How Using Your Signature Strengths Contributes To Well-Being

You have the power to positively influence your well-being by focusing on your character strengths. Developing and using your Signature Strengths increases happiness, improves relationships, and builds resilience – the ability to recover quickly from setbacks when things don’t go as planned. Weaknesses need to be corrected focusing on weaknesses is the hard way to grow. Focus on using our strengths contributes to well-being and flourishing.

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using signature strengths

A Parable Of Strengths

A group of settlers came together to build a village on the frontier. In the interest of impartiality and equality, they decided to put all the jobs in a hat and have each person draw out a job to do. In this way, they thought, the work could be evenly and equitably distributed.

And so it was that the Teacher was put in charge of building the homes and other structures that were needed. The Farmer was tasked with procuring and providing the necessary supplies for the town. The Minister was given the job of providing bread and baked goods for the others to eat. The Carpenter was assigned the task of caring for the spiritual needs of the townsfolk. The Baker had the job of growing the crops they would need for food. The Shop Keeper was put in charge of educating the children of the settlement. And so on, until all the inhabitants had randomly selected a job.

But after a month, it was obvious things were not going well. Only one building had been started – the school. And it was dangerous and rickety, with a tilted floor, walls that leaned in precariously, and doors and windows that were in no way square. The only supplies available were 100 hats and a few packets of seeds. No shoes, no tools, no toilet paper. The settlers had not tasted fresh bread in weeks. There was talk of a schism in the church. It had taken days for the soil to be plowed and nothing had been planted yet. And the children . . . they were running around like wild savages.

So the townsfolk got together again. They agreed that their method of assigning jobs had not worked out as they had hoped. They came to the conclusion that each person should perform according to his or her strengths, doing what came naturally.

And so the Teacher soon had the children under control and enthusiastically learning their lessons. The Farmer had acres of crops planted and seedlings were starting to appear in neat rows. The Carpenter recruited a number of other builders and several buildings were taking shape along Main Street. The aroma of fresh bread filled the air as the Baker provided tasty loaves daily. The Shop Keeper furnished ample supplies of everything the townspeople needed and wanted – including plenty of toilet paper. And on Sunday, the minister led his congregation in a prayer of gratitude for the strengths each one had been given.

The little settlement thrived. And so did its citizens, as they used and developed their natural strengths.

3:1 Positivity Ratio Leads To Flourishing

Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University Of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She has devoted her career to scientific research in the study of positive emotions. Through research and experimentation, Dr. Fredrickson developed the “broaden and build” theory of the beneficial effects of positive emotions.

Dr. Fredrickson and her colleagues have pinpointed the tipping point for positivity at 3 to 1, or 3 positive experiences or emotions for every negative one. When you reach the tipping point of 3 to 1, your life takes on new meaning and you begin to experience growth and to make a positive difference in your world.

Improving your ratio of positive to negative experiences can broaden your perspective such that you see more ways to deal with the situation. And it can improve your resilience, helping you to bounce back from adversity quicker and higher. [Fredrickson]

However, for most of us, the average is 2 to 1 or less. At this ratio, your life is, well . . . average. “Unfortunately, we are wired with a negativity bias,” Michelle McQuaid writes. “The bad stuff around us just screams louder and longer than the positive.” [McQuaid]

One of the ways to combat this negative bias is to find new ways to develop and use our signature strengths.

Accentuate The Positive

“You have the power to positively influence your well-being by focusing on your highest character strengths,” writes Dr. Ryan Niemiec, education director of the VIA Institute on Character. “Research shows that if you have an active awareness of your character strengths you are 9x more likely to be flourishing.” [Niemiec]

Developing and using your strengths, especially your Signature Strengths (the strengths you rate highest in), increases happiness, improves relationships, and builds resilience – the ability to recover quickly from setbacks when things don’t go as planned. Using your signature strengths has been shown to affect each of the components of PERMA – Dr. Martin Seligman’s model of well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, Meaning, positive Relationships, and Accomplishment. [Seligman] Research shows that using your signature strengths can improve measurements in all of these areas, even more than trying to overcome deficits. [Niemiec]

Learn From The Negative

Focusing on our strengths, though, does not mean ignoring the negative aspects of life. But consider this: we have a bias for remembering and being affected more by the negative events in our lives and quickly forgetting the positive experiences. “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences,” psychologist and author Rick Hanson says, “and Teflon for positive ones.”

