What’s Right With You: How to Discover Your Personal Strengths

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.

Discover Your StrengthsWant to know one of the top ways to put more meaning, satisfaction and joy into your life?  Identify your signature strengths and bring them into play in as many ways as you can.

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:

Core VirtuesWisdom and Knowledge
Humanity and Love
Spirituality and Transcendence”

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?

Working OnlineYou 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



The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview

The 24 personal strengths listed here are the character traits that express our core values. When we use and develop them in the various areas of our lives, we feel energized, purposeful, and real.

The 24 personal strengths listed here are the character traits that express our core values.   When we use and develop them in the various areas of our lives, we feel energized, purposeful, and real.

The strengths are organized according to the six core virtues that appear in the major religious and philosophical traditions across the centuries.  To live in alignment with them, these belief systems agree,  is truly to live the Good Life.

To learn how to identify your key strengths, see: What’s Right With You: Discover Your Personal Strengths.

Wisdom and Knowledge

  • Curiosity/Interest in the World: You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.
  • Love of Learning: You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.
  • Judgment/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.
  • Creativity/Ingenuity/ Originality/Practical Intelligence/Street Smarts: Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.
  • Social Intelligence/Personal Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence: You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations and you know what to do to put others at ease.
  • Perspective (Wisdom): Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.


  • Valor and Bravery: You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.
  • Perseverance/Industry/Diligence: You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.
  • Integrity/Genuineness/Honesty: You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.

Humanity and Love

  • Kindness and Generosity: You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.
  • Loving and Allowing Oneself to be Loved: You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.


  • Citizenship/Duty/Teamwork/Loyalty: You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.
  • Fairness and Equity: Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.
  • Leadership: You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.


  • Self-Control: You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.
  • Prudence/Discretion/Caution: You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.
  • Humility and Modesty: You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.


  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
  • Gratitude: You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.
  • Hope/Optimism/Future-Mindedness: You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.
  • Spirituality/Sense of Purpose/Faith/Religiousness: You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.
  • Forgiveness and Mercy: You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.
  • Playfulness and Humor: You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.
  • Zest/Passion/Enthusiasm: Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.
VIA Classification  © by The VIA Institute on Character

Positivity: The Bounce-Back Factor

While investing in positivity has its immediate rewards—a richer, deeper, healthier, happier and more satisfying life—like a star, it really shines when the skies are dark.

Seedling Grows in Brick CracksBesides how great you feel when it’s fueling your life, another reason to keep practicing positivity is the resilience it provides you when you collide with one of  Murphy’s Laws.

The positive factors you build into your experience are what life and executive coach Eleanor Chin calls the “durable personal goods,” resources you can tap when you’re traveling a patch of road where happiness is scarce.

Emergency Provisions

Having a good measure of positivity under your belt is like having a full emergency pantry when a blizzard strikes.  You can dig around in the dark and find a flashlight or a candle.  The shelves at the store might be bare, but you have a can opener and a good stash of baked beans.

Positivity researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson discovered that people who enjoyed more positivity in their lives were better prepared to deal with life’s challenges—even the heart-rending, tragic ones, the ones that devastate us.

Coping with 9/11

After the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, Fredrickson found that while people with a history of positivity felt the same fear, anger and sadness as everyone else, they coped much better.

They were better at accessing feelings of inspiration and awe over the way people came together and reached out to help one another.  Their levels of compassion outstripped even their anger, sadness and fear.  They could access more optimism about the future, despite the devastating events, and greater curiosity about unfolding world affairs.  And even though life had dealt us all a crushing blow, positive people were quicker to get back up.

The Crucial Factor

In fact, Dr. Fredrickson found that positivity was the crucial factor that determined someone’s resilience.  Summing up her data, she says, “In short, we discovered that resilience and positivity go hand-in-hand.  Without positivity, there is no rebound.

Positivity contributes to a strengthened sense of self-reliance and self-esteem, both qualities of resilient personalities.  It leads you to develop your awareness of your personal value system, to know what really matters to you, and teaches you to exercise your values in all the arenas of your life.  When the chips are down, you know where to put your focus and which of your personal strengths, Chin’s “durable personal goods,” will best serve you.

Positive people connect with others easily.  They’re able to tap their networks when they need help or support for themselves or for others.

Positive people tend to have goals and to have projects cooking; they’re proactive.  They have experience in facing and overcoming practical challenges.  They know the power of patience and perseverance in getting things done.  And they have a hardy sense of playfulness, too, that brings the grace of light-heartedness to stressful situations.

While investing in positivity has its immediate rewards—a richer, deeper, healthier, happier and more satisfying life—like a star, it really shines when the skies are dark.  It adds bounce to your step when things are going well, and bounce-back when you need it the most.


Four Simple Phrases That Change Everything

Because your heart and mind are no longer constricted by negativity, you discover that you are more creative and inventive, more open to the broad range of possibilities that each moment holds . . .

