Zest and hope are key character strengths for better health and a sense of purpose in life, large study finds

Findings from a massive psychology study suggest that character strengths have a positive influence on many aspects of our health. Zest, hope, and self-regulation were the qualities most consistently associated with positive health outcomes. The study was published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Character strengths are positive qualities that have a favorable impact on our lives and the lives of others, such as kindness, creativity, and bravery. Psychology research has largely revealed that these qualities are associated with beneficial outcomes like greater life satisfaction and improved physical health. It has been proposed that character strengths might enhance emotional well-being and encourage positive health behaviors — which in turn has a positive effect on our health.

Study author Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska and her team wanted to expand on the existing research by studying a large international sample and including additional health measures.

“There are theoretical arguments from philosophical and religious traditions that morally valued personality traits such as character strengths are not only fundamental to one’s identity but also can generate positive outcomes for oneself and/or others, and contribute to the greater good,” explained Weziak- Bialowolska, an associate professor at Jagiellonian University and faculty affiliate at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program.

“Character strengths are positive and morally valued personality traits. They are of interest of positive psychology, which have triggered a shift of focus from ‘traditional’ ill-health prevention and risk-mitigation to identifying factors contributing positively to health and well-being. My recent research is on identifying positive health and well-being stimuli, which is actually the main aim of the Positive Health Program – the research project in which I am a principal investigator.”

“My interest in the role of character strengths for health and well-being also results from prior empirical findings – some of them from my own previous research – indicating that the predisposition to act according to ethical standards and accepted rules of good, honest and/ or moral behaviors, as well as prosocial and altruistic behaviors such as generosity and kindness, contribute to an attainment of greater well-being and better health (eg, lower risks of incident cognitive impairment not dementia, depression, lower limitations in mobility and less difficulty in instrumental activities of daily living among middle-aged and older adults),” Weziak-Bialowolska said.

“Although more than 700 studies on character strengths have linked them with multitude positive outcomes, as reported by VIA Institute on Character Strengths, studies focusing specifically on physical health and healthy behaviors have limited scope and sample size. Therefore, the main motivation for our study was to advance the science of character strengths and health, as well as health behaviors, in two important ways. These are to include infrequently analyzed areas of health and gather data from a large sample.”

The researchers distributed an online survey to nearly 60,000 people from 159 countries. The questionnaire assessed 24 character strengths with the 96-item Values ​​In Action Inventory of Strengths [VIA-IS]. The survey also included various questions concerning health and health-related behaviors.

“We used the VIA-IS to measure character strengths,” Weziak-Bialowolska said. “According to this classification – developed by Peterson and Seligman – there are 24 character strengths (eg, hope, gratitude, curiosity, honesty) grouped into six broad virtue categories, which are universal across cultures and nations virtues (ie, wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence).”

The researchers examined the association between the 24 character strengths and 15 health outcomes while controlling for gender, age, education, employment status, and annual household income. For health-related quality of life, the strongest effect sizes were for zest and hope which were positively associated with health-related quality of life outcomes, and kindness and appreciation of beauty which were negatively associated with health-related quality of life outcomes.

For sense of purpose in life, the strongest effect sizes were for hope, spirituality, zest, perseverance, and curiosity which were all positively associated with purpose in life. For positive health behaviors, like engaging in sports activities, effect sizes were particularly strong for zest, curiosity, and self-regulation. Gratitude was also consistently and favorably associated with positive health behaviors, although with a weaker effect size.

Weziak-Bialowolska and her colleagues noted that zest was the character strength that emerged most often in relation to positive health outcomes. Zest is a trait that describes an enthusiasm and energy toward life, and past studies have linked this trait to a reduced risk of depression and to positive health habits like healthy eating.

“Our findings suggested that maintaining a well-rounded healthy lifestyle coincided with energy and enthusiasm for life and health (zest), an attitude of discipline and resistance to temptations (self-regulation), feeling and expressing a sense of thankfulness in life and to others (gratitude), and optimistic thinking and confidence that goals can be reached (hope),” Weziak-Bialowolska told PsyPost. “These might be viewed as primary character strengths for health outcomes and behaviors.”

Surprisingly, there were also associations between character strengths and harmful health behaviors. Twenty of the character strengths were associated with either risk of smoking or risk of excessive drinking, and 8 character strengths were associated with a greater risk of both harmful behaviors. For example, love of learning, prudence, and self-regulation were tied to a lower risk of smoking and drinking. Beauty, humor, perseverance, and social intelligence were associated with a greater risk of smoking and drinking.

“We looked for an explanation and there are a few. According to one, character strengths can have a negative impact if they are drawn upon too often,” Weziak-Bialowolska said. “In other words, when their application is suboptimal – that is they are overused or underused. As the individual brings forth too much or too little of a strength in a particular situation, it can have a negative impact on oneself or others.”

“For example, the character strength of judgment involves displaying critical and detailed thinking and analysis. Overuse of this strength can be viewed as being rigid, cynical, narrow-minded, and self-absorbed, and can make a person being harsh and excessively critical (ie, judgmental) toward themselves and others. This overuse may contribute to negativity towards oneself and one’s habits. A person might become trapped in negative vicious cycles of thinking and feeling that characterize several mental disorders.”

In addition, “kindness involves going out of one’s way to be caring, compassionate, or giving to others,” Weziak-Bialowolska noted. But “overusing kindness can make one feel overextended, drained, and compassionate. Despite being well-intentioned, kindness may become imbalanced through an excessive focus on others. This has the danger of limiting self-compassion and health behaviors toward oneself, such as self-care, quality sleep, healthy eating, and exercise.”

Finally, the fact that appreciation of beauty was negatively tied to health outcomes may suggest that this trait leads people to focus outward, potentially missing internal cues related to mental and physical health.

The study was limited due to its reliance on cross-sectional data, which limits conclusions about causality. The study also used a convenience sample, which means that self-selection bias may have impacted the results — people with an interest in character strengths may have been more likely to participate in the study.

“We still need more research to explain why we observe these associations and what can be done to trigger and even maybe strengthen the positive impact of certain character strengths on health and health behaviors, as well as to limit the negative health effects of other character strengths ,” Weziak-Bialowolska told PsyPost. “Despite this drawback, our sample size included almost 60,000 respondents from 159 countries. This provides some reassurance that, although not causal, the results are ubiquitous.”

“Our study focused on possession of character strengths,” the researcher added. “We did not examine how their application or use is associated with health and health behaviors. It is our intention to expand our study in this direction in the future.”

The study, “Character Strengths and Health-Related Quality of Life in a Large International Sample: A Cross-Sectional Analysis”, was authored by Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska, Piotr Bialowolski, and Ryan M. Niemiec.