A Balanced Approach To Using Character Strengths

Use your Signature Strengths to improve your life, building on positives and learning from the negatives but don’t neglect your other character strengths. If fact, you can use your signature strengths to practice and build up your lesser strengths to better use all of the strengths.

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character strengths

Strengths And Virtues

Signature Strengths are one of the foundational principles of positive psychology. Early proponents, including Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson, and others, combed through the wisdom literature of many of the world’s religions and philosophies. They identified six “virtues” that were common across all the cultures and thinking, ancient and modern, that they examined.

Then they identified 24 ways the six virtues are lived out. These they called strengths. We all embody all 24 of the strengths but we rely on and use our top 5 or 6 strengths more often and more naturally.

These top strengths they called “Signature Strengths”. Do you know yours? If not, you can find out here through this free assessment.

One question that some psychologists have brought up is this: Should we focus on the signature strengths or look for a balance among all the strengths?

Specialization Or Generalization?

For example, psychologist Todd Kashdan, writing in a blog post entitled “Is It a Good Idea To Build on Signature Strengths?”, says: “Should we be satisfied with a person who endorses bravery, social intelligence, curiosity, perseverance, and hope as their top 5 signature strengths? Should outstanding performances (at work) with these strengths offset a lack of kindness and wisdom?” [Kashdan]

In my case, Gratitude, Love Of Learning, Perspective, Hope, Forgiveness, and Love are signature strengths. But my so-called “lesser strengths” include Social Intelligence, Prudence, Perseverance and Bravery. I will miss out on Love of Learning if I don’t also have Perseverance to stick with a difficult subject. Without using Social Intelligence, my strength of Perspective won’t get me very far in providing “wise counsel to others”.[1] Showing Love or Forgiveness could be difficult or problematic for me if I don’t also make use of Prudence and Bravery.

And, for better or worse, some of the strengths are more highly valued than others in our culture. “A person who exemplifies the strength of being highly capable of both loving and being loved,” writes Kashdan, “but lacking in wisdom might be considered less worthy than someone with a modest level of both strengths.” [Kashdan]

The Weakest Link

When we focus on using our Signature Strengths and ignore our so-called “middle and lesser strengths”, we risk going against the adage that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. But is it even possible to use our top 5 or 6 Signature Strengths exclusively while ignoring the others? Are character strengths like learned skills, which allow us to get better with practice? Is it better to be well-rounded in all of the character strengths, using them more or less equally, rather than focusing on our Signature Strengths?

Strengths ≠ Skills

Using our top skills is not the same as using our top character strengths. Skills are learned, thus we have some but we don’t have others. Unlike skills, we all have all 24 of the character strengths to some degree. And, unlike using a learned skill, we don’t always consciously choose to use strengths – they come natural to us (one of the characteristics of a signature strength).

And character strengths research shows they are associated with “greater flourishing in life, achievement of goals, work productivity, physical health, and better relationships!” [Niemiec]

A Well-Rounded Approach

We know that we actually use all of the strengths but your Signature Strengths come more naturally. However, you are not limited to only those. In fact, research shows that your top character strengths can change and be changed over time with practice. [Niemiec] In fact, you can use your Signature Strengths to practice the lesser strengths to increase their use.

You can also use your other strengths to balance your use of your Signature Strengths. For example, I might use my “middle strength” of Creativity in association with Love Of Learning to look for new ideas at work and then come up with ways to implement them. Or I could use Self-Regulation to keep from bouncing from one thing to another (as I am prone to do).

Finally, if you desire to increase your abilities in using your lesser strengths, it “can be achieved by deliberate practice and by using your signature strengths to do so.” [1] Again, to use my Strengths Profile as an example, my lesser strengths include Prudence, Perseverance, Appreciation Of Beauty And Excellence, and Bravery. I might use my Signature Strength of Perspective (or wisdom) to help me exercise Prudence, to think through the consequences of a situation before I speak or act. Or my Love of family to enhance my Perseverance in working for our family’s well-being. And I can use Gratitude to express thanks when I follow through on using these lesser strengths and Forgiveness for myself when I don’t.

Actions

If you have your Strengths Profile, examine your list of strengths and the order in which they fall. Look at your top 5 or 6, your Signature Strengths, and also your bottom 4 or 5, your lesser strengths.

Now consider how your Signature Strengths show up in your daily life. Then take a few minutes to think about ways you could use them even more. Last, think of ways you could use your top strengths to enhance and improve the lower strengths that probably don’t come as naturally.

Finding Balance

Todd Kashdan writes that, in contrast to specializing and mastering a single skill, “balance in character and virtue might be critically important”. I agree that if you focus solely on your Signature Strengths and ignore the others, that is detrimental to a well-rounded individual. If you do that, you are also ignoring characteristics that could help achieve a life of meaning and well-being.

As Dr. Ryan Niemiec states: “All 24 of these strengths matter for you, they just matter for different purposes. There are no bad strengths.” [Niemiec] So celebrate and use your Signature Strengths – they are uniquely yours and you use them in ways that are unique to you. But remember your “middle” and “lesser” strengths as well. You have access to all of the skills and thus all of the virtues. Use them purposefully and use them well. That is embracing the Excelerated Life™!


Discovering and using your Signature Strengths is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being and a life of meaning, purpose and service.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Footnotes:

[1] This information comes from the “VIA Me Report”, which gives an in-depth analysis of all 24 of the strengths. It appears that this report is no longer offered by the VIA Institute, but has been replaced by other report formats. See more information here.

Resources:

Kashdan Ph.D., Todd B. “Is It a Good Idea To Build on Signature Strengths?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, February 01, 2016. Web. June 13, 2020.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/curious/201602/is-it-good-idea-build-signature-strengths

Niemiec, PhD., Ryan. “3 Surprising Facts about Strengths.” Strengths Basics. VIA Institute On Character, January 16, 2020. Web. July 31, 2020.
https://www.viacharacter.org/topics/articles/3-surprising-facts-about-strengths

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