MantraI first learned about the four phrases of Dr. Hew Len’s Ho’oponopono (Ho-oh-pono-pono) in 2007 through Dr. Joe Vitale’s book, Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More.   In the book, Vitale describes how he came across a story that seemed to him wholly unbelievable.

According to the story, a Hawaiian psychiatrist, Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, had cured the entire population of a prison’s mental ward without ever encountering a single inmate face to face.  Instead, Dr. Hew Len, performed a process he called “cleaning” as he sat in his office and reviewed each of the inmates’ medical charts.

As reported, the story seemed ludicrous.  It flew not only in the face of science, but of common sense.  Surely some part of the narrative was missing, Vitale thought.  And yet he was intrigued.  If it was true as it stood, he had to find out more about what seemed a genuinely miraculous process.  And that’s exactly what he did, and exactly what he found.

The book is a great read, and I recommend it.  But the heart of it is that Dr Hew Len’s process, evolved from the ancient Hawaiian spiritual tradition of Ho’oponopono, consists in mindfully repeating four simple phrases:

I’m sorry.
Please forgive me.
Thank you.
I love you.

It doesn’t matter whether you think you are saying them to God, Source, Spirit, the Universe, your Higher Self, or your inner mind.  It only matters that you say them sincerely, from your heart.  Direct them in the way that has the most meaning for you.

You can chant all four together as a mantra, or repeat a single phrase in response to whatever perception or thought you find yourself entertaining.

The Practice

Begin by simply repeating the four phrases together:  I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  Thank you.  I love you.  I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  Thank you.  I love you.

Repeat them as you walk, as you drive, as you go about your daily tasks.  Let them become the default state of mind for you, replacing the random rambling of your ordinary thoughts.  Play with them over the span of a month; make the mantra your grand obsession.  Watch how it opens you and frees you as you put it into play.

Restoring Positivity

“I’m Sorry.  Please Forgive Me.”

If your goal is to focus on the positive—on those things that produce satisfaction, meaning, serenity, and joy—and you notice that you have been lost in replaying an argument you had with someone, or that you are wrapped in images of hurt, criticism, complaint or blame, you can instantly refocus by repeating, “I’m sorry.  Please forgive me,” from your heart until you feel a sense of peace.

“Thank You.  I Love You.”

Then, as peace enters you – and if you are genuine in asking for forgiveness, peace will indeed enter – you can respond to it with “Thank you.  I love you.”  Your thanks is for the gift of recognizing the negative thought, and for the relief that came when you chose to apologize for it.  Your love is an appreciation for choosing to let go of the negative, to embrace the healing, the cleansing of it from your mind.  And with your sincere utterance of gratitude and love, you set off a wave of joy.

You Are Responsible

According to the teachings of Ho’oponopono (and just about every other system of well-being as well), you are responsible for everything that you experience.  Everything you see, think, notice, hear and feel is a creation of your own mind.  All your reactions and interpretations are of your making, based in memories from the past.

Have you become upset?  Are you irritated? Pressured? Repulsed?  Disgusted? Distressed?  Accept that you are reacting to nothing but memory, apologize and ask forgiveness, over and over and over again, until you feel release.  Then give thanks for the grace that cleansed your mind and freed you from the weight of your burden.

Heartfelt I'm SorryCircumstances arise that expose us to our shadows, to the places in us where darkness dwells.  They come as teachers, to give us an opportunity to see our errors of interpretation and to shine the correcting light of truth on them.  Ho’oponopono’s mantra brings the correcting light.  It’s not necessary to understand what caused the darkness or why; you only need to release it, and the mantra ushers in the release.

When a troublesome person enters your sphere, he or she, too, has come to teach you peace and joy.  As you watch your automatic negative reactions rise, begin your inner mantra.  “I’m sorry that I react to this person so negatively.  I’m sorry that I have closed my heart and mind.  I’m sorry that I’m not really listening, that I’m not seeing the person behind the behavior.  Please forgive me.  I’m sorry.  Thank you.  I love you.”

Seeking ForgivenessWhether you think so at the moment or not, on some level you love even the annoying or threatening one who is standing before you. In different circumstances, at a different time, you would clearly see what is there to be loved.  Repeat “I love you” as you listen to the rant.  See how it calms and centers you.  See how it softens the moment.  See how it impacts and transforms not only you but the one who came to teach you in the first place.

Moments of Beauty and Joy

When you first begin the practice of reciting this mantra, you may find that many repetitions are needed before you feel it doing its work in you.  But after you have some experience, a single whisper of “I’m sorry” will immediately dissolve your negativity and leave a bright and peaceful positivity in its place.

