Learn about character strengths: What are they, and why do they matter? How can you leverage them? In this post, I'll briefly introduce the field of positive psychology, explore character strengths, and suggest some strength-finding exercises.
In my years of practice as an ADHD and positive psychology coach, I learned that a key to wellbeing is how you view and relate to yourself. Unfortunately, we often see ourselves through a very limited and negative lens. We're quick to see all our flaws and believe we'll never be good enough.
Often clients come to coaching thinking, "If I just improve my weaknesses, I'll be much happier and more successful." We tell ourselves, "By correcting my weaknesses, I could land a better job, have stronger relationships, or achieve more in life." If you ever felt this way, you're not alone.
“Play to your top character strengths, and you will excel. Focusing on your highest strengths energizes and uplifts you and naturally elevates your lesser strengths.”
Let's first explore how the field of positive psychology came about and why it's beneficial to know your strengths.
From a Focus on Weaknesses to Strengths
For many years, the field of psychology has examined the question of what's wrong with us and endeavored to correct people's weaknesses. Following the Second World War, psychological intervention focused on treating abnormal behaviors and the surrounding mental health issues that were thought to result from individual weaknesses of soldiers in coping with the war. The emphasis was on dysfunction. This problem-focused psychology perspective dominated the field for decades and resulted in many helpful treatments and interventions for a wide range of disorders and problems. However, it ignored the concept of what's right with us.
In his 1998 President's inauguration speech to the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman strongly encouraged the field of psychology to widen its scope from focusing on illness and weakness to emphasizing on human flourishing. In other words, rather than merely focusing on what's wrong with people and fixing their problems, Seligman argued that the field should consider what's right with us and develop approaches to bolstering strengths. He encouraged the field to explore questions such as:
What are the characteristics of people that contribute to high levels of happiness?
What are the qualities of people that help them overcome challenges and give rise to resilience?
In essence, Seligman proposed that researchers ask, "What are the strengths that happy and resilient people have?"
Since the establishment of positive psychology as a field, there has been significant research and intervention in areas such as positive emotions, hope/optimism, happiness, resilience, flow, motivation, and many others. Character strengths (see the videos below) are considered the foundation of positive psychology.
Why it's Good to Know Your Strengths
Knowing our strengths, gives us more clarity about what makes us unique and how others view us.
It can increase self-awareness. By spending some time thinking about and reflecting on your strengths, you might get to know new things about yourself.
It can help you like yourself more. Thinking about your strengths can help you focus more on the positive aspects of yourself (Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2015)
It can boost happiness. A hallmark study in the field of positive psychology revealed that when people used a top character strength each day for one week, they showed an increase in happiness. That increase in happiness persisted for six months (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
Next, let's learn about character strengths, which define who you are at your core.
Start by watching the three brief introductory videos below. Then visit the VIA Institute on Character at https://www.viacharacter.org and take the free, researched-based VIA Survey of Character Strengths to discover your unique constellation of strengths.
1. A Character Strength Introduction
What are character strengths? How did they come about? Can you grow your strength muscles? To learn more, watch this brief video, the first in a series on character strengths.
2. Virtues and Character Strengths
Scientists uncovered six ubiquitous virtues while researching traits valued by philosophers and theologians across time, cultures, and belief systems. Within this broader category of virtues, researchers later discovered 24 universal character strengths. Your character strengths are the positive aspects that define who you are at your core. You possess all of them to different degrees. | What are the six virtues? What are the 24 character strengths? To learn more, watch this brief video, the second in a series on character strengths.
3. The “3 E’s” of Signature Character Strengths
Awareness and use of your “signature strengths” (i.e., your top strengths) are essential to being your best self and thriving. This short video summarizes the three shared features of signature character strengths (a.k.a, the “3 E's”). To learn more, watch this brief video, the third in a series on character strengths.
Lastly, consider leveraging your strengths with any of the three strength-finding exercises below.
Imagine your Best Possible Self. Take a moment now to imagine the best possible version of yourself in the future (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Try to be as specific as possible. Ask yourself, who would you be? What strengths would you be using, and how would you use those strengths in different contexts (e.g., at work, in school, in relationships, in the community)? Where would you be? What would you be doing?
Reflect on Your Strengths. Once you're more familiar with some of your strengths, reflect on how these strengths affect your life. What are the positive impacts of these strengths on your life? How do your strengths benefit others? Think through what it actually means to have these strengths.
Build Your Strengths. Work on your strengths to turn them into "super strengths." Think about how you could get even better at one of your strengths. Might you practice using your strength more often? Might you seek out feedback from others on how to improve this strength? Might you use this strength in new situations?
Prover, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: A randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456.
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.