Character Strengths and Well-Being Study

Character Strengths and Well-Being Among Adolescents

Research Summary

The knowledge and application of character strengths among adolescents may be instructive and informative, as it varies along the adolescent journey. Character strengths may be an indicator of increased academic achievement, leadership and health. Data from two samples (119 freshmen and 79 senior high school students) from the Values in Action Inventory (VIA-IS), and the Approaches to Happiness survey, revealed several significant differences in strengths between younger and older students, and several meaningful gender comparisons. Results from the participant's grade point average (GPA), Leadership scale, and Wellness scale were also analyzed. Consistent with previous research with youth, the character strength of persistence associated with academic achievement; the strengths of fairness and leadership predicted leadership; and the strength of self regulation correlated with wellness.

 

Freshmen and Senior Character Strengths

On the whole, there is consonance of character strengths among freshman and senior participants. Kindness, humor, love, and integrity were all within the top five means of both cohorts. However, freshmen scored significantly higher on prudence and forgiveness than seniors. This is counter intuitive, since these two traits were more common among adults than adolescents. Female participants strengths tended to be higher than males in the VIA humanity and transcendence categories while male strengths were higher in the courage category.

 

Pathways to Happiness

Curiosity, humility and humor were strengths that predicted pleasure. This was consistent the research on laughing and smiling as part of the hedonic life. Persistence and zest/vitality predicted engagement. This can be seen in the energy that adolescents spend on tasks. Having spirituality and open-mindedness predicted meaning. The strength of spirituality was consistent with the research of the meaningful life as being one of purpose and higher connection. Being open-minded supported research claims that adolescents seek cooperation with others.

 

Academic Achievement 

Participants who scored higher on persistence and love of learning had higher grade point averages, while those who scored lower on bravery and creativity had lower GPA's. This supports Park and Peterson's (2005) claims of persistence as a predictor of academic success. Park (2004) claimed that the cluster of strengths in temperance/moderation tend to predict academic grades. Self regulation (r = .115) was the highest correlation within the category, but it was not significant. 

It is interesting that persistence and bravery, strengths of courage were respectively positive and negatively correlated with GPA. Having creativity also predicted lower GPA. A reason for this result may be that the participating school is more structured than other independent boarding schools and may not reward creativity in the academic realm. This is an important finding to be shared with the participating school.

 

Leadership 

The findings were consistent with the conclusions of researchers who have investigated the relationship between strengths and leadership. Although fairness was significant across both freshmen and senior cohorts, the strengths of open mindedness and leadership, and trends towards prudence, forgiveness, perseverance and spirituality, was more meaningful at the senior level. This may be due to the exposure and engagement with peers in more formally designated leadership situations offered only to male students after their freshmen year and female students after their sophomore year. Leadership was also predicted with time spent in youth programs which may be the result that many of the study participants are involved with interscholastic athletics and other extracurricular group activities. 

A contributing factor to having leadership as a strength was consistent with developing and maintaining relationships with adults – other than parents. All students, including study participants, are assigned a faculty mentor who they meet with periodically throughout the school year. Also, all senior at the participating school, including study participants, completed a "senior service project." This supported Scales and Blyth's (1997) claim that participating in community service fosters leadership.

 

Wellness 

The areas of sleep, nutrition and physical activity/exercise are discussed here. Having self regulation was meaningful on all nutrition and fitness questions. Having prudence as a strength was significant for those participants who sleep more than seven hours per evening during the typical school week. Also, having more of certain strengths (2-13 each for the four sleep questions) negatively correlated with less sleep. Although the values are not significant except for social intelligence on sleep question 2, it should be noted that having certain strengths may contribute to sleeping less. 

Having the strength of persistence as a predictor of good nutrition habits is an important trait as there is a tendency for nutrition behavior to take a back seat in the accelerated pace of life in boarding schools. Self regulation was a strong predictor of optimal nutrition behavior and physical activity among adolescents, supporting Kitsantas and Kitsantas (2005) research and aspects of Luszczynska,Gibbons, Piko & Tekozel's (2004) claims of perceived behavioral control and health behavior. All the participants in the participating school, inclusive of all the study participants, are required to be involved in interscholastic athletic or intramural programs throughout the year. This may explain that the significance of citizenship (social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork).

 

Conclusion 

An awareness and understanding of character strengths and their relationship to overall well-being is a protective factor for adolescents in their journey to adulthood. By having the strengths of persistence and love of learning buttresses the potential for increased academic achievement. The strengths of fairness, leadership and open-mindedness support formally designated leadership activity, while self-regulation and prudence promotes sleep, nutrition and physical activity. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the constellation of character strengths may serve as a valuable asset in the adolescent tool box of skills. Assisting youth identify and use their signature strengths, may provide them a foundation to living a fully functioning life. 

In cultivating the whole person, it is important to address the development of character strengths on three integral components of the secondary school experience that may have influence on achieving overall life satisfaction: academics, leadership and wellness. 

As they plot their courses to adulthood, adolescents are seldom provided a structured forum to thoughtfully reflect on and apply their character strengths to their daily lives. By knowing what particular traits look like when they come alive may be instructive and informative for the high school student. Park & Peterson (in press, 2006) claimed that "being able to put a name to what one does well is intriguing and even empowering."

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