Character strengths matter because they give us a framework for learning about and discussing the character strengths which we all share in different combinations. Using our character strengths allows us to interact with the world in a more positive way and to enjoy the benefits of increased positivity.
One morning, Caroline awoke to a jarring realization that left her feeling unsettled. Her life was at a dead-end. The things she used to enjoy and take pride in, her family, her husband, her job, now seemed – to her dismay – more burden than joy. She recognized that she was just going through the motions, not really engaged in anything. Her children were growing up and were no longer interested in the little things they used to do together. The demands of their careers, household chores, and raising a family had left Caroline and her husband with minimal communication, consisting mostly of criticism and complaints. Her job had become monotonous, devoid of creativity, and she sensed her lack of meaningful contribution across all aspects of her life.
The one bright spot in her week was Wednesday afternoon, when Caroline met for coffee with her best friend, Annelle. She and Annelle had been friends since grade school, had been roommates in college, and had stayed connected after they moved back to their hometown. Annelle had studied psychology in school and was a therapist and coach. She wasn’t Caroline’s therapist or coach, but she listened attentively as Caroline poured out her troubles. Annelle suggested a test Caroline could take that would tell her about her strengths. Caroline snorted. “What strengths? I don’t have anything but troubles and disappointment.” But Annelle persisted and Caroline finally agreed, although without much enthusiasm.
That evening, Caroline logged on to the VIA Institute of Character and took the free survey. Not sure why she was even bothering to do so, Caroline printed out the results of her survey. She glanced indifferently at the page but sat up and focused her attention as she read about her top strengths of character. Gratitude. Love of Learning. Perspective. Hope. Kindness. “Is this really me?” she wondered with a mixture of surprise and hope. As she read the descriptions of each of her Signature strengths, she became determined. She would get her life back.
Why Do Character Strengths Matter?
Using our character strengths allows us to interact with the world in a more positive way and to enjoy the benefits of increased positivity.
Recognizing character strengths in others is an important way to create and nurture meaningful relationships and build even more positivity. In The Power of Character Strengths, Ryan Niemiec and Robert E McGrath offer some examples. [Niemiec] Every morning without fail, you observe your elderly neighbor energetically sweeping her front porch. You see perseverance and zest in her behavior. Or your child sees your rumpled and coffee-stained shirt, points it out, and giggles. You think about how your child uses humor to bond with others as well. Later, you listen as your partner goes over how he or she organized the workday and the tasks he or she accomplished. In hearing him or her talk about the day, you recognize strengths of leadership, teamwork, perseverance, or self-regulation. [Niemiec]
Having learned about her strengths, Caroline began looking for evidence of strengths in others. Instead of criticizing her husband, her children, or her colleagues at work, she began seeing positive signs in their interactions.
Character strengths matter because they give us a framework for learning about and discussing the character strengths which we all share in different measures.
Character Strengths – The Framework
As we’ve discussed before, character strengths are foundational to Positive Psychology. A team led by Positive Psychology pioneers Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson identified twenty-four specific traits that are common across cultures, nationalities, religions, and philosophies and seen as virtuous behavior. [Polly] These traits are divided into six “virtues” including Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence. [Niemiec] Dr. Peterson has called them components of the “good life” [Peterson] Character strengths matter because they are “qualities that we value in ourselves, our friends, our children, our colleagues, and our leaders.” [Polly]
Studies show that when we learn about our own unique combination of character strengths, we are more intentional in their use which benefits us and the people around us. Character strengths matter because their use “leads to greater energy and involvement in school, family, and work.” [Polly]
A good deal of research has been done over the years on the use and benefits of character strengths in different areas of our lives. Let’s take a look at some of the findings and see how Caroline put her own strengths to use.
Why Character Strengths Matter at Work
At work, drawing on your character strengths, especially your Signature strengths (the 4 to 6 you score highest on), contributes to these beneficial results.
- Using character strengths can improve job performance and work satisfaction. [A]
- Using character strengths increases engagement in work, and improves resilience and confidence. [A]
- Using character strengths may increase productivity and decrease turnover. [A]
In her job as a supervisor of tech support for a small software company, Caroline drew on her strength of Love of Learning to improve her management skills as well as to learn more about the software her team supported. She was more open to interactions with her employees, drawing on her Perspective to listen to and understand their questions and concerns rather than jumping in with quick, shallow solutions. And her Kindness made her a favorite among her whole company.
Why Character Strengths Matter at School
There is a positive correlation between the “5 Cs model of positive youth development” (competence, confidence, character, caring, and connection) and the use of character strengths. [B]
Additionally, a “positive school environment” where students and teachers understand and use their Signature strengths is linked to “well-being, engagement at school, and academic performance, and is fundamental to building social and emotional learning.” [Graves]
While Caroline was not in school herself, she understood how knowing their own unique strengths could help her children. So she had them take their own Strengths assessment, based on their ages. She worked with each child to come up with strategies to tap into their strengths at school.
