Introduction to character strengths
Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which looks at how humans thrive and flourish. Research on character strengths is an important part of this.
So what are character strengths?
At our very core, there are a set of strengths. These strengths can impact on how we think, feel, and behave, and when we use our strengths, we’re usually being the best version of ourselves.
You may think you know your strengths, but your character strengths are not the same as your skills and talents. Character strengths are who you are underneath.
Research has found that we all share the same 24 character strengths, though we possess some of them to a greater or lesser degree than others.
The classification of character strengths
In the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, written by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, character strengths are classified into six major virtues and their associated strengths. These are:
- Wisdom and Knowledge: Creativity, Curiosity, Judgment and Open-Mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective
- Courage: Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty, Zest
- Humanity: Capacity to Love and Be Loved, Kindness, Social Intelligence
- Justice: Teamwork, Fairness, Leadership
- Temperance: Forgiveness and Mercy, Modesty and Humility, Prudence, Self-Regulation
- Transcendence: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humour, Religiousness and Spirituality
What are the benefits of knowing your character strengths?
Knowing your character strengths and using them in the right way can help you become more resilient, improve your relationships, and improve your health and wellbeing.
How can you find out your own character strengths?
You can complete the VIA survey, which is a research-based survey offered by the VIA Institute on Character. You can take the survey here:
The benefits of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses
Have you ever worked for a manager who only ever focused on problems and where there was room for improvement? Do you catch yourself focusing on the areas in which you believe you’re lacking something? How does it make you feel? I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t make you particularly happy or motivated.
But if you focus on your strengths, you have the power to positively influence your wellbeing. Research has found that if you are aware of your character strengths, and you focus on them rather than your weaknesses, you are 9 times more likely to flourish.
So how does focusing on strengths have a positive impact on your life?
It helps you focus on the positive
People who focus on their strengths experience more positive emotions, feel more engaged with life and work, their life has more meaning, they have more positive relationships, and they achieve more.
They’re also more likely to be accepting of who they are, autonomous, driven to reach their goals, be in better physical health, be more passionate about life, and more resilient.
So focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses is far more likely to be a pathway to fulfilment than focusing on the negatives.
However, focusing on positive things is not the same as ignoring the negatives. Instead, the thinking in positive psychology is that we should learn from and reframe the negatives.
Research has shown that most of us tend to have a negative bias in the way we think. We remember negative things more than positive things, and we allow ourselves to get much more affected by them. Strengths can make the way we think a little more balanced.
Negative experiences or events help us learn and grow, and we can use our strengths to help us avoid them happening again, and to remind us that we’re resilient enough to get past whatever it is.
Your strengths are like an inner toolbox you have that enable you to better deal with anything that comes your way, good or bad.
Adapted from The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality, p. 18.
Books on character strengths
There are many excellent books on the subject of character strengths and how we can use them to flourish, both in life and at work. Here are some of my favourites:
The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality
The message of this book is that at some, or many points in your life, you will want more, whether it’s a better job, a better relationship, or just to be happier. But it poses the question- where are you looking?
Positive Psychology experts, Dr. Ryan Niemiec and Dr. Robert McGrath say that you should look within. In this book, you can find out why knowing your character strengths is the secret to improved wellbeing.
Most people, the authors say, are going to work, managing a family life, and working through a never-ending to do list without every really using the inner strengths that could help them thrive.
This inspiring book will help you reach your goals by discovering and applying the character strengths you already possess.
Buy the book here.
Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing
This book contains the latest research and practices on character strengths and mindfulness. It will help you use your character strengths to improve the quality of your mindfulness practice and show you how mindfulness can help you apply your best attributes.
MBSP (Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice), the first structured programme to combine mindfulness with character strengths, is at the core of this book, and it’s an excellent resource for anyone who wants to know more about this ground-breaking field.
Buy the book here.
Your Strengths Blueprint: How To Be Engaged, Energized, and Happy at Work
The world of work can be tough, but this book says that using your strengths can make it a little easier and much more enjoyable. The authors say that the key to getting the best out of your team and reaching your business goals is to discover, develop, and apply your strengths at work.
Doing things you’re good at that you actually enjoy can make work more meaningful, unleash your potential, and lead to an altogether more exciting and fulfilling future.
Buy the book here.
A perfect pairing: character strengths and mindfulness
Whether you’ve mastered introducing mindfulness into your life or you find that you sometimes struggle with your practice, you can harness your character strengths to improve both the quality and your experience of mindfulness meditation.
Once you know your main strengths, you can apply it to your mindfulness practice. Try some of these ideas:
If your top strength is:
- Creativity: Try different postures, different ways of noticing your breath, and find different ways to deal with it when your mind wanders.
- Curiosity: Always notice what is going in the moment during your practice, never stop being curious about it.
- Judgment/critical thinking: Ask yourself why certain things come to mind during your practice.
- Love of learning: Read around the topic of mindfulness to enhance your knowledge.
- Perspective: Read about the philosophy of mindfulness.
- Bravery: Challenge yourself during your practice. If you feel frustrated or uncomfortable, accept it and face it head on. Meditate in different environments-challenge yourself by practicing where it’s not completely silent.
- Perseverance: Promise yourself that you won’t give up even if challenges arise during your practice, like mind wandering, feeling tense, or being surrounded by noise.
- Honesty: Try to use each practice to really learn something new about yourself.
- Zest: Try and be mindfully active. Instead of sitting or lying down, go for an invigorating mindful walk.
- Love: Each time you practice, really think about someone you want to dedicate it to, whether they’re alive or someone who has passed away.
- Kindness: Be sure to include self-compassion and compassion for others in your practices.
