You can achieve more success by fully leveraging your strengths than by shoring up your weaknesses.
Spend twenty minutes to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths on the Authentic Happiness site.
Find opportunities to apply your strengths in everything you do. You’ll be happier.
Do it. It works.
Christopher Peterson, the godfather of personal strengths research, died this month, leaving behind a treasure trove of findings and insights.
Chris deems character strengths as the foundation of humanity, and strength-congruent activity as a key route to the good life.
Peterson defines character as “a family of individual differences…distinct strengths that people possess to varying degrees.” He states that character is malleable, measurable and subject to numerous influences.
When speaking with Chris, he always seemed to shift the attention to me, making me feel not only that I had something to learn from him, but also that he had something to learn from me.
Like Aristotle, Peterson asserts that we can cultivate character. But there are no shortcuts. Only through regular practice can we make sustainable changes, create new habits, and improve our happiness. However, in order to mark our progress, we must be able to measure our character.
Peterson’s Values in Action (VIA) Classification is a conceptual and empirical tool that features explicit criteria for twenty-four universal character strengths. It is in the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics by emphasizing the moral excellence of the individual.
Once we become aware of our top strengths (dubbed “signature strengths”), we can craft interventions and apply them to our daily lives to further build good character and increase thriving. If love, gratitude, zest, and hope don’t already rank among our top strengths Peterson recommends we practice these strengths as well because they are most highly correlated with flourishing.
Peterson refers to personality as “the story we tell about ourselves” and asserts, “all too often, redemption is the narrative we tell.” He suggests we change that by looking at our lives as a story of triumph and strengths. As William James argued, by shifting our attention we have the potential to create healthy habits, cultivate character, and improve happiness. So, why not focus on the good and celebrate our strengths?
Asked for useful tips, Chris said “Be mindful of what I call strengths occasions, and rise to them. Also, practice, practice, practice.”
Marty Seligman on applying your strengths and increasing Flow:
In the Newsletter, Ryan Niemic provides a research update on character strengths.
- The most commonly endorsed character strengths reported around the world are (in descending order) kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, and judgment while the least endorsed character strengths are prudence, modesty, and self-regulation (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006). This study is currently being updated by a leading personality researcher with a larger subject pool and more countries.
- The character strength most related to achievement seems to be perseverance; however, several other strengths emerge repeatedly including self-regulation, hope, fairness, and gratitude, to name a few (Lounsbury et al., 2009; Park & Peterson, 2008; Park & Peterson, 2009).
- In terms of positive health, several specific character strengths have been studied over the years and are connected with greater health (e.g., gratitude). When an individual has a physical disorder, there is less of a toll on life satisfaction if the person ranks high on the character strengths of bravery, kindness, and humor. For psychological disorders, there is less of a toll on life satisfaction if they rank high on the character strengths of appreciation of beauty & excellence and love of learning (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2006).
- Strengths buffer people from vulnerabilities (Huta & Hawley, 2010). The character strength of hope appears to be one of the strongest factors in this area. Hope, zest, and leadership were substantially related to fewer problems with anxiety and depression (Park & Peterson, 2008).
- The character strengths most associated with the meaning route to happiness are spirituality, gratitude, hope, zest, and curiosity; those most associated with the engagement route to happiness are zest, curiosity, hope, perseverance, and perspective. Lastly, those most associated with the pleasure route to happiness are humor, zest, hope, social intelligence, and love (Peterson et al., 2007). In general, the “Big 5 Happiness Strengths” those life satisfaction character strengths most correlated with well-being, in repeated studies are hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and love (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004; Peterson et al., 2007; Proctor, Maltby, & Linley, 2009; Ruch et al., 2007; Shimai et al., 2006).
The character strengths:
Wisdom and Knowledge – Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
- Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it
- Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering
- Judgment [critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly
- Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; obviously related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows
- Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people
Courage – Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal
- Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it
- Perseverance [persistence, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks
- Honesty [authenticity, integrity]: Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions
- Zest [vitality, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated
Humanity – Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
- Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people
- Kindness [generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, "niceness"]: Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
- Social Intelligence [emotional intelligence, personal intelligence]: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick
Justice – Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
- Teamwork [citizenship, social responsibility, loyalty]: Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group; doing one’s share
- Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others; giving everyone a fair chance.
- Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done, and at the same time maintaining good relations within the group; organizing group activities and seeing that they happen.
Temperance – Strengths that protect against excess
- Forgiveness: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful
- Humility: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is
- Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
- Self-Regulation [self-control]: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions
Transcendence – Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
- Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience
- Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks
- Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about
- Humor [playfulness]: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes
- Spirituality [faith, purpose]: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort
Character strengths and business
- The most recognized intervention with character strengths is “use your signature strengths in new ways.” This exercise involves having participants identify their highest strengths by taking the VIA Survey and then use one of these strengths in a new way each day. This has become a quintessential intervention in the practice of positive psychology since the first study found increases in well-being and decreases in depression for six months (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
- Engaged employees are involved, enthusiastic, and further their organization’s interests. Survey research finds that the majority of employees are disconnected or disengaged from their work. Disengagement leads to poor performance and lower productivity while employee engagement leads to higher performance and productivity. A 3-year analysis of employee engagement by Crabb (2011) found that one of the primary drivers of employee engagement in organizations is the deployment of character strengths. Crabb refers to the practice as focusing strengths and explains that the key strategies for employers are to assess employee strengths, have a conversation with the employee regarding their agreement or disagreement with the findings, find ways for the employee to use their strengths in the organization, and create ongoing support in the organization. Employers are encouraged to ask the question: “What opportunities are there within the employee’s job and the organization to foster his or her character strengths further?”
