One of the topics I found to be most valuable in our Positive Psychology class this semester was an exploration in both identifying and building on human strengths.
Most of you who have taken at least an intro psych class are likely familiar with the DSM, used as a manual for cataloging and diagnosing mental disorders as identified and defined today. However, when Martin Seligman (the “father of positive psychology”) called for the revival of the previously neglected positive aspects of the field, he and and Christopher Peterson came up with a classification of strengths and virtues to directly counterbalance the DSM’s focus on human deficits and afflictions.
According to Peterson, strengths are “the subset of personality traits on which we place moral value” (“Classifying and Measuring Strengths of Character”), and it is important to note that an element of subjectivity is bound to be inherent within this very definition. However, you can also make the argument that what we classify as “abnormal” and then, more often than not, come to stigmatize as “wrong” based on what is outlined by the DSM is also inherently subjective and culturally-influenced. As such, I prefer to think of the spectrum of psychological issues as those which simply have a negative impact on or get in the way of daily functioning, and “strengths” as those which have the potential to significantly enhance it.
To come up with the initial list, researchers surveyed everything from Confucius to Aristotle, the Old Testament to bumper stickers, and even tarot cards to Hogwarts houses. The list was then analyzed for commonalities across traditions and passed through a set of criteria - a few of my favorite of which are below:
Ubiquity: The identified strength must be widely recognized and celebrated across cultures. Interesting to note is that among “culture-bound strengths” that did not pass this test are traits such as ambition, achievement and autonomy, which are valued in some places like the US, but not all.
Does not diminish others: Instead, the strength elevates others who witness it in action. I love this because I think it really captures a very core and powerful element of “forces for good” in human nature. A smile is contagious. Talking about hope is inspiring. Witnessing kindness can create a natural and undeniable impulse to pay it forward.
Paragons: The strength is “strikingly embodied” in some individuals. Think of the people you admire and want to emulate most in life. What qualities are they a perfect personification of? The Dalai Lama immediately comes to mind when I think of someone who embodies compassion, but also manages to continuously maintain a sense of humor and zest. Similar to the point above, I believe that identifying models of excellence can help inspire us to emulate the very qualities we admire.
Finding Your Strengths
Ok enough background. You want to know how this is relevant to YOU.
First things first: Take the VIA Strengths Quiz
(*You have to register to take it. You will not regret it).
I have to admit, understanding my own strengths as identified by this tool was one of the most invaluable resources in helping me decide on the direction I wanted to pursue next in my career. Not only did it help me see why I was so passionate about some areas of work while I struggled to stay motivated under other circumstances, but it also gave me the language with which to talk about it. For example, knowing that two of my top strengths were “perspective” and “love of learning” while accepting that I often prefer to work more independently than with a team directly contributed to my decision to go back to school and pursue an MFT.
Our diverse strengths brilliantly reflect our unique backgrounds, life experiences and personal characteristics. As such, they lie on a continuum and are fluid, meaning they can change over time. You might find that yours align with things people have told you throughout your life, or reflect changes to your worldview as the result of major life events or simply getting older. While there is certainly an opportunity to identify areas in which you’d like to work to improve, the goal is not necessarily to be the “best” at them all. The primary aim is to simply recognize and play to the qualities and characteristics that work best for you.
Whether or not you find that your results perfectly align with your own concept of your strengths and values, I hope that they will lend themselves to at least a little bit of insight and self-reflection that you can apply to any of the following areas:
Defining your purpose & plotting your career - What are your “superpowers?” Your unique gifts to this planet? How can you use them to drive your “why” both in and outside of your ultimate career pursuits?
Finding fulfillment in your everyday work - Understand the work that drives you and optimize toward it in your day-to-day responsibilities and professional growth. Re-frame the work you like less to incorporate your strengths. Just because you’re waiting tables doesn’t mean you can’t bring humor into every interaction.
Claiming your free time and pursuing soul-filling hobbies - The variation in strengths from person to person serves as a major reminder that what lights us up can differ significantly from one person to the next. Don’t get lost in what you think you “should” be doing. Follow what feels good to you.
Empowering relationships - Appreciate and build up each others’ strengths. Find and plan dates and activities that incorporate strengths from both sides.
Finding your happy - In my last post I mentioned that the success of any psychological activity or intervention depends heavily on its “fit” to each person, and understanding your strengths can significantly help you identify the ideas and practices that will resonate with you most. For example, because “perspective” is such as prominent strength of my own, I find that anything which widens or re-frames my perspective or larger outlook on life has a profound effect on my immediate happiness. What are they for you?
I like to think of strengths as similar to physical strengths and muscles. They help serve as protective factors against some of life’s major challenges, but intentionally cultivating them can also help us to achieve more. For example, mindfulness can simultaneously help protect us from the effects of automatic negative thoughts, while also increasing our ability to be intentional and accomplish the things we want in life. While the VIA lists out some of the more overarching and universal strengths and virtues across cultures, it is by no means exhaustive. Anything which you feel serves these ends is a strength which you can build upon.
One final word on purpose and passion: I’ve come to believe that most of us don’t necessarily have one single God-given and neatly packaged “passion” or “purpose” just waiting to to be found. In fact, I believe this narrative can actually limit us. Rather, by looking our passions and our purpose through the lens of our strengths, we see that both pursuits are directly influenced by our ever-evolving life experiences, and thus can be fluid, too. So give yourself permission to use your strengths to pursue and serve through a wide range of things you love over the course of your life, and to evolve them as as new contexts and life experiences mold your strengths and interests into new shapes, as well. Stay open, stay curious, and follow what feels good.
*Disclaimer: I am not a licensed clinical provider, nor have I yet completed a degree in psychology. From time to time on this blog I include my attempt to reflect on and consolidate research, opinions and information from a wide variety of sources and disciplines. While I have tried my best to be as accurate and judicious as possible in what I share and how I share it, I apologize in advance for any misuse of concepts, terminology, or representations.