Why Character Strengths Matter at Home
Just as becoming aware of your personal character strengths leads to higher energy and greater involvement at work and school, you experience the same benefits within your family life.
Learning how to recognize the twenty-four strengths in other people, especially our loved ones, and pointing out how they are being used, makes us better parents, spouses, friends, and mentors. [McQuaid] Having a “strengths language”, a way to discuss our character strengths, makes us “more aware of what is strong and worth nourishing in each other.” [McQuaid]
As we’ve seen, helping her children learn their character strengths helped them be better students at school. It also helped Caroline to better understand her children and how to interact more effectively with them. She convinced her husband to take the survey as well and to begin focusing on using his own unique combination of strengths. Using her strength of Gratitude, Caroline daily expressed thanks for her loving family. Her Hope allowed her to look forward to the future with joyful anticipation. The level of criticism and complaints dropped drastically as the love and appreciation levels rose.
Why Character Strengths Matter Day to Day
One of the most helpful and beneficial uses of your own unique set of strengths is to apply them in your day-to-day activities (including, but not limited to, work and school).
Research has found that developing an awareness of your strengths, thinking of new ways to employ them, and then putting them to use in your life, helps you feel more engaged with and positive about your life. [McQuaid]
Especially using one or more of your Signature strengths in new or different ways has also been shown to boost your confidence, satisfaction, resilience, and your mental and physical health. [Polly]
As Caroline and her family began drawing on their strengths in their interactions with each other, at school, and at work, each member began feeling increased levels of positivity. As a family, they were thriving and living good lives. When Caroline thought back to that time just a few months before, she could scarcely believe the transformation. Her strength of Love enveloped her family and she felt deep Gratitude toward her friend, Annelle, whose suggestion had sparked the changes.
When You Don’t Use Your Strengths
As we see, character strengths matter at work, at school, at home, and in your day-to-day life. And when you don’t use them, you miss out on a chance to increase and improve your enjoyment of life, life satisfaction, and well-being. Here are some reasons why.
An unused strength is an unrecognized asset. Knowing your strengths is the first step in putting them to use in your life. Using your strengths is the foundation for well-being and flourishing. These are key concepts — knowing and using. Just as the saying, “The person who doesn’t read is no better off than the person who cannot read”, the person who does not know and use his or her strengths is missing out on a good deal of value.
You have certain Signature strengths that are your “go-to” strengths. When you use them, you are more engaged in your life, you feel energized and competent. But if you don’t intentionally plan to make use of these strengths, you may not be using them to their full advantage. Or you may be relying too heavily on one or two of your strengths. An overused strength can become a weakness.
It is possible, too, that you may have one or more unrealized strengths – potential strengths lying dormant because you have not yet tapped into them. Taking the VIA Strengths Survey could identify any dormant strength that you might have. If you don’t know about a strength you have, it isn’t a strength.
Making Character Strengths Matter
If you are not making good use of your own unique combination of strengths, including your Signature strengths, why not begin taking steps to improve? Here are some ideas.
- Take the VIA Strengths Survey.
- Now consider how your Signature strengths show up in your daily life and list two or three specific ways for each one, if you can.
- Then take some time to think about ways you could use them even more, using this exercise:
List three small steps you could take to use one or more of your strengths . . .
at work? 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
at school? 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
at home? 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
day to day? 1. __________ 2. __________ 3. __________
Make Your Character Strengths Matter
Your character strengths are there for you. Each of us has all twenty-four, just in different combinations. As Ryan Niemiec writes in The Power of Character Strengths: “For you, some may have fully flowered, and you are expressing them strongly in your life; some . . . may be dormant, waiting for you to refocus your attention on them; and some may have never gotten any deliberate attention from you over the years.” [Niemiec]
I hope you agree with me that character strengths matter. The benefits of increasing your positivity are well-documented and intentionally using your character strengths adds to your positivity. I hope you’ll take a closer look at your own and find new and exciting ways to put them to use. For that is one step in embracing your Excelerated Life™!
How could you be more consistent in using your strengths, thus reaping the rewards?
Don’t know your Signature strengths? Why not make that your first step?
Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Excelerated Strengths™ — 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.
[A] “Character Strengths in the Workplace and Organizations.” VIA Institute on Character. VIA Institute on Character,. Web. May 6, 2023.
[B] “VIA Character Strengths and Children, Adolescents, and/or Schools.” VIA Institute on Character. VIA Institute on Character,. Web. May 6, 2023.
Graves, Karen. “Using Strengths to Increase Educator and Student Engagement.” VIA Institute on Character. VIA Institute on Character, May 29, 2019. Web. May 6, 2023.
McQuaid, Michelle. “Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life.” Michelle McQuaid. Michelle McQuaid,. Web. May 6, 2023.
Niemiec, PhD., Ryan and Robert E McGrath, Ph.D. The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality. Cincinnati, Ohio: VIA Institute on Character, 2019.
Peterson, Ph.D., Christopher. A Primer In Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Polly, Shannon and Kathryn Britton. Character Strengths Matter: How To Live A Full Life. Positive Psychology News, LLC, 2015.