- Social intelligence: Each time you meditate, spend a little time reflecting on people who are suffering and feeling empathy for them.
- Teamwork: Meditate with someone else or as part of a group to enhance the experience.
- Fairness: Reflect on and include all other beings on the planet as part of your meditations.
- Leadership: Put a structure in place that you can follow each time you practice.
- Forgiveness: Before you meditate, calm your body and mind. Spend a few moments letting go of any tension, stress, or negativity by focusing on the breath and releasing these things each time you breathe out.
- Humility: At the start of your practice, remind yourself of impermanence, your own mortality and the mortality of the people you love.
- Prudence: Be sure to follow the instructions of your practice precisely each time you meditate. Pay attention to your posture, your breathing, and the placement of your hands.
- Self-regulation: Be disciplined with your practice. Do it at the same time, on the same day, and make your practices the same length for a week.
- Appreciation of beauty/excellence: Meditate outside, either sitting or walking. Keep your eyes open and appreciate the beauty of nature.
- Gratitude: Give thanks at the beginning and end of your meditation practice.
- Hope: Practice when your energy is high and you’re feeling good. Close your practice with one positive statement.
- Humour: Before you meditate, think of something funny that happened the day before.
- Spirituality/religiousness: Add a prayer at the beginning and end of your practice, or say something to centre yourself.
Using your strengths as part of your practice will help you overcome any obstacles that arise and you will have a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Adapted from: Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Applying character strengths in your life
Knowing your character strengths can really put you in a position of power, but knowing how to apply them to your life so you can thrive is even more important. Let’s look at some key areas of your life and how you can use character strengths to improve your happiness, wellbeing, and overall sense of fulfilment.
Achieving your goals
Do you have a set of goals you’re working towards, or are you just plodding on through each day, dealing with the details and not achieving much else? If you’re the latter, how about harnessing your character strengths so you can really start thriving and regain your zest for life?
The character strengths you can draw upon to help you reach your goals in life are:
Hope: If you have hope, you feel positive about the future. When you feel positive, any problems that come your way are easier to deal with because things look good when you consider the bigger picture. When you are hopeful, you feel more confident about reaching your goals, and you’re less likely to give up when you hit a bump in the road.
Religiosity and spirituality: The more you connect with your spirituality, the more likely it is that your life will have a sense of purpose and meaning. This does not necessarily mean that you need to practice a religion, rather that you feel a sense of connectedness with others, nature, and with life as a whole. Practices like meditation, prayer, taking time to reflect, and spending time in nature can help you connect with your spiritual self and increase your chance of thriving.
Bravery, perseverance, zest, and self-regulation: When you set out to achieve your goals, there has to be some element of wanting to pursue something and challenge yourself, no matter what crops up along the way. Self-regulation is what will help you take on your goals without trying to do too much and becoming burned out and disillusioned.
Curiosity and love of learning: This character strength is an excellent motivator to become more knowledgeable, learn more skills, and grow. The result is usually that you become far more engaged with your work and it has so much more meaning.
Social intelligence: We achieve our goals more easily when we have the support and cooperation of others, and this is especially true in the case of business owners and managers. Being socially intelligent means we can better manage conflict, empathise with and appreciate others, and connect with them in a meaningful way.
Building your career
You might think that using your strengths to enhance your life sounds great, but you also might think ‘If only I had the time to do it!’
The good news is you do, and according to neuroscience, it only takes 11 minutes!
Using your character strengths intentionally is a good habit, and habits run on a neurological loop. There’s a cue that triggers the desired behaviour, a routine that we practice, and a reward that creates the desire to repeat the habit the next time the cue is received.
Here are some ideas on how you can start intentionally using your strengths at work:
Cue: Get into the habit of spending 11 minutes learning something new, whether it’s getting to grips with some new software or reading about the latest developments in your industry.
Reward: Share what you’ve learned with a colleague.
Cue: Spend 11 minutes brainstorming some ideas on new ways you can help your ideal clients. Reward: Enjoy a nice cup of coffee.
Cue: Spend some time talking to a colleague and ask how they are.
Reward: Have something nice to eat.
Cue: After you finish work, spend some time reflecting on how you made a difference to someone today.
Reward: Go home and relax.
Cue: When you are just about to leave work, make a note of any areas where there is room for improvement at work and how you might address these.
Reward: Go home and wind down.
Cue: On your break, think about how you might speak up about an issue that’s important to you, or volunteer an idea.
Reward: Head out for a short rejuvenating walk
Cue: At the start of your day, think about how you might help someone today.
Reward: Read a thank you note or a nice review from one of your clients.
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence:
Cue: Just before lunch, spend some time walking outside then post a picture of something that inspires you.
Reward: Treat yourself to a nice lunch.
Cue: On your way to work, think about a leader you admire.
Reward: Think about how you can use some of the ways they approach things in the way you work.
Cue: At the beginning of the day, spend some time looking for a quote that inspires you.
Reward: Spend 30 seconds meditating on it.
Using character strengths to navigate life changes
Change is one of those inevitable things in life. You will see some changes as good and others as not so good, and when it comes to the not so good, you might doubt your ability to deal with it and come out on the other side.
But before you allow yourself to go into a downward spiral of thinking you can’t cope, do this; think of a time in your life when you got through something that you thought you wouldn’t get through. Then do this exercise:
- Write down the character strengths you used and how you expressed them.
- Think about how getting through what happened shaped you and how it affected the view you have of yourself.
- Look at the wider picture. Where you using any virtues at the time that helped you take positive action, like courage?
Hopefully doing this exercise might help you recognise the inner strengths you’ve used in the past and you’ll realise that there’s no reason why you can’t deal with any changes or upheavals that come along.
Adapted from: Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
How can I help you?
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