reward or career advancement. The work-as-calling factor is heavily associated with and predicted by the character strength of zest (Peterson et al., 2009). Potential pathways for increasing zest, particularly in the workplace, are: cultivating optimism, gratitude or savoring success; emphasizing good social relationships outside work; and focusing on physical health and fitness (Peterson et al., 2009).
  • Character increases ambition. Character strengths — especially zest, perseverance, hope, and curiosity — were found to play a key role in health and ambitious work attitudes and behavior (Gander et al, 2012).
  • Honesty and integrity in top-level leaders and execs. A unique study of top-level executive leaders of for-profit companies examined the strengths of honesty/integrity, bravery, perspective, social intelligence, finding that while each was important for performance, honesty/integrity was the biggest contributor to the variances found in executive performance (Sosik et al., 2012).
  • Wisdom, creativity and stress. A study of the Wisdom strengths (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective) found these five strengths to be associated with higher performance on creative tasks and that they were negatively related to stress (Avey et al., 2012).
  • Top 10 strengths expressed on the job. Studies have found that the top 10 strengths expressed at work are: honesty, judgment, perspective, fairness, perseverance, love of learning, leadership, zest, curiosity, social intelligence (Money et al, 2008).
  • Best matched to demands. What strengths seem to be best matched to work demands? Honesty, judgment, perspective, fairness, and zest (Money et al, 2008).
  • Military trust. Military leaders’ character strength of humor predicted their followers’ trust; however, the followers’ character strength of perspective earned their leaders’ trust (Sweeney et al., 2009).

Academic Success

Building and promoting good character among the young are a primary goal of families, schools and societies. Certain character strengths have been found to reduce youth behavioral and emotional problems, such as depression, delinquency and violence and produce desired outcomes such as school success, prosocial behavior and skills competence.

Highlights of studies demonstrating how character strengths predict academic success and positive social development include:

  • Which strengths predict overall success in school? Character strengths of the mind (e.g., self-regulation, perseverance, love of learning) have been widely found to be predictive of school success (e.g., Weber & Ruch, 2012b).
  • Early strengths. The most prevalent character strengths in very young children (aged 3 to 9) are: love, kindness, creativity, curiosity, and humor. Gratitude is associated with happiness in older children (Park & Peterson, 2006a).
  • The high achievement/GPA strengths. Strengths that predict high GPAs in college students are: perseverance, love of learning, humor, fairness, and kindness (Lounsbury et al., 2009). In another study, after controlling for IQ, the strengths of perseverance, fairness, gratitude, honesty, hope, and perspective predicted higher GPA (Park & Peterson, 2008a).
  • Character and popularity. Popular students, as identified by teacher ratings, are more likely to score highly on civic strengths such as leadership and fairness, and temperance strengths of self-regulation, prudence, and forgiveness. Interestingly, none of the humanity strengths, such as love and kindness, were related to popularity (Park & Peterson, 2009b).
  • The curious effect of curiosity. In a study of nearly 1,200 kids who wore a beeping watch which prompted them to write about their thoughts, feelings, and actions 8 times per day, the most curious kids were compared with the bored kids (top 207 and bottom 207). The curious were more optimistic, hopeful, confident and had a higher sense of self-determination and self-efficacy, believing that they were in control of their actions and decisions. The bored kids, on the other hand, felt like pawns with no control over their destiny (Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).
  • Putting strengths to use. One 6-session character strengths program encouraged students to notice and affirm strengths in each other and to use those strengths to pursue their personal goals. The results showed that, at 3 months post-test, 9-12 year-olds scored significantly higher on class cohesion, relatedness, engagement and well-being, and lower on class friction. In addition to experiencing higher positive emotional states, the kids scored significantly higher on strengths use (Quinlan, Swain, Cameron, & Vella-Brodrick, 2014).
  • Which character strengths do kids inherit? Heritability of strengths between parents and child have been found to be modest with the exception of spirituality, in environments where it’s substantial (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
  • Strengths to develop. The character strengths that have a developmental trajectory; that is, they are least common in youth and need to increase over time through cognitive maturation are: appreciation of beauty & excellence, forgiveness, modesty, open-mindedness (Park & Peterson, 2006a; 2006b).
  • Other-oriented strengths. Among high school students, other-oriented strengths (e.g., kindness, teamwork) predicted fewer depression symptoms while transcendence strengths (e.g., spirituality) predicted greater life satisfaction (Gillham et al., 2011).
  • College satisfaction. The strongest predictors of college satisfaction are: hope, social intelligence, self-regulation, and fairness (Lounsbury et al., 2009).
  • What does it take to be the best of the best? Those who are the best of the best at using signature strengths  — the “capitalizers” — may become capitalizers, in part, because they also maintain social support and build on successful experiences that give them the confidence to apply their strengths in new ways (Bowers & Lopez, 2010).
  • Two dimensions of character. One study compared the effects of emphasizing moral character development or performance character development over 1 school year in early adolescents at 3 high-performing, high-poverty urban middle schools. (Performance character consists of the qualities that allow people to regulate thoughts and actions in ways that support achievement in a particular endeavor. Moral character consists of the qualities related to striving for ethical behavior in one’s relationships with other individuals and communities.) The study found that focusing on moral character development programs led to significantly higher levels of integrity. However, focusing on performance character development led to significantly higher levels of perseverance and community connectedness, suggesting that a balanced approach may be the most beneficial (Seider et al, 2013).

