Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that neuroscientists at a major pharma company have just made a stunning breakthrough, announcing the release of two miracle medications that enhance human mental powers: one red pill and one green pill.
The red pill gives you tremendous power to fight against the bad things in this world—poverty, violence, plague, famine—increasing your ability to effect change in these areas by a factor of ten.
The green pill is different. The green pill enhances your ability to increase the good things in life, like love, joy, beauty, wisdom, harmony, understanding, and belongingness.
The only problem is that there’s a negative interaction between the two medications, so you can’t take both. Which pill do you choose?
Of course there’s no right answer. Some people devote their lives to creating beauty and goodness in the world; others feel called to fight injustice. Both are important and necessary.
Such is the thought experiment proposed by James Pawelski, Director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, as a way of illustrating the premise of positive psychology. But what if we apply the red pill/green pill test to inner well-being of individuals?
When it comes to individual well-being, psychology has long had red pills—psychotherapy, exposure exercises, antidepressants, and the other tools designed to fight disorder and dysfunction. But the field of positive psychology is founded on the idea that as human beings, we can’t be happy without having green pills too.
To grow a stunning garden, says Pawelski, it isn’t enough just to pull out all the weeds; you must also plant beautiful flowers. Likewise, happiness isn’t just the absence of mental diseases, but the actual presence of joy, transcendence, connection, and other positive experiences. So how do we increase those?
According to Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, two founders of the field, one of the best ways to increase happiness is to deploy the arsenal of mental resources we already have at our disposal within our own minds. These are positive psychology’s so-called “character strengths”—inner qualities like gratitude, curiosity, hope, love, and humor that not only gird us against adversity, but allow us to flourish.
Seligman and Peterson propose 24 character strengths in 5 categories. Of these, they argue, we each possess three to seven “signature strengths” that we’re naturally good at. You can tell that a character strength is a signature strength, they explain, if deploying it makes you feel invigorated, not exhausted, and kindles a sense of excitement.
Doing activities designed to identify and deploy your character strengths is an effective way to increase your happiness in a sustainable way, studies show. But there are 24 character strengths; you can’t very well work on all of them.
The question then arises: If your goal is to be happy, is it better to focus on those three to seven signature strengths, or on the strengths on which your score is lower? Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, decided to find out.
First, Haidt recruited students from his Psychology 101 class and had each of them take the VIA Character Strengths Survey to identify their signature strengths and their lesser strengths. He then divided students into two groups. Every day for two weeks, one group performed an activity building on one of their signature strengths, while the other group focused on their lesser strengths.
The study found that both kinds of activities were effective at increasing the students’ life satisfaction in a span of just two weeks. As it turns out, the mere act of taking positive steps toward making yourself happy may have a dramatic impact on happiness, and so students in both groups grew happier.
In fact, Haidt found only one difference between the two groups: The signature strengths group enjoyed their activities more. Trying to mitigate or correct your lesser strengths, it turns out, may be just a little demoralizing, whereas working on your signature strengths fills people with positive emotions. This makes sense given that signature strengths are defined as qualities that, when expressed, invigorate and provide a sense of excitement.
It seems, then, that both methods are equally effective; but signature strengths are more fun to engage with, suggesting that targeting these may be more sustainable for people in the long term. With most psychological interventions, after all, it’s not how well the medicine works but whether the patient takes it. Beyond the mere enjoyment of working with the qualities you’re best at, engaging signature strengths may have other benefits too, like instilling a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment.
Choosing which strengths to work on, then, may be less like getting a prescription for a specific pill and more like ordering off a menu on which all the dishes are healthy. As Sonja Lyubomirsky puts it in her book The How of Happiness, “In truth, there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier. All of us have unique needs, interests, values, resources, and inclinations that undoubtedly predispose us to put effort into and benefit from some strategies more than others.”
Extroverts might be more likely to stick with activities that are social, and nurturing people might prefer activities that allow them to care for others. In the end, the key to working on strengths is finding happiness-building activities that fit your personality. That fit, says Lyubomirsky, is critical. “So much so that I’ll go out on a limb here and say that if there’s any ‘secret’ to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best,” she writes. “Once you have done so, half the battle is won; the way to greater happiness is in your hands.”
Haidt, J. (2002). It’s More Fun to Work on Strengths than Weaknesses (But It May Not Be Better For You).
The Eudaimonic Turn: Well-being in Literary Studies. Edited by James O. Pawelski, D. J. Moores.
Proyer RT, Gander F, Wellenzohn S and Ruch W (2015) Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Front. Psychol. 6:456.
Sonja Lyubomirsky. The How of Happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.