This month, our resident expert in cultivating mental positivity explores the value of discovering your personal strengths. A healthy, happy mind is one of the key ways we can influence our physical health and our attitude to our world. At MedicAlert we strive to empower our members to live life on their terms by providing peace of mind alongside many other benefits.

Enthusiastic workout fan

What are your strengths? Not just what you are good at, that you might have learned, but what are the core strengths that make you the amazing person that you are? Are you kind, courageous, loving, full of zest, curious, good at seeing the big picture? Or perhaps you’re good at appreciating beauty, are honest, make people laugh, a leader, love learning or have strong self-regulation. Do these sound over the top? Actually, we all have these sorts of strengths (1,2) - to a greater or lesser extent - and how we use them really makes a difference.

What The Research Tells Us

There is a great deal of research that shows that using your character strengths, as they are called by psychologists, has a lasting positive impact on your wellbeing and happiness (3–6). Using your character strengths more, and more deliberately, also builds resilience, optimism, achievement and feelings of self-efficacy (a sense that you can achieve things) both at home and at work (2,6–9). Encouraging others to use their strengths has been shown to make a big difference in relationships and friendships, and is a rewarding way to raise children, helping them achieve their potential and ward off depression and anxiety (10,11).

Up until about 20 years ago, there was little known about character strengths. We didn’t have a clear idea of what they might be, and certainly not how much impact they can have on people’s lives. A huge research effort (12) back in the early 2000’s, led by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, reviewed all the classifications of strengths and virtues they could find:

  • major religions and civilizations,
  • codes of conduct from Charlemagne to Franklin to Templeton,
  • social work and psychological research,
  • societies such as the girl guides and the boy scouts,
  • cultural items such as bumper stickers, graffiti and personal ads, 
  • and even fictional behaviour guidance from the Klingons, Pokémon and Harry Potter!

Strong and confident woman punching the air

This resulted in a massive list of possibilities that they reduced to 24 strengths they considered ‘core’ to the human race – valid across cultures and time. This is known as the ©VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues (13), VIA character strengths for short, and give us a common language to discuss strengths for everyone.

The VIA character strengths they identified are (13):

  1. Creativity: Original, adaptive, ingenuity, seeing and doing things in different ways
  2. Curiosity: Interest, novelty-seeking, exploration, openness to experience
  3. Judgment: Critical thinking, thinking through all sides, not jumping to conclusions
  4. Love of Learning: Mastering new skills & topics, systematically adding to knowledge
  5. Perspective: Wisdom, providing wise counsel, taking the big picture view
  6. Bravery: Valour, not shrinking from threat or challenge, facing fears, speaking up for what’s right
  7. Perseverance: Persistence, industry, finishing what one starts, overcoming obstacles
  8. Honesty: Authenticity, being true to oneself, sincerity without pretence, integrity
  9. Zest: Vitality, enthusiasm for life, vigour, energy, not doing things half-heartedly
  10. Love: Both loving and being loved, valuing close relations with others, genuine warmth
  11. Kindness: Generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruism, doing for others
  12. Social Intelligence: Aware of the motives and feelings of oneself and others, knows what makes others tick
  13. Teamwork: Citizenship, social responsibility, loyalty, contributing to a group effort
  14. Fairness: Adhering to principles of justice, not allowing feelings to bias decisions about others
  15. Leadership: Organizing group activities to get things done, positively influencing others
  16. Forgiveness: Mercy, accepting others’ shortcomings, giving people a second chance, letting go of hurt
  17. Humility: Modesty, letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
  18. Prudence: Careful about one’s choices, cautious, not taking undue risks
  19. Self-Regulation: Self-control, disciplined, managing impulses, emotions, and vices
  20. Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence: Awe and wonder for beauty, admiration for skill and moral greatness
  21. Gratitude: Thankful for the good, expressing thanks, feeling blessed
  22. Hope: Optimism, positive future-mindedness, expecting the best & working to achieve it
  23. Humour: Playfulness, bringing smiles to others, light-hearted – seeing the lighter side
  24. Spirituality: Connecting with the sacred, purpose, meaning, faith, religiousness

Evaluate Yourself

Read through the above list and think about which ones seem to describe you and how you behave naturally. Many people find it tricky to figure out their core strengths, as we often take for granted who we are and what we do, and assume everyone else has similar strengths.

Some cultures also actively discourage thinking about what you’re good at. Discuss the list with family and friends to see what they think. An easy way to get a good start on your thinking is to take the free survey on the VIA Institute website, which is scientifically validated and has been taken by millions of people worldwide. Spend 10 minutes on the online survey and they will give you a list of your VIA character strengths in descending order. You can pay for a detailed analysis, but that’s not necessary if you just want to know your top strengths. There’s also a version for youth ages 10-17.

Strengths Spotting & Putting Pen To Paper

Woman looking out at the horizon

An alternative approach, which can be a fun activity especially with children, is to go ‘strengths spotting’. This just means noticing when people are using their strengths and calling them out. It’s often easier to see others’ strengths rather than our own, so doing this exercise with others can be quite eye-opening. You can also ‘strengths spot’ while watching movies or TV programmes, as well as while people-watching.