Recall the 3:1 positivity ratio — we need 3 positive experiences for every 1 negative one if we want to flourish. We need some negatives. In fact, those are often powerful learning experiences. But we generally have no trouble remembering them. What we need is a way to highlight the many positives we experience and too often quickly forget. Using our signature strengths can help us do that. As Dr. Niemiec writes: “Reflecting on our strengths can help us offset those negative experiences, can help us figure out our natural best way to avoid them in the future, and can remind us that we have unique resources available to us in negative situations.” [Niemiec]

What You Focus On Expands

Given our negativity bias, what should we focus on — fixing our weaknesses or incorporating our strengths? Well, remember that whatever you focus on expands.

Take my bicycle, for example. I like to get out and ride it through my neighborhood but it had a flat tire. I pumped up the tire but, before I got halfway around, it started going flat again, and I had to turn around and head for home.

So I fixed the tire (with the help of my son-in-law, who happens to be a bike mechanic). But fixing the flat tire, while necessary, doesn’t get me around the neighborhood. For that, I need to work the pedals. That gives me the momentum and direction to have a good bike ride. [1]

Fixing the tire is focusing on a weakness. It was necessary to do, but it didn’t take me where I wanted to go. For that, I needed to work the pedals. Using your signature strengths is like working the pedals — it gives you the momentum and direction to move toward your desired destination.

Using Your Strengths

Of course, the first step of using your signature strengths is to find out what they are. If you haven’t done so yet, take the VIA Strengths Survey to find your own personal ranking of the 24 character strengths. (The survey is free but you have to register. It takes 20 – 30 minutes to complete.)

Once you have taken the survey, determine your signature strengths, the ones you use most naturally and that are strongest in you. These are typically the top 5 – 6 on your list of strengths.

Now, consider a goal you are working towards. How are you already using your strengths to pursue your goal? What are some new ways you could apply your signature strengths to achieve your goal? Try to identify 1 way you are currently using each of your signature strengths and 1 new way you can use them.

Alternately, 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.

Finally, consider creating a strengths habit. We know the power of taking small steps and creating mini-habits. Science says this is one of the most effective ways to make a positive change. Select one of your signature strengths and decide on a behavior that uses this strength and which you want to turn into a habit.

Once you’ve identified the behavior, decide upon a prompt that will cue you to perform the behavior, the exact behavior you’ll do, and the reward you’ll give yourself. This is an easy way to incorporate your signature strengths into your everyday routine.

For example, one of my signature strengths is gratitude. Here is one way I could incorporate that strength into a habit. In this case, I will “stack” this new habit onto a habit I already have, which is morning journaling. “When I finish my morning journal entry, I’ll take a few minutes to write down three things for which I am grateful. I’ll reward myself with my morning coffee.”

Now, write down yours. Define the cue, the behavior, and the reward. Is there a habit you already have that you could “stack” this one onto?

And Keep In Mind . . .

While you are finding ways to use your signature strengths, keep in mind that the character strengths at the bottom of the list are not weaknesses. All of us have all twenty-four of the strengths, we just use them in different ways. The ones on the bottom are not weaknesses, they are, in the words of the VIA organization, your “lesser strengths”.

The lesser strengths may not come as naturally to you, but they are still there and available for you to use when you need them. So, as you look to develop and use your strengths, don’t forget about the middle and lesser strengths. And if it is one that is important to you, use it and make it stronger.

Improving Your Positivity Ratio

Remember the 3:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences that leads to flourishing. Finding new ways to use your signature strengths has been empirically shown to increase happiness and lower depression. [Seligman] The effects are often long-lasting but are not permanent. For that reason, we should periodically explore new ways to use our strengths.

Weaknesses may need to be corrected, like a flat tire on a bicycle. But focusing on weaknesses won’t get you where you want to go. For that reason, we need to focus on how using our strengths contributes to well-being and flourishing. 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 and well-being, and a life of meaning, purpose, and service.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Footnotes:

[1] I got the idea for the illustration of the difference between using strengths and weaknesses from an article by Jane S. Anderson on the VIA Character website. (See Resources.)

Resources:

Anderson, Jane S. “3 Insights to Deepen Your Strengths Knowledge.” Strengths Basics. VIA Institute On Character, November 11, 2020. Web. December 12, 2020.
https://www.viacharacter.org/topics/articles/three-insights-to-deepen-your-strengths-knowledge

Fredrickson, Ph.D., Barbara, L. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2009.

McQuaid, Michelle. “Develop Your Signature Strengths in 4 Steps.” Live Happy. Live Happy, LLC, November 6, 2017. Web. December 12, 2020.
https://www.livehappy.com/work/develop-your-signature-strengths-4-steps?nopaging=1

Niemiec, PhD., Ryan. “Research Points to Two Main Reasons to Focus on Strengths.” Strengths Basics. VIA Institute On Character, March 24, 2019. Web. December 12, 2020.
https://www.viacharacter.org/topics/articles/research-points-two-main-reasons-focus-strengths

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Flourish. New York: Free Press, 2011.

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