Character Strengths: The Benefits of Focusing on Your Virtues

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character strengths

Let me ask you this… What’s your greatest weakness?

Now imagine you’re sitting in an interview for your dream job… After the icebreakers and initial chit chat, the HR manager asks you:

What are you really good at?

If you’re like most people, it probably takes you 2 seconds to answer the first question. And boy, can you provide details, examples, and some interesting stories. (I’m just guessing here).

Oh, but that sneaky second question… What on earth to say?

Why is it harder? In part, because we grew up in a society where the focus has been: know thy weaknesses and work on them.

Enhancing the positives is sometimes admonished as a form of boasting (more so in Europe than in North America).

Now, the easy route is to say something is better than the other.

Focusing on strengths is related to life satisfaction and well-being, therefore, attention to weaknesses is to be avoided at all costs.

Not really!

A lot of confusion in psychology comes from these dualistic or deterministic perspectives, right and wrong; good and bad; virtuous and vile.

One thing is great so it must be the only thing that matters. Heck no!

A balanced and healthy awareness of ourselves includes taking into account what we’re naturally good at, as well as our own weaknesses.

The difference is that a healthy, confident person is aware of their weaknesses but brings a sense of acceptance and compassion to them. And understands this:

Our weaknesses don’t define us, they just show we’re human with all the glorious messiness that comes along.

With that said, let’s look at the Character Strengths and Virtues Classification.

First Things, First….An Introduction

Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson are often considered the founders of positive psychology. They realized that a lot of resources were directed towards pathology and disorders.

These disorders are thoroughly systemized in a manual owned by every psychologist in the world called DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

They wondered why a manual of positive human traits and values was unheard of and they set out to study universally valued virtues in a scientific way.

After studying all major religions and philosophical traditions, they came to 6 virtues shared across cultures for years and years.

These virtues are:

character virtues table

To examine them under the scientific method, they needed clearly defined psychological concepts. So they focused on the character strengths that when acted upon lead to these virtues.

The result of this work is The Character Strengths and Virtues Handbook.

A comprehensive classification and measurement of universally valued positive traits.

 What is A Character Strength?

 

A character strength is “a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment and leads to a recognizable human excellence or instance of human flourishing.

– Yearley, 1990

In simple terms, a character strength is a tendency to choose behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are guided by our deeply held values. Contributing to life satisfaction and fulfillment.

I confess guilty of being a nerd. I remember when I was younger I would often read 2 or 3 books per week. At that point completely unaware that love of learning was one of  my strengths.

Now,  I structure my life in a way that allows me to continue to learn and study because I know it’s one of my signature strengths.

So, What Does it Take For a Trait to be Qualified as a Strength?

In order to be qualified as one, a character strength must meet the following criteria:

  • A trait that is universally recognized
  • Contributes to fulfillment and satisfaction
  • A trait that is valued in and of itself and not by the outcomes that may follow
  • Elevates observers and doesn’t diminish anyone
  • Every culture looks up to people who exude these traits
  • Some children will show signs of these strengths from an early stage
  • They’re incredibly embodied in some people
  • Can be missing altogether in some individuals

Check out the 24 Strengths

 

24 strengths table

(Source Michelle McQuaid)

Can you identify some of your strengths by looking at the image above? (share yours in the comment section, will you?)

To  take the survey and find out your signature strengths, head here

Benefits

Studies show that these strengths of character are associated with well-being and, specifically with life satisfaction.

Life satisfaction is the more cognitive evaluation we make of our lives as a whole. It also takes into account the absence of psychological and social issues like depression or toxic relationships.

People who are satisfied with life:

  • Are good at problem-solving
  • Show better performance in the workplace
  • Are physically healthier

Are All Strengths Equally Related to Life Satisfaction?

The answer is no.

According to Seligman and Peterson, the strengths of the heart – especially hope and zest – are consistently associated with life satisfaction.

Love—manifest in reciprocated close relationships—is the domain in which ongoing life plays itself out in the most fulfilling way.

– Diener & Seligman

And, the more intellectual strengths – appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgment, love of learning – are more weakly correlated with life satisfaction.

Research done by Scott Barry Kaufman shows that hope, gratitude, and love show the strongest association to well-being.

And prudence, judgment, and self-regulation scored lower levels of correlation to well-being.

The least fulfilling character strength was modesty.

Can We Overuse Our Strengths?

The participants in the strengths study by Seligman and Peterson were asked if they ever got into trouble from overusing their strengths.

More than 90% said yes. But all of them said they wouldn’t want to change because the strengths are “who they are”. And they figured it’s a small price to pay, that allows them to stay true to themselves.

According to the results of the study, there was no evidence that “too much” of a character strength was ever associated with lower life satisfaction.

Quite the contrary, the stronger the strength the higher the satisfaction reported.

Keep in mind that this was a result of a self-assessment, so the accuracy of it is difficult to grasp.

If you’re wondering if you overuse a certain strength, you probably have a good idea about it.

You can ask yourself:

  • How is this strength serving me to the extent that I’m using it?
  • And is it making a more flexible person or more rigid in my patterns?
  • Do I use it to avoid issues?

Wrapping it Up

The Character Strengths and Values is a systematic classification of positive traits, admired across cultures.

These positive traits are associated with life satisfaction and well-being.

Understanding your strengths will allow you to, first acknowledge some of the values that guide your behavior.

That knowledge can provide helpful insights into the types of activities, hobbies and even work that best suits your personality and needs.

It also helps in job interviews and first dates: can you imagine replacing the common:

So, what do you do?

With:

So, What are Your Strengths?

Does that scream psychology nerd?

 

Big hug,

Catarina

References

Kaufman, S. B. (2016). Which character strengths are most predictive of well-being? Retrieved here.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603–619. 

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