One more exercise is to spend a few minutes writing about a time when you were at your best, when you felt truly authentic and at the top of your game. This can be at home, at work, doing a hobby, volunteering, playing sport, or just hanging out with friends - it doesn’t have to be a major event. Staying calm in the face of chaos at home and still smiling at the family counts!

Having written your story down, consider what strengths you were using, how you were using them, and how that helped. Try writing several stories of this sort about different times and different aspects of your life. What are the common themes?

Once you have tried one or more of the above activities, review the list(s) of your strengths, and think about which ones feel most authentic to you. Which ones energise you as you use them? Which ones feel natural? Which are the ones your friends and family most associate with you? Your top 5 (or 3 or 6, the number doesn’t really matter) are known as your signature strengths, and these are the ones to focus on using more to get the most benefits.

Honing Your Particular Strengths

A couple hiking together at sunset

Having worked out your signature strengths, there are many easy ways you can use them without much extra effort, which have been shown to make a big difference to wellbeing. What do you usually associate with a particular strength? Think about how you could push it up a notch. If you’re curious or love learning, pick a new subject and dive in. If love or kindness is top, what little acts can you do to show you care, and for whom? Where can you go to hone your appreciation of beauty and excellence? That could be tricky with the lockdown, but there are loads of virtual tours of museums and beauty spots online, free concerts, theatre and opera performances or replays of major sports events to marvel at. Use your creativity to come up with new ways to keep yourself entertained. Say thank you to people you’ve never thanked as your gratitude activity.

If you’re struggling to think of something you could do, there are lots of ideas online – start with the free Covid-19 activities at the VIA Institute website. One of the most useful of these is the list of 101 strengths-based actions to connect from a safe distance. More detailed ideas and instructions based on the scientific research can be found in Ryan Niemiec’s book1 ‘The Power of Character Strengths’, and if you’re wanting information about working with children and teenagers, check out Lea Waters’ book10 ‘The Strength Switch’.

The key in all of this is the deliberate use of your signature strengths. Make a small effort, for example using your signature strengths in new ways 5 times in one day, or once a day every day for a week (which are well-researched activities showing long-term benefits7). You will likely be rewarded not only by feeling energised while you are using your strengths, but also by an increased sense of satisfaction with your life and feeling happier, more optimistic and more resilient.

MedicAlert is a community of members, all of whom live with a wide range of health-related issues ranging from heart disease and hypertension to rare conditions such as Diamond Blackfan Anaemia. We are here to support all of our members, no matter what, through providing 24/7 emergency access to their medical records in emergencies, ensuring the most efficient, reliable and accessible route for medical professionals in times of need.

If you enjoyed this piece, why not explore Rosie’s article, ‘Savouring The Good Stuff’, or another of our blogs?

About the Author

Rosie Hancock has been working and teaching in the field of positive psychology since 2006. She coaches individuals to build resilience and well-being while developing their careers and leadership skills. She also develops and teaches workshops on resilience, career development and positive leadership to executives in organisations of all sizes.

Rosie holds a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania; a Master’s degree in Education with Certificate in Counselling from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ; a Graduate Certificate in Career Development from AUT University in NZ; and a Master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge.


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References to other websites herein are done so with sincerity and an open appreciation for their content.

References:

  1. Niemiec, R. M. & McGrath, R. E. The power of character strengths : appreciate and ignite your positive personality. (VIA Institute, 2019).
  2. Niemiec, R. M. VIA character strengths: Research and practice (the first 10 years). in Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (eds. Knoop, H. H. & Delle Fave, A.) 11–30 (Springer, 2013).
  3. Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. & Ruch, W. Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: A randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. A lesser strengths-intervention. Front. Psychol. 6, (2015).
  4. Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. & Ruch, W. What good are character strengths beyond subjective well-being? The contribution of the good character on self-reported health-oriented behavior, physical fitness, and the subjective health status. J. Posit. Psychol. 8, 222–232 (2013).
  5. Ghielen, S. T. S., van Woerkom, M. & Christina Meyers, M. Promoting positive outcomes through strengths interventions: A literature review. J. Posit. Psychol. 13, 573–585 (2018).
  6. Schutte, N. S. & Malouff, J. M. The Impact of Signature Character Strengths Interventions: A Meta-analysis. J. Happiness Stud. 20, 1179–1196 (2019).
  7. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. Am. Psychol. 60, 410–421 (2005).
  8. Harzer, C. & Ruch, W. The application of signature character strengths and positive experiences at work. J. Happiness Stud. 1–19 (2012) doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9364-0.
  9. Wandeler, C. A. & Bundick, M. J. Hope and self-determination of young adults in the workplace. J. Posit. Psychol. 6, 341–354 (2011). 
  10. Waters, L. The Strength Switch. (Avery, 2017).
  11. Waters, L. & Sun, J. Can a Brief Strength-Based Parenting Intervention Boost Self-Efficacy and Positive Emotions in Parents? Int. J. Appl. Posit. Psychol. 1, 41–56 (2016).
  12. Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  13. VIA Institute. The 24 Character Strengths. https://www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths.

©Copyright 2020, VIA Institute on Character. All Rights Reserved. www.viacharacter.org

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