In 2009 at a university in the U.K., a group of students were recruited for a research study, the results which of contain some important lessons in how we can build positive, happy and successful lives for ourselves.
The great thing is that there’s no magic to this, no secret formula for happiness that requires you to change who you are or what you do in any radical way.
In fact the beauty of this experiment, conducted by researchers led by Alex Linley of the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology in the UK, was that it demonstrated quite the opposite.
In other words, the study shows that we can increase our levels of life satisfaction and well-being by using the resources we already have to do the things that really matter to us.
Let me explain.
Strengths and goals
The two key concepts at the heart of this study were strengths and goals.
At the start of the semester, the students were asked to identify their top three goals for that coming period. They were told to choose carefully and make sure that the goals they selected really were their main aspirations for the semester.
This was critical because it meant the students chose self-concordant goals – i.e. goals that were consistent with their values and associated with their own ideas for growth and autonomy.
At the same time, the students identified their top 5 character strengths through the VIA Inventory of Strengths. The VIA classification comprises 24 character strengths that fall under six broad virtue categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.
Our character strengths, according to VIA, are “are morally and universally valued, encompass our capacities for helping ourselves and others and produce positive effects when we express them”.
Our top strengths, otherwise known as our signature strengths, are our most dominant strengths. Using signature strengths comes naturally to us and requires little or no effort or willpower. When we use our signature strengths we tend to feel energised and positive.
At the outset, having chosen their goals and identified their strengths, the students were also assessed for the general levels of their positive and negative emotions and their sense of subjective well-being. They were then left to go about their normal lives.
After 6 weeks, and again after 10 weeks, further assessments were made. These covered:
- Their Levels of positive and negative emotion and subjective well-being,
- Satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness,
- Their use of strengths in life generally,
- The extent to which they were using each of their five signature strengths in the pursuit of each of their three semester goals,
- Their general progress in life, and
- The progress they were making towards achieving each of their three goals (goal progress).
All of this was designed to assess the affect on the students of using signature strengths to pursue meaningful personally relevant goals.
When all the data had been analysed it showed that:
- The more the students used their strengths, the greater was their progress towards achieving their goals, and
- The students who had higher levels of both psychological needs satisfaction and subjective well-being were those who had made most progress towards achieving their goals.
What is interesting is that the data also showed that the use of strengths had a positive affect on the students’ well-being in two ways. Well-being increased firstly because of the sense of fulfillment students gained through progressing towards their goals and secondly, because of the psychological needs fulfillment that was associated with that goal progress.
The study therefore shows that individuals will typically experience more positive emotion, less negative emotion and a greater sense of well being when they make progress towards self-concordant goals and when that progress is consistent with the satisfaction of their needs for growth and autonomy.
This finding is actually consistent with some earlier research, but this study goes further in that it suggests that using strengths may be an effective and reliable means of successfully bringing about this kind of goal progress.
The authors of the study suggest that since strengths are, by definition, associated with “personal values and an integrated psychological core”, they are likely to promote a self-concordant approach to goals and, therefore, to maximise the chances for greater well-being and goal attainment.
In this way, they suggest, “strengths use might be an important part of an affective learning loop in which progress leads to well-being which, in turn, motivates sustained effort and leads to further goal progress.”
It seems to me that this is an important lesson to us.
Sometimes change is a very necessary part of the personal or professional development process. In particular, it can be necessary to break bad habits, establish new habits or change how we habitually react to events and the circumstances around us.
However, in the rush to change, it is important that we do not lose sight of our existing strengths and core values. What this research shows is that if we use our strengths in pursuit of goals that are consistent with those core values, we can improve our emotional state, increase the levels of our subjective well-being and experience greater sense of purpose and autonomy.
Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists.International Coaching Psychology Review, 5(1), 6-15.
Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2009). Classifying and measuring strengths of character. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 25-33). New York: Oxford University Press. www.viacharacter.org
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 482. http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1992
Sheldon, K. M., & Houser-Marko, L. (2001). Self-concordance, goal attainment, and the pursuit of happiness: Can there be an upward spiral? Journal of personality and social psychology, 80(1), 152.