Health & Well-Being

  • Character leads to improved vitality, self-esteem and well-being, and less stress. In a study employing a new scale designed to be a longitudinal predictor of how character strengths affect well-being, character strengths use was found to be an important predictor of well-being; in fact, people who reported greater use of their strengths developed greater levels of well-being over time. Specifically, at both 3- and 6-month follow-up, greater strengths use was related to greater self-esteem, vitality, and positive affect, and lower perceived stress. The study evaluated the difficulties and obstacles impinging on well-being, vitality, the self and identity (self-esteem) aspect of well-being, and the availability of sufficient self-regulatory resources to successfully navigate the challenges of daily life (Wood et al., 2011).
  • Use your strengths a new way to increase happiness, decrease depression. Using signature strengths in a new and unique way was found to effectively increase happiness and decrease depression throughout a 6-month period (Seligman et al, 2005).
  • Character helps us live with physical disorders. For people with a physical disorder, there’s less of a toll on life satisfaction if they’re high on the character strengths of bravery, kindness, and humor. The study also found that physical disorder had less impact on life satisfaction for those high on the character strengths of appreciation of beauty and excellence and love of learning (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2006).
  • The law school stress buffer. A study of 75 top law school programs found that encouraging students to utilize their personal strengths may act as a buffer against psychological distress in law school. Using top character strengths led to a decreased likelihood of depression and stress and an increase in satisfaction (Peterson & Peterson, 2008).
  • Well-being… driven by head or heart? The strengths of the “heart” (e.g., love, gratitude) are more strongly associated with well-being than are strengths of the “head” (e.g., creativity, open-mindedness/judgment, appreciation of beauty and excellence (Park & Peterson, 2008b; Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).
  • Character heals trauma. Post-traumatic growth has been found to correspond with certain character strengths: improved relationships with others (kindness, love), openness to new possibilities (curiosity, creativity, love of learning), greater appreciation of life (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, zest), enhanced personal strength (bravery, honesty, perseverance), and spiritual development (religiousness) (Peterson et al., 2008; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995).
  • Top stress-trauma buffers. The character strengths of hope, kindness, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perspective were found to buffer against the negative effects of stress and trauma (Park & Peterson, 2006c; Park & Peterson, 2009a).
  • Strengths that reduce aggression. Persistence, honesty, prudence, and love were substantially related to fewer externalizing problems such as aggression (Park & Peterson, 2008a).
  • Strengths that reduce anxiety and depression. Hope, zest, and leadership were substantially related to fewer problems with anxiety and depression (Park & Peterson, 2008a).
  • Self-love increases love for others. A focus on cultivating love toward oneself through and/or others through loving-kindness meditation was found to increase feelings of social connection and positivity toward others (Hutcherson et al., 2008)

Character Strength Interactions

  • When mindfulness meets character. Integrating mindfulness and character strengths creates a synergy of mutual benefit that can foster a virtuous circle in which mindful awareness boosts strengths use, which, in turn, enlivens mindfulness (Niemiec et al, 2012).
  • The towing principle. Several studies have corroborated the mutual impact (and predictive abilities) of two character strengths upon each other. For example, one study found that gratitude and humility are mutually reinforcing (Kruse et al., 2014). This phenomenon, in which the expression of one strength naturally elicits the expression of other strengths, is often referred to as “the towing principle” or the “virtuous circle.”
  • Spirituality improves self-regulation, impulse control. A series of studies found a relationship between one dimension of spirituality/religiousness (positive/neutral reminders of God) improved self-regulation. Participants demonstrated both decreased active pursuit of unhealthy impulses and increased temptation resistance (Laurin, Kay, & Fitzsimons, 2011).
  • Protection against risky drinking. One study found that  justice, temperance, and transcendence had significantly greater impact on problem drinking and recovery (Logan et al, 2010).
  • Self-compassion increases certain strengths. One study examined the predictive potential of self-compassion, which could be thought of as the character strength of kindness turned inward. Self-compassion correlated positively with wisdom/perspective and optimism/hope, among other positive benefits (Neely et al., 2009).
  • The power of gratitude. The practice of gratitude has been linked to significant health benefits, including:
    • Fewer physical symptoms, more optimistic life appraisals, more time spent exercising and improved well-being and optimal functioning (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
    • Increases in well-being among those with neuromuscular disease (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
    • Higher positive mood, optimism, life satisfaction, vitality, religiousness and spirituality, and less depression and envy than was found in less grateful individuals (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).
    • Grateful people tend to be more helpful, supportive, forgiving, empathic, and agreeable (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).

How Does Sahaja Meditation Help Build Character?

Character strength development tends to be a 3-stage process: awareness, exploration and application (Niemiec, 2013). For many, it is a goal-setting process that involves honing certain skills:

  • cultivating strengths awareness
  • improving strengths-spotting skills, combatting character strengths blindness
  • deploying and aligning one’s strengths to provide real-world usefulness
  • exploring strengths use across new contexts, using strengths in new ways
  • valuing character strengths in others

 

Sahaja meditation may just be the secret weapon that enables one to become a jack of all strengths. While analysis and interpretation of one’s character traits through introspection is no doubt cognitive and takes place at the normal mental level of consciousness, achieving a higher state of consciousness through Sahaja meditation — thoughtless awareness — can help improve our traits automatically and effortlessly. Sahaja helps reduce the need to deliberately intend strengths-building on the mental plane, such as, for example, deciding that you will “do 3 things today to improve your teamwork skills” or “list 3 things today that you’re grateful for.”

In fostering self-awareness and mindfulness, Sahaja meditation allows us to honestly and objectively discover and cultivate our character strengths, pinpoint our areas of weakness, and focus on improving traits. In influencing the subtle energy system, ongoing meditation allows us to experiment, verify results, and continue to evolve our character strengths to ever-higher levels. Ultimately, a Sahaja meditation practice enables you to develop the sensitivity to gauge your progress and make small course adjustments where necessary. And you can always return to the state of thoughtless awareness for an improvement boost.

References

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