Strengths In Adversity

Drawing on character strengths, and especially our Signature Strengths, gives us tools to deal with adversity and grow, even thrive (i.e., become “antifragile”), from the process. Using strengths in adversity provides three distinct techniques to positively deal with set backs, glitches, and failure.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But it almost kills you.” ~ Conan O’Brien

Opportunity Or Adversity: A Good Time To Use Your Strengths

I typically think about using my Signature Strengths to enhance positive emotions and experiences. But in addition to using them when life is going well, a person can draw on Signature Strengths during the hard times and difficulties of life. In fact, using strengths in adversity may be one of the most beneficial ways to live from your Strengths.

Character Strengths – A Brief Recap

Recall that one of the first tasks Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson set for themselves as they were envisioning a positive psychology, was to catalog the virtues of the world’s major religions and philosophies.

Seligman and Peterson (and a group of volunteers) surveyed wisdom literature across time and cultures. The group identified 6 virtues common to all:

  • wisdom & knowledge
  • courage
  • love & humanity
  • justice
  • temperance
  • spirituality & transcendence


Then, they further identified 24 strengths by which we achieve the six virtues. Strengths, they told us, are different from talents and skills. Character strengths have these characteristics:

  • They are traits – used in various situations over time.
  • Each is valued in its own right, not just for the results achieved.
  • The use of a strength by one person does not diminish other people. In fact observers often feel elevated and inspired.
  • We are able to identify paragons and role models of a strength.
  • Strengths are ubiquitous, valued by almost every culture around the world


“Character strengths are personality traits that are part of our identity and when expressed lead to positive outcomes for ourselves and others and contribute to the collective good . . .” [Niemiec]

Using Signature Strengths In Adversity

“Character strengths serve as those crucial influencers that help us embrace the positive, endure the mundane, and navigate and manage the struggles.” [Niemiec]

Life is a series of ups and downs – highs, lows and in-betweens. Hardships and disappointments are a given. However, opportunity and adversity are linked – like two sides of the same coin. A missed opportunity may lead to adversity. On the other hand, an adversity can be transmuted to an opportunity.

In order to thrive and grow, we must learn to accept adversity. And not only to accept it, but to use it, turning obstacles into stepping stones. “There is an important idea in Nietzsche,” says Joseph Campbell in The Power Of Myth, “of Amor fati, the ‘love of your fate,’ which is in fact your life. . . . the more challenging or threatening the situation or context to be assimilated and affirmed, the greater the stature of the person who can achieve it. The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.” [Campbell]

Our Signature Strengths (the 5 or 6 character strengths we score highest in) help us thrive, to perform well during good times and bad. Using our strengths, we can transform adversity into opportunity.

Ryan Niemiec, a leading researcher and writer in the field of character strengths and education director of the VIA Institute on Character, has identified distinct ways in which we can use our character strengths to deal with and grow from adversity. The “three adversity functions” are: buffering, reappraisal, and resilience. [Niemiec]

The Buffering Function

In the buffering function, we use our Strengths to prevent or mitigate problems. Research identifies four ways we can do this. Drawing on character strengths, we might directly resolve the issue or we may find ways to lessen its effects. Sometimes, we can undo a risk factor before it leads to the problem. Or we might disrupt the process by which a risk factor leads to the problem. [Niemiec]

The Reappraisal Function

Another way we use our character strengths to deal with adversity is to reappraise or reinterpret the issue. When we reappraise, we look at things – in this case a set back or problem – from a different perspective. [Niemiec] Character strengths provide a basis for seeing the issue with “new eyes”.

This approach to dealing with adversity may be used to reframe a current life challenge. It can also be used to reinterpret a past experience or to think differently about a future challenge. [Niemiec]

The Resilience Function

Having resilience allows us to recover from set backs quickly. Resilience “refers to positive adaptation to adversity”. [Niemiec] Many positive psychologists have researched and written about this function, including Angela Duckworth and Grit, Carol Dweck and her research into a growth vs. a fixed mindset, and Martin Seligman and others who have researched post traumatic growth vs. PTSD. Tapping into character strengths when dealing with adversity helps build resilience.

Don’t Step Over Anything

In The 28 Laws Of Attraction, Thomas Leonard (the “father” of life coaching) exhorts us to “turn every problem into a nonrecurring event”. [Leonard, p. 46] This means that we resolve any problem in such a way that it never comes back to bite us. Let’s see how meeting our problems by focusing on our strengths can help us do this.

Here are examples of how one could use a specific strength to face challenges. I’ve selected some that most of us would typically consider (bravery, creativity, perspective) but also some we wouldn’t normally think of when dealing with adversity (appreciation of beauty and excellence, forgiveness, gratitude). [1]

Creativity: Explore a creative solution to a life difficulty or challenge. Brainstorm ideas for how the issue could be resolved. Or come up with ways to mitigate the effects of the issue. Are there things you could do to prevent the problem in the first place? [Buffering]

Perspective: Change your perspective. What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best? What is most likely? [Reappraisal]

Bravery: Speak up for yourself or others. Face up to the issue and deal with it as soon as possible. Most problems are more easily solved early – given time, a minor issue may turn into a crisis. [Buffering, Resilience]

Gratitude: Generalized gratitude is the state resulting from awareness and appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to you. Use this as impetus to speak up for yourself. Look for the seed of good in the problematic situation. [Reappraisal, Buffering]

Appreciation of beauty and excellence: When you are dealing with adversity, pause to appreciate your inner beauty. One way to do this is to see your character strengths and recall how you have used them to bring benefit to others. To recharge after you’ve resolved an issue, go outside and get regular exposure to green space in your environment. [Buffering, Reappraisal, Resilience]

Forgiveness: Forgive others when they behave badly towards you or when they annoy or upset you. Don’t hold grudges but consider that information in future relations with them. [Resilience]


  1. If you don’t know what your Signature Strengths are, take the VIA assessment here. The assessment is free and you receive a ranking of all your strengths with a description of each. For a small fee, you can get an in-depth profile report that goes into detail about your strengths and ways to incorporate them.
  2. Think of a recent incident – a problem, a set back, a disagreement – you have faced. Now consider how you could have used one or more of your Signature Strengths in dealing with the issue. Replay the incident with you using your Strengths. How might the outcome have been different?
  3. The next time you are faced with adversity, stop a minute and draw on your Strengths. This will be difficult at first. If you don’t remember to do it right away, stop as soon as you do remember and replay the incident as in step 2. Continue this each time you deal with an issue, until it becomes a habit.

Thriving – The Ultimate Fulfillment

“Thriving is the ultimate fulfillment in life,” Ryan Niemiec tells us. Thriving encompasses resilience – the ability to bounce back and grow from adversity – and flourishing – the quality of well-being. [Niemiec]

There is strength in adversity. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.” While we don’t want trouble and we don’t enjoy problems and strife, there is growth there . . . and the opportunity to thrive.

When we draw from our Strengths, we begin to thrive, welcoming opportunities and adversities alike. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life™!

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


[1] Some of these ideas are developed from information on the various character strengths as described in the VIA Institute On Character’s website.


Campbell, Joseph. The Power Of Myth. New York: Random House, LLC, 1988

Leonard, Thomas. The 28 Laws Of Attraction. New York: Scribner, 1998

Niemiec,PhD, Ryan. “Six Functions Of Character Strengths For Thriving At Times Of Adversity And Opportunity: A Theroetical Perspective.” Applied Research In Quality Of Life, January 8, 2019. September 3, 2019. PDF file.

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002

strengths in adversity

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