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10 New Studies on Strengths and Adversity

New 2021 research highlights important findings on resilience.

Key points

  • Character strengths can help one handle adversity before, during, and after a problem.
  • Higher levels of character strengths have been shown to result in lower levels of impairment after a significant loss.
  • Character strengths have been linked with more adaptive responses in depressed and anxious individuals.
DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Your child never seems to listen to you. Your boss hands you a work project to add to the pile on your desk. Your sore throat and stuffy nose may or may not be COVID. The bickering with your partner is now happening every day. There are many faces of adversity.

Adversity can come in the form of loss of a job or loved one, new stressors, depression, COVID worries or symptoms, relationship conflict, anxiety, work pressure, medical disorders, and on and on. That is clear.

What is less clear, however, is how to best handle adversity. One of the most promising new strategies is to turn inward to your best qualities. My own research has found that your character strengths can help you handle adversity in three big ways (Niemiec, 2020):

  • Buffering (before a problem): preventing problems from happening or lessening the intensity of a problem that occurs.
    • Example: You think about how you can use your social intelligence and kindness before a difficult team meeting tomorrow.
  • Reappraising (during a problem): explaining/reinterpreting problems with a strengths lens; honestly seeing a problem more clearly.
    • Example: You feel angry that your partner is speaking to you in a very critical tone. You use your perspective strength to see that they are not trying to harm you and you use your curiosity strength to ask them a question about how they are feeling.
  • Resilience (after a problem): bouncing back after a problem or setback occurs.
    • Example: You had a rough day at work and feel completely drained with little energy remaining for your family. You decide to turn to your highest energy-creating sources—your signature strengths—and use them throughout the evening. Thus, you immediately express your gratitude to each family member and explain why you appreciate them; you use your humor to tell a funny story at the dinner table; and you use your zest to go on a walk after dinner.
  • Example: You think about how you can use your social intelligence and kindness before a difficult team meeting tomorrow.
  • Example: You feel angry that your partner is speaking to you in a very critical tone. You use your perspective strength to see that they are not trying to harm you and you use your curiosity strength to ask them a question about how they are feeling.
  • Example: You had a rough day at work and feel completely drained with little energy remaining for your family. You decide to turn to your highest energy-creating sources—your signature strengths—and use them throughout the evening. Thus, you immediately express your gratitude to each family member and explain why you appreciate them; you use your humor to tell a funny story at the dinner table; and you use your zest to go on a walk after dinner.

With these concepts setting the stage for using strengths to handle adversity, let’s gather some additional insights from 10 research studies—all from 2021—on the importance of character strengths for adversity.

  1. Adversity of loss (death or divorce): A large longitudinal study across three time points examined adults who had and had not experienced a recent loss (death of a first-degree relative or divorce in the previous six months) and found character strengths were stable over time (except for curiosity, which decreased). Hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, love, spirituality, and perseverance were associated with lower depression and impairment, while individuals with higher levels of perseverance, zest, prudence, self-regulation, and social intelligence had less impairment than those with lower levels of these strengths. Those who experienced loss showed, on average, higher levels of gratitude and hope than those without a loss (Blanchard, McGrath, & Jayawickreme, 2021).
  2. Adversity of loss (death): A study of 243 bereaved individuals discovered a number of unique character strength connections with posttraumatic growth in coping with adversity, finding strength links with the search for new experiences and pleasure, search for knowledge, seeking safety, healthy self-care, and prioritizing values (Couto et al., 2021)
  3. Emotional adversity: Character strengths overuse and underuse were positively connected with negative coping strategies and negative emotional states, while optimal character strengths use was connected with positive coping strategies and resilience (Kamushadze & Martskvishvili, 2021).
  4. Workplace adversity: A qualitative study of early childhood educators found that the most common workplace challenges were children’s behavioral needs and challenges working with coworkers. Educators used the following character strengths most frequently to deal with the challenges: kindness, leadership, fairness, hope, love, self-regulation, perseverance, forgiveness, and humility (Haslip & Donaldson, 2021).
  5. COVID adversity: This paper discusses ways in which positive psychology factors can buffer mental illness and bolster mental health during COVID-19 while broadening positive capacities. Core beneficial areas include character strengths, meaning, self-compassion, high-quality connections, and more (Waters et al., 2021).
  6. COVID adversity: An Italian study during COVID in 2020 found that character strengths (as a whole) had a significant direct effect on both mental health and posttraumatic growth; in addition, the virtue of transcendence was uniquely related to mental health while the virtue of humanity was uniquely related to posttraumatic growth (Casali, Feraco, & Meneghetti, 2021).
  7. Exhaustion adversity: A study of hospital physicians revealed numerous character strengths findings, in particular hope with thriving, zest with work engagement and less emotional exhaustion, and perseverance and leadership with less depersonalization. While humility, social intelligence, and teamwork consistently showed low correlations, all were reported in interviews as important for well-being at work, especially humility (Kachel et al., 2021).
  8. Depression adversity: A study of hundreds of Chinese nurses found that strengths use was connected with psychological needs satisfaction and negatively connected with depression symptoms; strengths use influenced depression through mechanisms of autonomy and relatedness needs satisfaction (Bai, Bai, & Kong, 2021).
  9. Anxiety/depression adversity: A fascinating study examined daily symptoms and situational responses using experience-sampling methods in people diagnosed with anxiety/depression. Character strengths were linked with more adaptive responses for individuals during their worst days, best days, and worst events, as well as buffered against stress perceptions. Another finding was that inquisitiveness character strengths predicted higher symptoms (Sivaratnam, Cabano, & Erickson, 2021).
  10. Stressor adversity: In a study of undergraduate business students, character had a direct effect on well-being and an indirect effect on perceived stressfulness of life events (Seijts et al., 2021).

