Over and over again, that’s what the positive psychologists say. Your personal strengths reflect your core values and provide you with a sure sense of direction. They energize and satisfy you and let you feel real and whole. Living in alignment with them is living well.
When you put your values into action through the expression of your strengths, you’re living authentically, from your heart. And that is where the deepest joy is.
But what, exactly, is a strength? How is it different from a skill or a talent? How can you discover your own top strengths?
“A Classification of the Sanities”
A little over a decade ago, when Dr. Martin Seligman was initiating the field of positive psychology, he realized he needed a way to define the qualities demonstrated by psychologically healthy, thriving people—to come up with what he called “a classification of the sanities.”
Toward this end, he recruited Dr. Christopher Peterson, director of the clinical psychology program at University of Michigan and a world authority on optimism and hope, to lead a study that would result in an authoritative classification and measurement system for the human strengths.
“One of the first tasks that Cris set,” Dr. Seligman writes in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, “was for several of us to read the basic writings of all the major religious and philosophical traditions in order to catalog what each claimed were the virtues, then see if any showed up in almost every tradition.”
To their surprise, “almost every single one of the traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues:
But while these characteristics were almost universally endorsed as the qualities that make up the good life, they were too abstract to measure in human behavior. So the next step was to identify the measurable strengths that were the means through which these virtues were expressed. Dr. Seligman calls them the routes to the virtues; by walking the paths the strengths described, you become virtuous—a good human being.
Next, the Seligman-Peterson team developed criteria to define what a “strength” is, and finally ended up with two dozen traits that qualified. At last they had their “classification of sanities,” and from this base, the whole science of positive psychology has evolved.
Strengths, Talents and Abilities
Strengths are moral traits, traits of character that people can acquire and build. Talents, on the other hand, are inborn gifts. If you have a talent, you can hone and refine it to some degree. But if it’s not a part of your personal make-up, you can’t will yourself to acquire it. You either have a talent or you don’t.
Like strengths, abilities are acquired. But while they may provide you with a sense of competency and allow you to perform adequately in a given role, unless they’re related to one of your signature strengths, they don’t necessarily bring you satisfaction or joy. You can learn, for example, to be a highly competent engineer or accountant or assembly line worker and discover you really don’t like the work at all.
Strengths make you feel good when you use them. Because they represent your core values—the things you deeply and authentically care about—they give you a sense of purpose; they feel meaningful and satisfying. They’re inspiring and elevating. And when you put your own best strengths into action, you feel like you’re being “the real you.”
Why Should I Identify My Strengths?
Once you know your key strengths, you’re empowered to find more and more ways to employ them. You can begin to look for opportunities to express them in all the arenas of your life, becoming more and more authentic and heart-centered in all you do. The value-centered life is the good life—as identified across the centuries and across the world’s cultures.
How Can I Find Out My Personal Signature Strengths?
You can take the VIA Character Survey at no cost at two places online: here and here. You only need to register, and your privacy is assured. The survey is nearly identical at both places, and both sites are worth exploring for their host of additional resources.
The Survey is composed of 240 questions and takes 30-40 minutes to complete. Even if (like me!) you ordinarily dislike completing surveys of your preferences, it’s well worth your time to make the effort. You get your results back right away, with a list of your personal strengths ranked in order.
When you do, focus on your top five personal strengths. Take a look at the in-depth description of them that you’ll find under the “Classification” tab at the VIA Institute on Character site. (Personally, I thought this was especially rewarding—as if someone was describing me the way I really see myself, deep down.)
See which of your top five feel most like you and whether one or two maybe don’t resonate with you with quite as much power. Dr. Seligman suggests that you ask yourself some questions about your top five strengths:
- How attractive is each one to you?
- How easily did you acquire it? Did it seem automatic? Second nature?
- How strong is your desire to use it in more ways in your life?
- How much energy does it give you when use it?
- How much joy, zest, enthusiasm and even ecstasy do you feel when you’re using it?
The ones that have the most of these qualities are your “signature strengths.” You’ll want to focus on bringing them into play in as many ways as you can because you’ll feel so good, so alive and so real when you do.
Set aside the time to take the survey as soon as you can. It’s one of the most worthwhile and rewarding actions you can take to enrich your life and expand your well-being. I guarantee it.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Personal Strengths – An Expanding View
VIA Classification © by The VIA Institute on Character