Play to Your Strengths: The Science of Character Strengths
Wordcloud of character strengths like wisdom, justice, love and courageMade at Wordclouds.com

Too often in life, we tend to focus on what we’re doing wrong instead of what we’re doing right. We ask each other questions such as, “What is your greatest weakness?” in job interviews. We often set goals for ourselves that are more focused on kicking bad habits than adopting healthy ones. We tend to criticize ourselves for mistakes we make instead of celebrating when things go well.

In other words, we often have a tendency to focus on bad things instead of good things in our lives. However, the relatively recent development of positive psychology seeks to address this imbalance by focusing more on the positive side of human functioning. As positive psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues explain, “The intent is to have a more complete and balanced scientific understanding of the human experience—the peaks, the valleys, and everything in between.” In particular, positive psychology focuses on character strengths: that is, the virtues we possess that can help us live a more fulfilling life. In today’s post, I’ll review what character strengths are, how they are beneficial for well-being, and how you can work to cultivate your strengths.

Focusing on Our Strengths

Psychologists have noted that we often have a tendency to notice when things aren’t going well, as opposed to when they are. As Seligman and his colleagues write, “Human beings are naturally biased toward remembering the negative, attending to the negative, and expecting the worst.” Psychologist Robert Brooks noticed something similar when working with his clients: he wrote that it often appeared as though his clients were “drowning in an ocean of self-perceived inadequacy.” In other words, although there were things his clients were doing well, they couldn’t see it—instead, they were focusing on areas where they felt they weren’t doing well and ignoring the things they were good at.

To counter this tendency, Brooks started having his clients work to recognize their “islands of competence,” that is, “areas that have been or have the potential to be sources of pride and accomplishment.” He reports that his clients found this exercise especially valuable—by focusing on what they were doing well, his clients felt more empowered. As one client reported, “When I think about these islands, I don’t ignore my problems, but rather it gives me strength to meet these problems in a more effective way.” This is a key idea behind developing our strengths: when we focus on things that we’re good at, we feel better equipped to tackle our problems, and we’re able to make our lives more fulfilling.

“If we can find and reinforce these areas of strength, we can create a powerful “ripple effect” in which children and adults may be more willing to venture forth and confront situations that have been problematic.” – Dr. Robert Brooks

What Types of Character Strengths Are There?

According to researchers at the VIA Institute on Character, character strengths fall into six different categories. These character strengths were chosen by researchers because these strengths are ubiquitous (i.e. they can be found across cultures), pursuing them is fulfilling, and they are seen as inherently moral and valuable.

  1. Wisdom: This category includes creativity, a love of learning, curiosity, having a wise perspective, and thinking through things carefully.
  2. Courage: This category includes honesty, bravery, approaching things with zest and energy, and persevering when things get tough.
  3. Humanity: These are the strengths that foster our connections with others: kindness, social intelligence, and love.
  4. Justice: These strengths are leadership ability, trying to treat others fairly, and working well with others.
  5. Temperance: These strengths are humility, a willingness to forgive others, cautiousness, and self-control.
  6. Transcendence: These strengths are gratitude, hope, spirituality, appreciating beauty, and valuing humor.

If you’re interested in learning what your character strengths are, you can take a quiz from the VIA Institute.

How Do Character Strengths Impact Well-Being?

According to psychologists, understanding and utilizing our character strengths is a key component of living a good life. In one study, Seligman and his colleagues investigated the effects of different positive psychology interventions. Some participants were asked to take a quiz to determine their key character strengths and then to spend a week finding new ways to use these strengths.

Compared to participants who completed a neutral task, participants who used their character strengths had higher levels of happiness one month, three months, and six months after the weeklong intervention. The participants who used their character strengths also had lower levels of depression immediately after the intervention, and these effects lasted throughout the six months when researchers followed up with the participants. Interestingly, another version of the study in which participants only learned about their strengths—but weren’t instructed to try to use them—reduced depression immediately after the study, but didn’t have any other effects. In other words, it seems that it’s important not only to know your strengths, but also to actively use them.

Are all character strengths equally important? Researchers have found that gratitude, hope, love, approaching life with zest, and creativity are strengths that have especially strong links to participants’ levels of life satisfaction. Another study suggested that gratitude is a character strength strongly linked to well-being. One study found that curiosity and grit may be especially valuable strengths when we’re working towards our goals.

Importantly, however, traits not as strongly linked to personal well-being are still valuable: as Scott Barry Kaufman points out in a blog for Scientific American, character strengths that aren’t as strongly linked to personal well-being can still be beneficial for society as a whole. In other words, it seems that different strengths might help us with different things, but all of them are valuable to cultivate.

How Can We Play to Our Strengths?

The first step to using our strengths more may simply be awareness: learning what our strengths are so that we no longer take them for granted.

  • Recognize our strengths. Robert Biswas-Diener and his colleagues note that we can often suffer from “strengths blindness,” in which we fail to recognize when we excel at a particular strength. For example, the researchers point out, people who are especially kind and courageous may not realize that others would act differently in a situation that calls for kindness or courage. I noticed this myself when taking the VIA character strengths quiz: I found that my number one strength is fairness, which surprised me because I didn’t think the fact that I advocate for fairness is anything unusual. However, I realized that I often surround myself with other people who also value fairness, and so I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to the fact that there are other people who might not care as much about fairness as I do. In other words, the first step to using our strengths more may simply be awareness: learning what our strengths are so that we no longer take them for granted.
  • Recognizing others’ strengths. In addition to becoming aware of our own strengths, another thing we can do is to work to recognize and appreciate the strengths of people that we care about. In fact, a recent study found that people who valued their partner’s character strengths were happier in their relationships—and so were their partners. So, in addition to recognizing your own strengths, take time to acknowledge other people’s strengths and celebrate their successes with them.
  • Considering context when using our strengths. Researchers point out that it’s also important to regulate our character strengths depending on the context, so that we don’t overuse a particular strength in situations where doing so isn’t helpful. As an example, one of my character strengths is that I like to think through decisions carefully—even though this strength is helpful much of the time, it’s not quite as useful when I’m trying to decide which shampoo to buy or where to go to dinner! In other words, by becoming aware of our strengths (and which levels of different strengths are most called for in a given situation), we can use our character strengths most effectively.
  • Viewing our strengths as malleable. Researchers point out that it’s important to have a growth mindset for our character strengths; that is, to hold the belief that we can cultivate character strengths by practicing them. As a video for the VIA Institute explains, “character strengths can be learned, practiced, and cultivated.”

  • Exploring psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can be one way for us to become more aware of our character strengths. In particular, researchers have developed techniques known as positive psychotherapy that can specifically help clients focus on the good in their lives. Positive psychotherapy can include activities such as identifying and cultivating your character strengths, writing down good things that happen, or writing a letter of gratitude to someone. Positive psychotherapy doesn’t involve ignoring negative or stressful events, but it makes a point to “emphasize identifying, attending to, remembering, and using more often the core positive traits that clients already possess.” Psychotherapy, especially with a therapist that uses positive psychology in their practice, can be another way to become aware of your strengths and find ways to use them in your daily life.

If you tend to focus on things that aren’t going well, you’re not alone—it’s a common human tendency to focus on the areas where we worry we aren’t doing as well. However, researchers have found that this may not be the right way to go about things. Instead, researchers have found that we can benefit from working to cultivate our character strengths. When we focus on the areas where we’re doing well—and create opportunities to use these character strengths in our daily lives—we can actually experience increased happiness and well-being.

Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.


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