Universal Strengths Programs September 2021 Volume 2, Issue 5

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec
character strengths briefing Dr. Ryan Niemiec

At the VIA Institute, we’ve been saying for a long time that the field of positive psychology needs more intervention studies, and moreover, it needs stronger interventions. Researchers and practitioners can impact this by studying (using) “programs” that stack multiple interventions together. This is an alternative to single intervention studies and is an avenue to bolstering strength interventions. Multi-step or multi-phase programs can offer a variety of strength lenses and strategies thus increasing the potential of positive impact; and such programs can offer material that integrates and builds, thus giving participants an opportunity to deepen the character strengths work. An advantage for researchers is that oftentimes a step-by-step manual for the program is published and can thus be infused in a study.

In this issue, I highlight several programs that make character strengths the centerpiece (or at least an important part) of the program. I refer to some programs as universal and others as context-specific.

--Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA Education Director


I use the term “universal” because the following programs are framed as an approach to working with and building character strengths that could be adapted to virtually any context. This means that adjustments and tweaks could potentially be made to the program to seamlessly fit any of the following:

  • The setting, e.g., organizations, schools, hospitals, prisons, clinics;
  • The client population, e.g., young adults, people with anxiety, those with traumatic brain injury;
  • The culture, e.g., accounting for differences in country, customs, language, rituals, beliefs;
  • The topic area, e.g., applying character strengths to different topic areas such as to promote pro-environmental behaviors or performance enhancement in athletes.

Aware-Explore-Apply Model

The Aware-Explore-Apply model of character strengths was never intended to be a “program.” It was created as a precise description of the most common process that individuals take when they are developing their character strengths. Individuals first build some awareness of their strengths pushing through strength blindness (aware); then they explore one or more strengths as they reflect on past use, consider how the strength describes them, and delve into how they use the strength during times of adversity and success (explore); finally, they set a goal or action plan for moving forward with strengths use (apply).

This process model has become quite popular for practitioners and researchers to use and study, and has been treated by many as a “3-step program” for students, clients, and subjects to use to develop one or more strengths.


  • Studies in Canada, China, Netherlands, and Spain reveal this to be an approach offering a variety of benefits, including a boost to thriving and decrease in negative emotions in the university school context (Bu and Duan, 2018), increases in strengths use and well-being in the work context (Dubreuil et al., 2016), increases in personal growth and self-efficacy (van Woerkom & Meyers, 2019), and increases in work performance and well-being (Peláez, Coo, & Salanova, 2020).

How to learn more:

Strengths Builder

This 4-week (4-step) program offers four strategies frequently discussed in the practice of character strengths – that is, strengths-spotting; working with signature strengths; using strengths with a problem; and creating a strengths habit using implementation intentions.


Research studies on each of the 4 steps individually can be pointed to, but the study of the program “as a whole” is young, as it was first published in 2019. There are a few studies going on right now that are investigating the program as a whole.

How to learn more:

This program is published in the back of the book, The Power of Character Strengths (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019). Steps, details, rationale, and handouts for weekly tracking of progress are included.

Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP)

The best science/practices of character strengths and mindfulness are integrated in MBSP, an evidence-based, manualized, 8-week program, focused on building well-being and managing adversity.

Research status:

Between 20-25 publications have emerged on MBSP, ranging from intervention studies to theoretical to qualitative reviews (e.g., Prasath, Morris, & Maccombs, 2021). When MBSP was compared head-to-head in three studies with the most popular mindfulness program in the world (mindfulness-based stress reduction), MBSP was superior across well-being indicators (Monzani et al., 2021), building strengths (Hofmann et al., 2019), and workplace outcomes such as greater productivity and workplace satisfaction (Pang & Ruch, 2019). MBSP research is ongoing and expanding into a variety of adaptations for different settings, cultures, and topic areas.

Learn more:

The manual, including operations, instructor curriculum, meditations, and scripts can be found in Mindfulness and Character Strengths (Niemiec, 2014). A second edition and client/student workbook are set for publication in 2022.


In this section, I offer programs that deliberately bring character strengths into a specific context. This is not an exhaustive list.

Psychotherapy context

The longstanding, Positive Psychotherapy (PPT) program is a 14-week program that has character strengths as its central element. It offers a balanced approach to this traditionally deficit-laden context, as positive psychotherapy integrates symptoms and character strengths, resources and risks, and weaknesses and values across a variety of positive psychology areas (Rashid, 2014; Rashid & Seligman, 2019). Controlled studies reveal positive outcomes for clients.

Health/community context

Few would be unimpressed by the wide-reaching applications of the CorStone programming for impoverished young girls in India. In randomized controlled trials involving thousands, girls who received a curriculum which incorporated character strengths (identification and use of signature strengths and concrete examples of other strengths) exhibited significantly greater physical health and psychosocial health benefits in comparison to those girls who received a similar curriculum which did not include character strengths and girls who did not receive any curriculum at all (controls) (Leventhal et al., 2015, 2016). These applications demonstrate that some of the basic character strengths applications can be successfully applied in contexts, cultures, and settings that are very different from where most studies have taken place.


