“The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power or goodness.” ~ Martin Seligman
When Shannon (*) and I met for our first coaching session, she was frustrated, stuck in place and spinning her wheels. When she was in college, she planned for a career with a non-profit organization, preferably one that worked with children. Now in the work force, Shannon worked as a clerk in a retail store. “I’m not doing the job I worked toward for years,” she told me. “I am doing something I don’t enjoy just to pay the bills. I’m just going through the motions and I am not making any real difference. I want to explore what I need to do to maybe find a different job.”
I said to Shannon that one of the first things I wanted to do was to have her take an inventory of her strengths. “Well,” she said, “I’m good at planning and organizing. I frequently speak to groups and I’m pretty good at getting my points across. And I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I played in the band in both high school and college. I play the clarinet and the piano.”
“What you’re giving me is a list of your talents and skills,” I explained. “I’m talking about something else, your Signature Strengths.”
And so I introduced her to the VIA Character Strengths.
(* Name and some details have been changed.)
“…a measurement system for the human strengths”
Beginning in the years 1999 – 2000, a team led by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson started a process to catalog the qualities that allowed people to live well and flourish, similar to the way the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual (DSM) allowed psychologists to catalog the qualities of mental illness. Their goal was to compile “an authoritarian classification and measurement system for the human strengths.” [Seligman]
One of the first tasks they undertook was to read the writings of the world’s major religions and philosophies, to compare the virtues each one taught in order to discover if any common ideas appeared.
Seligman writes: “…we read Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas and Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido (the samurai code), the Koran, Benjamin Franklin, and the Upanishads — some two hundred virtue catalogues in all. To our surprise, almost every single one of these traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues.” [Seligman]
The six common virtues the group discovered are: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence. [Seligman]
Helping Well People Become Extraordinary
The group then delved further, defining 24 strengths through which the six virtues may be addressed. The virtues themselves are abstract ideas while the strengths can be acquired, practiced and measured. By identifying and using these 24 strengths, one can display the six virtues.
“Coaching,” said Thomas Leonard, the “father” of life coaching, “isn’t about making sick people well, it is about making well people extraordinary.” It’s not about going from -3 to -1. It is about moving from a +3 to a +6 (or +7 or +8). Discovering and using the character strengths helps accomplish this.
“Building strength and virtue is not about learning, training, or conditioning, but about discovery, creation, and ownership. My favorite positive ‘intervention’ is merely to ask you to take [the Strengths survey], then think about which of these strengths are the ones you own and how you might use them every day. Quite astonishingly, your own ingenuity and your desire to lead the good life often take over from there…” [Seligman]
How To Live The Good Life
While each of us has all 24 of the strengths to some extent, we typically use some more than others. The VIA Character Strengths assessment measures your tendencies for using all the strengths. The free Strengths Profile lists all 24 strengths beginning with your strongest down to the ones you use the least. The first five are designated your Signature Strengths.
Finding ways to use your Signature Strengths each day, in your work, in your relationships, in your hobbies and leisure time, and in your day-to-day interactions with others helps you to create a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose . . . in fact, the Excelerated Life.
“Herein is my formulation of the good life,” writes Seligman in Authentic Happiness. “Using your strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” [Seligman]
Shannon Uses Her Strengths
When Shannon completed the VIA Character Strengths assessment, she discovered her Signature Strengths to be: creativity, love of learning, appreciation of beauty and excellence, perspective, judgement and open mindedness.
During our coaching sessions, I helped Shannon explore ways to use her strengths in her current position and also consider other career opportunities where these strengths could be expressed. She eventually went back to school to earn a teaching certificate and became an elementary school teacher. She continues to develop ways to use her strengths often.
1.A. If you haven’t completed the VIA Signature Strengths assessment, take a few minutes to do so. The assessment is free though you do have to register at the site.
(For $20, you can get a full-blown in-depth report that covers all your strengths (signature strengths, middle strengths, and lower strengths). This report describes why using your strengths is important and provides suggestions for using your signature strengths and for further developing your middle and lesser strengths.)
1.B. If you have completed the VIA Signature Strengths assessment, find it and dust it off. Refresh your memory regarding your top strengths.
2. Once you know your Signature Strengths, develop a plan to begin using your strengths, or using them more. If you purchase the report from the VIA website, it contains suggestions for putting each strength into action. You can also find free information on the web for using your Signature Strengths.
For example, see “Develop Your Signature Strengths in 4 Steps“. [McQuaid]
3. Select a problem or obstacle you are facing. Decide how you can use one or more of your Signature Strengths to address the issue. Additionally, consider if overusing a strength has contributed to the problem.
Focus On Your Strengths
Unlike Shannon, you may not be stuck in a job that is not meaningful to you. Or maybe you are. In either case, why not look into making use of your individual signature strengths to begin creating a more meaningful and purposeful life?
Developing and using your strengths can help increase your happiness (at work and at home); improve your relationships; and make you a better parent, a better child, a better spouse, a better employee, and a better employer.
Many people tend to focus on what’s wrong, what needs “fixing”, to the point that they lose sight of their own good qualities and their strengths. I suggest you discover where your strengths lie, then put them to use to begin living the good life. That is embracing the Excelerated Life!
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Discovering and using your Signature Strengths is one step in creating your Excelerated Life, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
McQuaid, Michelle. “Develop Your Signature Strengths in 4 Steps.” Live Happy. Live Happy, LLC, Nov 6, 2017. Web. Dec. 3, 2018. <https://www.livehappy.com/work/develop-your-signature-strengths-4-steps>
Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002