Character Strengths and Goal-Setting by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D.
Practitioners help clients set meaningful goals and use their strengths. Most practitioners know about the benefits of using signature strengths (those strengths that are energizing, feel authentic to use, are readily identified by others, and typically used across multiple settings). Research supports this (Rust et al., 2009; Seligman et al., 2005). Practitioners also know about the benefits of setting and pursuing goals, and making progress toward goals. Research supports this as well (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001). When we set a goal that is consistent with our values and interests, this is called having goals that are self-concordant. Research shows we experience greater happiness when we reach a self-concordant goal rather than when we reach a goal that is not consistent with who we are (Sheldon & Kasser, 1998). What is less known is how strengths, especially signature strengths, and goal-setting connect with one another.
So, how do strengths work? What happens along the pathway between strengths use and feeling good? If we are likely to become happier when we use our signature strengths in new and unique ways, how do we explain the success of this intervention? What is happening here?
New research published this month by Alex Linley and his colleagues (Linley et al., 2010) gives us insight into these questions. In the first study to explore the connections between strengths use, goal progress, psychological needs, and well-being, the researchers found that those who used their signature strengths ultimately:
- Made more progress on their goals
- Met their basic psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, and competence)
- Were higher in overall well-being (a combination of higher life satisfaction, higher positive emotions, and lower negative emotions)
This makes good, practical sense. Signature strengths come naturally to us; they are an expression of who we are. Therefore, when we allow that core part of ourselves to be expressed, we are meeting basic human needs that have to do with making connections in our relationships and accomplishing as much as we can in this life. Success with our goals naturally flows from this. As a result, we experience greater happiness.
How can you use these findings in your practice? There appears to be a natural progression of steps clients may follow:
- Take the VIA Survey to determine your rank order of character strengths from 1 to 24.
- Discern which strengths are your true “signature” (usually ranked in your top 7 or 8).
- Explore these strengths deeply (e.g., past use, current use, application to a future best self, use at the most difficult times, use at the times when you were strongest).
- Set goals that align with your personal values and strengths.
- Find new and unique ways to apply your signature strengths to your goals.
This work further confirms one of the missions of positive psychology, oft repeated but initially articulated by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000): “Practitioners need to recognize that much of the best work they already do in the consulting room is to amplify strengths rather than to repair the weaknesses of their clients” (p. 8).
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.
Rust, T., Diessner, R., & Reade, L. (2009). Strengths only or strengths and relative weaknesses? A preliminary study. Journal of Psychology, 143(5), 465-476.
Seligman, M.E.P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.
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, 482–497.
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,
Sheldon, K.M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing personal goals: Skills enable progress but not all progress is beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 546–557.