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Depression? Turn to Your Strengths!

Using your top strengths – your signature strengths – has been shown to be effective to increasing happiness and decreasing depression. Several scientific studies have shown this.

As a psychologist for many years helping clients with depression, I focused heavily on what was wrong. I asked my clients about the frequency-intensity-duration of their problems, the triggers to their conflicts, family issues, work struggles, and on and on. So many questions!

Like most psychologists, I spent very little time asking about what was going right with my clients. Shouldn’t the focus on what is wrong and what is strong be at least 50-50?

My clients were lucky to receive just 1 or 2 questions on what’s strong. There were many legitimate reasons for my focus on problems:

1.)    It’s what clients expect (they have a problem and want to focus on it)

2.)    It’s what insurance companies expect (psychologists must ask many questions about what is wrong in order to make the proper diagnosis which must be sent to insurance companies in order to get paid)

3.)    Our brains are wired to focus on problems (it’s more automatic and part of our evolutionary heritage to look at what is bad or dangerous)

4.)    There used to be no common language for framing or discussing what is good (I could only call someone a “nice” person or a “smart” person so many times)

Then, things changed.

The field of positive psychology emerged with a call to scientific communities to focus more on what is going well and what is strong in people. Researchers and scholars responded, in large numbers. In 2004, a common language came upon the field, catapulting from a 3-year, scientific process. The VIA Classification of character strengths and virtues had been born.

In the last decade, numerous exercises have sprouted from the field of positive psychology. This blog will discuss them from time to time. Many of these strategies are designed to boost happiness and well-being. One of the most popular exercises – now a classic in the field – is the Signature Strengths Exercise. This exercise has been shown to decrease depression and increase happiness for as long as six months!

Here’s what you do:

1.)    Identify your top character strengths by taking the free VIA Survey online.

2.)    Choose one of your signature strengths.

3.)    Use your signature strength in a new way each day.

That’s it!

  • High in curiosity? Find new ways to use it – one day you might go to a new restaurant, the next day you might take a new route home.
  • Choose gratitude? Write about one good thing that happened to you today. The next day you might express your “thanks” to someone new.
  • High in social intelligence? Try talking to one new person that you encounter in your life each day, perhaps the woman at the checkout counter, the telemarketer, or the new employee.
  • The idea is that you continue to expand your use of your signature strengths. Shift your thinking about what is possible for yourself. For additional tips for using your signature strengths in new ways, go here.

While this simple exercise should not be viewed as a replacement of traditional treatment for depression (e.g., psychotherapy, medication), it should be a part of every mental health professional’s repertoire. And, it should be a practice that every person suffering with depression adds into their lifestyle.

And remember: Taking a strengths approach that focuses on developing and deploying what is best in you takes time. There will be many more steps in your journey of life, make your next step one that is in the right direction.

Learn more about strengths:

To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to

To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to


Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

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.

Littman-Ovadia, H., & Steger, M. (2010). Character strengths and well-being among volunteers and employees: Toward an integrative model. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(6), 419-430.

Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, A. M. (2011). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6(1), 71-83.

Mitchell, J., Stanimirovic, R., Klein, B., & Vella-Brodrick, D. (2009). A randomised controlled trial of a self-guided internet intervention promoting well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 749–760.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, D.C.:  American Psychological Association.

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., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61, 774-788.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.


Depression? Turn to Your Strengths!

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2012). Depression? Turn to Your Strengths!. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Apr 2012
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