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Finish Your Dissertation Strong and Happy: Three Proven Strategies from Positive Psychology | Issue 248

Summary: Want to gain momentum and feel happier on your dissertation path? Leverage proven strategies from positive psychology.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes (a winning use of time)

"Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you're climbing it." – Andy Rooney


By Ilene Berns-Zare, Psy.D., A.C.C., C.M.C.

Do you want to gain momentum and feel happier as you move toward the dissertation finish line?

Then capitalize on your strengths, say positive psychology researchers.

By leveraging your top character strengths, you can both complete your dissertation and cultivate well-being. Your personal strengths, studies show, can help you flourish in your life, your work, and your contributions to the world.

Your character strengths reflect your core personal identity. They bolster your thinking, feeling, meaning, and engagement. According to Martin Seligman, PhD, the founder of positive psychology, these 24 character strengths form the cornerstone of a flourishing life:

Creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.

Keep in mind that everyone has the potential to develop any and all of these strengths as they are not innate, fixed qualities.


How to Get Started with Strengths

To create more dissertation momentum, identify your top strengths, also called your "signature strength," and then learn to use them in new ways. Cultivating your top strengths has been consistently shown to increase your happiness and improve life satisfaction, well-being, and work engagement. Experiment with these user-friendly, tested strategies.

Strategy 1: Identify Your Character Strengths

Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D,. the global authority on character strengths, outlines a basic approach:

1. To identify your top strengths, take the free VIA Survey, a quick self-assessment of your personal strengths. Over 5 million people throughout the world have already taken this highly validated test.

2. Look at your VIA findings and identify your very own top five strengths. Choose the ones you consider most essential to who you are as an individual, even if they are not exactly the five top-ranked ones according to the survey.


3. Each week choose one of these strengths and find a novel way to use it each day. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise when you use this strength.


Strategy 2: Apply Your Strengths to Your Dissertation and Life

Explore ways to engage your strengths to propel yourself toward the dissertation finish line. While you will get the most traction from focusing on your top strengths, exercising your lesser strengths also offers benefits. Here are some examples to get you started, and then create your own as you go along.

Perseverance: Staying on task toward what you start, despite challenge or obstacles.

• On a daily or weekly basis, set small, manageable goals to complete your dissertation. 
• Track your progress on your calendar or computer. 
• When something gets in the way, be adaptive. Figure out how to move past it, and reach your goal.
• Identify your most productive hours of the day. Work on your dissertation during those times.


Kindness: Caring about the needs of others and being willing to do a good deed without expecting a return.


• Offer a kind word to people as you go through the day — at the coffee shop and grocery store, via email, in classes, or at the library. 
• Offer a small random act of kindness toward someone else who's working on their dissertation. 
• Share something with another person or offer to help them. 
• Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge your progress and achievements. Take good care of yourself with nutritious foods, exercise, and getting enough sleep.


Leadership: Developing and maintaining good relations among a group and engaging them toward accomplishment.


• Create your own dissertation team for sharing strategies and moral support with other ABD's. 
• Assist a friend who is struggling in the dissertation process. 
• Seek assistance and encouragement from others when you need it.



Strategy 3: Act "As If"

To overcome the inherent negativity bias that leads to a focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, try this strategy recommended by Shannon Polly and Kathryn Britton in Character Strengths Matter:


Choose a lower-ranked strength and act "act as if" it is already a top strength. Think "fake it 'til you make it." Pretend you are an actor as you practice positive behaviors. Create new stories about you as a brave, prudent, self-regulating, hopeful, curious, or zestful person—and notice the signs that you find it more natural to engage with this strength.


Crossing the Finish Line


By practicing your strengths, you will reach the finish line faster and can celebrate your well-deserved doctoral degree and your enhanced well-being—two great assets for your next journey!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

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Recommended Readings and Resources


Ben Dean interview with Ryan Niemiec [with additional resources].


Niemiec, Ryan, and others. The official VIA Blog offers great tips on using strengths for well-being. For all things VIA, including assessments, reports, resources, and courses, see


Polly, Shannon. & Britton, Kathryn. Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life


Seligman, Martin. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being


About the Author

Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, is a life and leadership coach, psychologist, and educator. Ilene has dedicated much of her career to the personal and professional development and integrative well-being of others. She inspires others to find fresh perspectives and access their full potential as creative, resourceful, whole persons. Find her Psychology Today blog at Contact Ilene online and access free resources at


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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