- Examples of strength-based practices embedded in PPT include the forgiveness letter, using one’s signature strengths to offer the gift of time, and the one door closes, another door opens strategy to boost the strength of hope.
The front-end of Chris Peterson’s seminal book (2004), co-authored with Marty Seligman, is online. If you are hungry for scientific backup, an explanation of where these strengths come from, moral issues, Biblical references, other religions, previous studies, and Howard Gardner, get a copy. Here is the companion web site. The site has lots of interesting findings, for instance:
- Using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
Individuals who use their character strengths experienced greater well-being, which was related to both physical and mental health. Strengths use was a unique predictor of subjective well-being after self-esteem and self-efficacy were controlled for (Proctor, Maltby, & Linley, 2009).
More research findings
- Employees who used four or more of their signature strengths had more positive work experiences and work-as-a-calling than those who expressed less than four (Harzer & Ruch, 2012a).
- Regardless of which character strengths are used, the congruent use of strengths in the situational circumstances at work is important for fostering job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in one’s job (i.e., the alignment of one’s signature strengths with work activities is what matters; Harzer & Ruch, 2012b).
- Across occupations, curiosity, zest, hope, gratitude, and spirituality are the Big 5 strengths associated with work satisfaction (Peterson et al., 2010).The most prevalent character strengths in human beings in descending order are kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, judgment (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).The least prevalent character strengths in human beings are prudence, modesty, and self-regulation (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).
- The 5 character strengths most highly related to life satisfaction are hope (r = .53), zest (r = .52), gratitude (r = .43), curiosity (r = .39), and love (r = .35). These strengths consistently and repeatedly show a robust, consistent relationship with life satisfaction (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). The correlations given were from a sample of 3907 individuals; see article for data on two additional samples.
- The character strengths least related to life satisfaction (weak association) are modesty/humility, creativity, appreciation of beauty & excellence, judgment/open-mindedness, and love of learning (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).
- The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005).
- Strengths of character most associated with life satisfaction were associated with an orientation of pleasure, engagement, and meaning (“the full life”; Peterson et al., 2007).
- The character strengths most associated with the meaning route to happiness are religiousness, gratitude, hope, zest, and curiosity (Peterson et al., 2007).
- The character strengths most associated with the engagement route to happiness are zest, curiosity, hope, perseverance, and perspective (Peterson et al., 2007).
- The character strengths most associated with the pleasure route to happiness are humor, zest, hope, social intelligence, and love (Peterson et al., 2007).
The things on this list, and their sequence, haven’t changed much over the years. The top three are always the top 3.
Here are all my strengths — and weaknesses — in order, from taking the 2012 VIA Strengths Survey. 2003 ranks are in parentheses. The top five are spot on. Red indicates “not me at all” — my “unmotivated skills.” Text following “|” is how I identify with each item.
Creativity, ingenuity, and originality (1) 99th percentile
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. | My hallmark.
Curiosity and interest in the world (2) 99th percentile
You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery. | Yes, yes, yes.
Love of learning (3) 99th percentile
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. | Not school, but reading and museums.
Bravery and valor (4) 97th percentile
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. | True.
Humor and playfulness (6)
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. | Yes, although people often don’t get my jokes.
Perspective (wisdom) (7).
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. | This feels right.
Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness (9)
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. | Yes, I change my mind about things. Some question how solid my evidence is.
Zest, enthusiasm, and energy (5)
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. | This is true.
Appreciation of beauty and excellence (8)
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. | Yes.
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. | Not naturally. I have to work on this.
Kindness and generosity (16)
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. | Yes, I help individuals where I can.
Citizenship, teamwork, and loyalty (14)
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. | No, I am more often a loner, not a team player.
Honesty, authenticity, and genuineness (18)
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. | I try.
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. | My work history disagrees.
Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness (15)
You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control. | Somewhat. All one level, we are all but pebbles in a stream.
Social intelligence (19)
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. | No, I am often totally blind to this. Lots of people misread me and vice-versa. A decided weakness.
Capacity to love and be loved (10)
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. | Can’t evaluate. I love a number of people. I’m neutral toward most.
Fairness, equity, and justice (20)
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. | No, I am more elitist than this.
Forgiveness and mercy (17)
You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge. | Not always. I don’t work with assholes or toxic personalities.
Self-control and self-regulation (21)
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. | Disciplined? Not hardly. I can blow off a month or two without realizing it.
Caution, prudence, and discretion (22)
You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret. | No, not me at all. I take stupid risks and often color outside the lines.
Industry, diligence, and perseverance (11)
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. | No. I am easily distracted. I’ve started many personal projects that never made it to the finish line. I keep customer commitments but not personal ones.
Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith (23)
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. | No, I am a-spiritual, a non-believer, a skeptic of the first order.
Modesty and humility (24)
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. | This is not me. I am a braggart and self-promoter.
My calling is to make at least a million people in business happier. More information.