Conclusion

Adversity comes in many shapes and sizes. As you can see, it can be internal, external, or relational. Character strengths offer an important opportunity for each of us in our own coping process. Sometimes we might eradicate the adversity; other times we might tolerate and simply cope with it; other times we might lessen it; and in other situations, transcend it.

Seeing these new studies fills me with hope about the potential we all have within us.

References

Bai, C., Bai, B., & Kong, F. (2021). Strength use and nurses' depressive symptoms: The mediating role of basic psychological needs satisfaction. Journal of Nursing Management. DOI: 10.1111/jonm.13322

Blanchard, T. McGrath, R. E., & Jayawickreme (2021). Resilience in the face of interpersonal loss: The role of character strengths. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. DOI: doi: 10.1111/aphw.12273.

Casali, N., Feraco, T., & Meneghetti, C. (2021). Character strengths sustain mental health and post-traumatic growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. A longitudinal analysis. Psychology and Health. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2021.1952587

Couto, R. N., da Fonsêca, P. N., de Medeiros, E. D., & da Silva, P. G. N. (2021). Personality, values, and character strengths: Contributions to positive changes in bereavement. Trends in Psychology, 29, 490-504. https://doi.org/10.1007/s43076-021-00079-x

Haslip, M. J., & Donaldson, L. (2021). What character strengths do early childhood educators use to address workplace challenges? Positive psychology in teacher professional development. International Journal of Early Years Education. DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2021.1893666

Kachel, T., Huber, A., Strecker, C., Hoge, T., & Hofer, S. (2021). Reality meets belief: A mixed methods study on character strengths and well-being of hospital physicians. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.547773

Kamushadze, T., & Martskvishvili, K. (2021). Character strength at its worst and best: Mediating effect of coping strategies. Trends in Psychology. DOI: 10.1007/s43076-021-00085-z

Niemiec, R. (2020). Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and opportunity: a theoretical perspective. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 15, 551–572. DOI: 10.1007/s11482-018-9692-2

Seijts, G. H., Monzani, L., Woodley, H. J. R., & Mohan, G. (2021). The effects of character on the perceived stressfulness of life events and subjective well-being of undergraduate business students. Journal of Management Education. DOI: 10.1177/1052562920980108

Sivaratnam, J., Cabano, E. M. P., & Erickson, T. M. (2021). Character virtues prospectively predict responses to situational stressors in daily life in clinical and subclinical samples. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping. DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2021.1967333

Waters, L., Algoe, S. B., Dutton, J., Emmons, R., Fredrickson, B. L., Heaphy, E., Moskowitz, J. T., Neff, K., Niemiec, R. M., Pury, C., & Steger, M. (2021). Positive psychology in a pandemic: Buffering, bolstering, and building mental health. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945

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