It is nearly impossible to sift through the hundreds of articles published each year on psychological strengths. I empathize with parents who want to know which strengths are most important to cultivate in their children, as nothing is to be gained by trying to develop every valuable attribute. I empathize with organizations, including schools, first responders, and social entrepreneurs who want to create a culture in which each person can maximize their potential. All of us are deluged by too much information.
But there is another insidious problem in psychology: Too many researchers focus their energies on their favorite pet construct, never adequately testing if it deserves more attention than the alternatives. There are researchers who specialize in gratitude. Others specialize in forgiveness, and others in self-compassion, or optimism, or grit, or savoring. Some are hyper-focused on happiness—and a competing group is hyper-focused on meaning and purpose in life. Each research team spends a lot of time showcasing how their baby predicts a satisfying life, healthy relationships, physical health, and other elements of well-being.
Money is at stake—if you can show that what you are working on is the most valuable investment. Reputation is at stake—to stand out from the crowd, people want to show they are the world's leading expert in a single topic by writing papers and books, giving talks, and producing workshops on their primary idea.
Although the research programs by many of these specialists are appealing, the list of psychological strengths, motivations, and belief systems associated with well-being is enormous. The next step should be to directly compare these different attributes on their ability to promote adaptation and adjustment.
To winnow the large number of psychological constructs with ties to well-being, researchers need to examine them simultaneously over time. This is what my colleagues and I recently did with an international community sample of 755 individuals. We compared 10 psychological strengths on their ability to:
- predict goal attainment
- predict the greatest changes in well-being that result from goal attainment.
Using this approach, the psychological strengths most highly (or uniquely) predictive of whether people are successful at attaining their goals and deriving well-being from these pursuits are the characteristics most worth promoting or developing.
Which 10 strengths did we throw into the mix?
- Internal sense of control
- Presence of meaning in life
- Strength use and knowledge
- Attitude of pursuing happiness via maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain
- Attitude of pursuing happiness via engaging activities
- Attitude of pursuing happiness via meaningful life pursuits
All 10 of these psychological strengths have been linked to well-being in multiple studies, albeit most of the studies have been cross-sectional. In this study, all 10 strengths were administered multiple times over the course of a year, along with measures of goal attainment and subjective well-being—defined as a combination of life satisfaction, frequent positive emotions, and infrequent negative emotions.
What did we find? As for which of the 10 strengths uniquely predicted a greater increase in goal attainment over time (over three-to-four-month periods), the answers were:curiosity, grit, and a sense of control.
However, since people sometimes become passionate about the wrong goals with few benefits, the more important question was: Which strengths boosted the effects of goal attainment on subjective well-being? The only strength to boost the effects of goal attainment on subjective well-being across a three-to-four-month period twice out of three possibilities over a year was curiosity. (Grit boosted the effects of goal attainment on subjective well-being across one of the 3-4 month prospective periods.)
Thus, the benefits of curiosity and grit emerged as more enduring and consistent than the other eight psychological strengths under study.
These results are exciting but here are some important caveats to keep in mind: By no means was the list of psychological characteristics related to well-being exhaustive and there are other important outcomes to consider besides those in this study—including life satisfaction, positive emotions, and negative emotions. That being said, this international, longitudinal study is a promising extension of smaller studies on how curiosity and grit enable people to find continual sources of enjoyment and satisfaction in meaningful life pursuits.
Forget the dodo verdict: Let's starting putting our ideas about what works best for whom under which conditions to the test. Over and over again.