Last updated on 13th October 2018
I wrote yesterday about the "European Positive Psychology conference: 1st day - a disappointing start & caution on over-selling mindfulness" ... but today's conference presentations rapidly kicked my doubts about being here into touch. We started with a couple of fine keynotes ... Claudia Senik on "The cultural dimension of happiness" and Willibald Ruch on "Character strengths: Unresolved issues, new frontiers". Both talks were excellent.
Senik is a French economist from the Sorbonne and she spoke about cultural clusters in happiness research ... for example the way Latin American countries tend to punch above their weight on the wellbeing scores one might predict from income levels, while ex-Communist countries score worse than one might predict. This country to country wellbeing comparison research is very interesting and could be so useful politically and ecologically ... see for example comments from John Helliwell's fine presentation at the Amsterdam Positive Psychology conference two years ago. The 2015 UN World Happiness Report tries to explain the variation in happiness between countries using a set of seven variables: log GDP per capita (26%), social support (30%), healthy life expectancy at birth (19%), freedom to make life choices (13%), generosity (7%), and perceptions of corruption (4%). However there is still a large chunk of inter-country wellbeing variation that is unexplained by these first six variables, so we have an additional as yet unexplained residual variable(s). Senik focused on the poor wellbeing scores posted by France and used this example to explore the effects of national cultures on countries' wellbeing. Fascinating & intriguing stuff.
Then we had the admirable Willibald Ruch (what a great name) talking on character strengths. This is an important area of positive psychology that I've observed without actually using much, so far, for myself or my work. The major text is Peterson & Seligman's 2004 book "Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification" and you can freely assess your own strengths at the "VIA institute on character" website. The American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders" offers a common (if controversial) language for the classification of mental disorders. It has been repeatedly revised since it's first publication in 1952, and it is now in its 5th edition. We can expect a somewhat similar evolution in attempts to classify "Character strengths and virtues", and Ruch referred to the important 2015 paper by Robert McGrath "Integrating psychological and cultural perspectives on virtue: The hierarchical structure of character strengths" with its abstract reading "The VIA Classification characterizes six culturally defined virtues as latent variables underlying 24 character strengths. Factor analyses of measures based on the Classification usually suggest 4–5 factors that do not correspond well to traditional lists of virtues. This article describes the identification of a three-virtue model across multiple measures of strengths in four samples encompassing 1,070,549 cases. The general pattern involved a first component representing good character that split into two components reflecting Goodness and Inquisitiveness. The former divided further into components reflecting Caring and Self-Control. This pattern recurred in all data sets. The model consisting of Caring, Inquisitiveness, and Self-Control is proposed as a reliable latent structure for the VIA Classification strengths, an intuitive classification of traditional cultural virtues, and a framework for social efforts encouraging the development of virtue." This feels helpful. So the data strongly suggest updating the 1st edition 2004 VIA classification of 24 character strengths subdivided into 6 overarching virtue categories (Wisdom/Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence) to a 2nd edition 2015 VIA classification of the strengths primarily grouped into 3 overarching categories - Head/Inquisitiveness, Heart/Caring, and Gut/Self-Control.
We've known for quite a while that strengths are associated with life satisfaction - see for example the endorsement of love, hope, curiosity, zest and, to an extent, gratitude & perseverance in the 2007 paper "Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction". On a slide headed "What good are strengths?", Ruch highlighted they are important in leading a fulfilling life saying that use/training of strengths (particularly signature strengths) increases positive experience & reduces depression, and that a "fit" between strengths & environment leads to more positive experience - see, for example, the 2013 paper "The application of signature character strengths and positive experiences at work". He reported on studies suggesting we're pretty good at assessing our own strengths, and interestingly that people reporting generally higher strength levels may benefit particularly from working on their lesser strengths, whereas those reporting generally lower levels of strengths may benefit more from working to develop their greater/signature strengths - see the 2015 publication "Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention". This is interesting and replication would be welcome.
As a brief detour deeper into this "strengths" territory, I note three things. Firstly that the intervention used in a number of these research studies was pretty simple, running something like: “We have selected five character strengths for you. Use one of these strengths in a new and different way every day for 1 week. You can apply the strength in a new environment or when interacting with a ‘new’ person. It is up to you how you want to apply these strengths. Try to apply these strengths, regardless of whether you feel like you are already using this strength frequently or not.” Intriguing that something as straightforward as this would typically produce measurable increases in happiness and life satisfaction that might well still be present to some extent for several months! A second point to note is the potential relevance of Hudson and Fraley's article "Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?" with its strong suggestion that tracking behaviours and carefully using implementation intentions to facilitate change is well worth considering when working on long-term character patterns. For more on this see the blog post "New research describes effective ways of changing long-term personality traits and other persistent behaviour patterns". Thirdly I note that a number of strength-focused interventions have suggested possible activities that one could use to boost individual strengths. An example is Proyer et al's 2013 paper "Testing strengths-based interventions: A preliminary study on the effectiveness of a program targeting curiosity, gratitude, hope, humor, and zest for enhancing life satisfaction", which used a five-session group-based strength intervention. They wrote "The experimental group (EG, strengths highly related to life satisfaction) was assigned to interventions relating to curiosity (conducting four activities that were new to the person and that address exploration and absorption and describing those in a short report), gratitude (writing a gratitude letter as in Seligman et al. 2005), hope (conducting the ‘‘One door closes, one door opens’’-activity; e.g., Peterson 2006), humor (activities from the eight-step humor training program by McGhee 2010), and zest (adding activities from the areas of physical activity/sport, social contact, and challenging tasks/work to the daily routine, completing a schedule and describing the ‘‘extra’’-activities)." Interestingly though, they found that those who benefitted most from these interventions tended to start comparatively "weak" on the particular targeted strengh. The authors suggested that people, who already scored highly on a particular strength, might benefit more from a task that was more stretching/challenging for them in that strength.
Since getting back from the conference, I have really gone to town on learning more about character strengths. This exploration has included writing five blog posts on this subject ... see "Strengths of character: head, heart & gut" and the four-post sequence beginning "Twelve practical suggestions for exploring our character strengths (1-5): learning, spotting, relationships, and writing".
More to follow ...