The merging of character strengths and social-emotional learning for grades K-12 can be found in the program - Thriving Learning Communities. This program helps teachers weave character strengths into existing curricula and classroom activities. Scholarly articles and case examples can be found in the positive education literature, including Bates-Krakoff et al. (2016) and Coppley and Niemiec (2021).

Education/religious context

The GROW program is a 24-week resilience program focused on the 24 character strengths and Biblical oral storytelling. In a study of 28 classes across 643 youth in Zambia, there were observed impacts on academic performance, school attendance, and students’ character and behavior, as well as pre-post increases in resilience (Seale et al., 2021).

Context – in development

A variety of character strengths programs are in some stage of development, including contexts of disability, environment, business, healthy living, peace, and spirituality. Contact Ryan for more information or to get involved.


Every other month Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA's Education Director, sends a newsletter to connect with researchers, strengths practitioners and educators from around the world. He offers things such as a character strengths research finding, a practical nugget, and/or a character strengths story or dialogue he's found inspiring. His hope is that it will prime your day and week with character strengths. Also, let it serve as a reminder that you can reach out at anytime to share your study, your strength applications, and your latest innovations! This article captures a past newsletter. To receive newsletters in real-time, click to subscribe



Bates-Krakoff, J., McGrath, R. E., Graves, K., & Ochs, L. (2016). Beyond a deficit model of strengths training in schools: Teaching targeted strength use to gifted students. Gifted Education International. DOI: 10.1177/0261429416646210

Bu, H., & Duan, W. (2018). A single-session positive cognitive intervention on first-year students’ mental health: Short-term effectiveness and the mediating role of strengths knowledge. Journal of American College Health. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2018.1497639

Coppley, J., & Niemiec, R. M. (2021). Character strengths interventions in education systems. In M. L. Kern & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), The palgrave handbook of positive education (pp. 395-420). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3_16

Dubreuil, P., Forest, J., Gillet, N., Fernet, C., Thibault-Landry, A., Crevier-Braud, L., & Girouard, S. (2016). Facilitating well-being and performance through the development of strengths at work: Results from an intervention program. Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. DOI 10.1007/s41042-016-0001-8

Hofmann, J., Heintz, S., Pang, D., & Ruch, W. (2019). Differential relationships of light and darker forms of humor with mindfulness. Applied Research in Quality of Life. DOI: ttps://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-018-9698-9

Leventhal, K. S., DeMaria, L. M., Gillham, J. E., Andrew, G., Peabody, J., & Leventhal, S. M. (2016). A psychosocial resilience curriculum provides the “missing piece” to boost adolescent physical health: A randomized controlled trial of Girls First in India. Social Science & Medicine, 161, 37–46. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.05.004

Leventhal, K. S., Gillham, J., DeMaria, L., Andrew, G., Peabody, J., & Leventhal, S. (2015). Building psychosocial assets and wellbeing among adolescent girls: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Adolescence, 45, 284–295. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.09.011

Monzani, L., Escartin, J., Ceja, L., & Bakker, A. B. (2021). Blending mindfulness practices and character strengths increases employee wellbeing: A second-order meta-analysis and a follow-up field experiment. Human Resource Management Journal. DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.1236

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioner. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. Cincinnati, OH: VIA Institute on Character.

Pang, D., & Ruch, W. (2019). Fusing character strengths and mindfulness interventions: Benefits for job satisfaction and performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 24(1), 150-162. DOI: 10.1037/ocp0000144

Peláez, M.J., Coo, C., & Salanova, M. (2020). Facilitating work engagement and performance through strengths-based micro-coaching: A controlled trial study. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21, 1265–1284. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-019-00127-5

Prasath, P. R., Morris, C., & Maccombs, S. (2021). Mindfulness-based strengths practice (MBSP) group intervention: A systematic review. Journal of Counselor Practice, 12(1), 1-22. DOI: 10.22229/asy1212021

Rashid, T. (2014). Positive psychotherapy: A strength-based approach. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 25-40. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.920411

Rashid, T., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). Positive psychotherapy: Clinician manual. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seale, J. P., Seale, D., M., Pande, Y., Lewis, T. M., Manda, W., Kasanga, L., Gibson, E. B., Hadfield, K., Ogoh, T., McGrath, R. E., & Harris, S. K. (2021). GROW Zambia: A pilot cluster-randomized trial of a spiritually-based character strengths training curriculum to enhance resilience among Zambian youth. Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1913640

van Woerkom, M., & Meyers, M. C. (2019). Strengthening personal growth: The effects of a strengths intervention on personal growth initiative. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 92(1), 98-121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/joop.12240