“Using our strengths is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference,” says founder of Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), Alex Linley.
The idea has been around for centuries: To live our best life, we need to play to our strengths. Aristotle said so 300 years BCE. But when asked, only about a third of us can name our own best strengths.
Can you? Do you know what your top strengths are? Can you spot them in your partner? Your kids? Your best friends?
How might it impact your life—and theirs—if you could?
That’s what this post is all about.
Why Strengths Matter
When you’re aware of your strengths, you can leverage them to create a happier, more authentic, fulfilling, engaged and productive life. And isn’t that what we’re all after?
Not only that, but when we put our strengths to use, doing what we do best and most joyously, we contribute more to our families, communities and, indeed, the entire world.
Recognizing and encouraging others’ strengths enables them to be their best as well. When you notice and openly appreciate the strengths of your partner, child, coworkers or friends, they feel truly seen and uplifted.
In fact, in his book Average to A+, Dr. Linley makes a strong case for the proposition that we have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to civilization itself to use and develop our strengths.
What Are Strengths, Exactly?
All living things share the tendency to grow, to develop, and to realize their potential, humans included. Each of us has within ourselves a kind of internal compass that directs us toward the paths that will lead us toward becoming the best that we can be, that provides us with a sense of what is right for ourselves. To the extent that we follow its guidance, we live authentically, in harmony with our unique individual self.
Our strengths represent our alignment with that internal compass. They’re signaled by our personal combinations of interests, natural capabilities and preferences. And it’s when we put them to use in our lives that we feel most authentic, energized and fulfilled, confident that we’re being who we were meant to be.
The scientific study of strengths is a relatively new field and so far only some have been named that meet the researchers’ strict definitions of “strengths.” The VIA Strength list counts 24; the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) names 60. But the list is expanding all the time and researches agree there are probably hundreds of strengths.
In practical terms, it doesn’t really matter what you decide to call a strength. Dr. Linley says that whether you can name a strength succinctly in one or two words or not, it will have the same impact if the label you give it is meaningful for you. So feel free to make up your own labels for your strengths.
When you’re working towards spotting a strength in somebody else, check with them when you think you have identified one and see if they agree on your description of what you observed. People love to have their strengths noticed and identified, and looking for others’ strengths will help you been more aware of your own and of the ways that all of our strengths contribute to the world.
The key to identifying your strengths is to think about the kinds of things that make you feel most alive, that feel like “the real you.” They’re the sorts of things that you look forward to doing, that catch your interest the most, that you learn most easily and do quite naturally and well.
Here are some other clues that Linley says you can use for spotting strengths:
- You feel really energized and engaged and may lose track of time when you use them.
- You learn new information or skills quickly in the areas associated with your strengths.
- You tend to succeed when you use them and to do well
- You don’t procrastinate about things associated with them; in fact areas involving your strength have a great appeal and you tend to give them priority attention and time
- You love using them, even when you’re tired or stressed or otherwise worn down.
Strengths Surveys You Can Take
Positive psychologists are hard at work to identify strengths formally and have developed formal assessments that you can take that will tell you what your strengths are. The classic measure is called the “VIA (Values in Action) Inventory of Strengths”, and you can take it online for free here. This survey measures 24 strengths that are rooted in your core values. (See “What’s Right with You: How to Discover Your Personal Strengths,” and “The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview.”)
For a small fee, you can take the interesting “Realise2” strengths assessment from CAPP that measures 60 strengths. I strongly recommend the Premium Profile for the additional information it gives you. You can read about its enhanced features at the site. The Standard Profile is fine, too. (I am not affiliated with either survey or organization, by the way, and receive no commissions from them.)
While you’re at the CAPP website, take advantage of the free downloads of additional strengths and strength-spotting information under the “Resources” tab. And be sure to check out the “Strengths Dynamics” tab at the site where Alex Linley publishes interesting new strengths-related essay every two weeks. Regardless which strengths are yours, his tips give you great ways to apply them.
Personally, I found both the VIA and Realise2 assessments extremely valuable in terms of the insights they gave me. Both did an excellent job of identifying strengths that I heartily agreed were really “me,” and knowing them felt genuinely empowering.
The top strength the VIA assessment identified for me was “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence,” and CAPP’s Realise2 assessment identified my top strength as “Scribe.” Obviously, I love writing, and I love promoting excellence here at Positive-Living-Now, and sharing my love of beauty with you at High on Happiness. Each survey captured a different side of me and I related to them both.
The additional strengths the surveys named for me validated other aspects of my life that I highly value and consider central to who I am.
That’s what identifying strengths does for you: it validates and encourages you. It confirms your sense of who you are and that you’re on the right track.
Start thinking about your own strengths today. What values and activities turn you on the most? See if you can names some, then take the assessments so you can think about your strengths in depth.
As Lindley said, it’s a small thing to do, but it can make a really big difference—both in how you see yourself and in how you live your life.
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VIA Classification © by The VIA Institute on Character Photo: istockphoto.com