Your “thank you” will steadily grow more heartfelt and more joyful, and the “I love you” will pour from you in sparkling streams.  More of your moments will be spent in positivity—in engagement, amusement, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration and awe.  Then the “thank you; I love you” becomes a vehicle for the up-welling of pleasure and delight, a means for expressing your genuine gratitude for life’s boundless goodness and grace.

Thank You! I Love You!Expanded Possibilities

When you are no longer reacting to the present moment on the basis of something you learned or experienced in the past—whether the ‘past’ was two seconds or decades ago—you are released to live in the present.  You begin to see things as they are, uncolored by your projections and interpretations.

And because your heart and mind are no longer constricted by negativity, you discover that you are more creative and inventive, more open to the broad range of possibilities that each moment holds, more playful, more at peace.  In a word, you become happier.  And isn’t that, after all, what each of us truly wants?


Your Best Possible Self

Bright FutureWhen you gaze along your time line toward your future, how bright does it look?

How vivid is the picture?  How much promise does it hold?

When your vision of the future holds the possibility of excitement and fulfillment for you, it not only casts a glow on your present, but it shapes your current decisions in a way that makes the fulfillment of its promise more likely.

Chances are you expect your future to work out reasonably well.  You have a loose sense of how you would like to be living, what you would like to have achieved, what areas of your life will have blossomed two, three, five years down the road.

But, since it’s in the future, and you have no way of knowing what will happen between now and then, you probably haven’t invested much of yourself in fleshing out the details of the picture.

What would happen if you did?  What if you invested some time in creating a full-blown image of the way your life would look five years down the road if everything went spectacularly well for you between now and then?

That’s what Professor Laura King at the University of Missouri-Columbia set out to discover back in 2001.  She pioneered the first experimental study of optimism by having a group of participants do what’s come to be known as the Best Possible Self exercise—and that’s the Positivity Practice we’re going to explore today.

I’ll describe the exercise first, and then share with you the fabulous benefits you can expect to gain by doing it yourself.  Here’s how it works:

The Practice

If you haven’t yet started a Positivity Journal, now’s the perfect time.  In any case, dedicate some paper or electronic space to doing this practice.  Here’s how:

1. Carve out 20 minutes where you can write undisturbed.  Have a way to time yourself and stick with it for the full 20 minutes.   Even if at first it feels like a daunting challenge, once you begin, you will find yourself relaxing and getting into the flow.

2. Select a future time frame: two years from now, three, five, ten—whatever feels good to you.  Sit quietly for a moment with your eyes closed, relaxing and watching your breath.  When you feel centered in yourself, begin writing whatever comes to mind about the Best Possible Self you can imagine in the future point that you chose.

Now here’s the good part:  Imagine that everything has gone wonderfully well for you, that you put worked toward you goals with diligence, patience, persistence and playfulness.  And now you have manifested your own best potentials and created your life dreams. What would your life be like then?  Write for 20 minutes about this Best Possible Self.

3. Stop at the end of 20 minutes, sit quietly again, allowing what you have written to settle inside you, and then put your work aside.

4. Over the course of the next four weeks, add to your vision whenever you feel like it, taking as much or as little time as you like.

You may want to use our Dream Creation Diagram to broaden your picture so it includes everything you might want it to hold.

What You’ll Gain

  • To sustain positivity at a high level in your life, says the godfather of happiness research, Martin Seligman, you need to cultivate it in all three segments of your time line: past, present and future.  By doing The Best Possible Self practice, you create the most positive future for yourself that you can imagine .
  • In addition, you will probably find that, like the participants in the studies who utilized this practice, you’ll feel an immediate boost in your mood right now, in the present, be happier several weeks afterward, and even have fewer physical symptoms three months down the road.
  • The practice is far more than an indulgence of your imagination.  By helping you clarify your ideals, it motivates you to be your best possible self today, to see the path ahead more clearly and to make decisions in alignment with your goals.
  • The very act of writing forces you to slow down and really think about your ideals.  Because it is a structured activity, it leads you to organize your thoughts, to clarify and crystallize them.  It helps you see where some of your goals might conflict with each other, leading you to think them through and prioritize or adapt them.
  • The practice also gives you a new window into yourself, a fresh way of seeing your feelings, your motives, and what’s really important to you.  It also provides you with an enhanced  sense of control about your future course, strengthening your optimism, and adds meaning to your life experiences as you gain insight about what you can be doing in the present to move you toward your ideals.

Those are some pretty powerful benefits to gain for the mere investment of your time.  If you play with this practice diligently, at the end of the four weeks you will have gained far more than you would from a self-development program costing you hundreds of  dollars or more.  And the insights you’ll gain will be all the more powerful because you generated them yourself.

*               *               *

Thanks to Sonja Lyubomsirsky and her book  The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want for her description of this practice and its proven results.   A veritable treasure trove of positivity practices, Sonja’s book is a great resource for anyone who’s interested in  creating a more exhilarating, meaningful life.