We all feel inferior at times. Logically, when we want to improve ourselves, we’re often drawn to our weaknesses. But this negative bias can easily make us more miserable. If we follow only this path, we also disregard that we have strengths—though they might be well-hidden in the fabrics of our personality. Sure, we have to focus on what doesn’t work yet when we want to improve a specific skill, as we do when we practice deliberately. But our overall self-improvement also profits from building on the strengths we already have.
Here’s a guide to finding a set of specific strengths, so-called character strengths, and letting them shine. If we nurture our character strengths regularly, they can help us accomplish goals, improve performance at work, and simultaneously heighten our confidence and happiness.
I will explain a three-step process to identify, find actions for, and build habits around your character strengths.
First, you need to figure out what your strengths are. To do that, I’ll focus here on the VIA Character Strengths Survey because it has a solid scientific basis, and I’ve used it myself for years. It’s a free online survey that takes around 15 minutes and provides you with a list of the five character strengths that are the highest in you. They are based on a set of 24 strengths within six virtue categories (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence). We possess all these strengths to some degree.
This questionnaire is not a random online personality survey, but one backed by extensive psychological research conducted since the early 2000s¹,². Over 13 million people already used the survey to learn more about themselves. It was created by a team including Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, key figures in the field of positive psychology. This field shifted the focus of psychological research—formerly predominantly investigating mental illness —towards happiness, well-being, and supporting people in their talents. Remember, we want a similar shift for ourselves, to move the spotlight from our weaknesses to our strengths for our self-improvement.
Let’s assume you’ve conducted the questionnaire and know the five character strengths you express most. (If you haven’t, I highly recommend you do that as soon as you can take some time to work at yourself. For now, feel free to continue reading to learn about what to do next when you have found your strengths.)
A good way to regularly work on these strengths is to establish small habits for each of them. That means you need specific behaviors you can take that are in line with your strengths.
To find such behaviors, you might ask yourself questions like:
You can also use the websites above or this list with two ideas for each strength.
When you found an activity that supports one of your strengths, I suggest turning it into a habit if that's possible, so that you profit from your strength regularly and in the long run.
If you want to turn a behavior into a habit, it helps to keep these behaviors small. That’s the idea of tiny habits or micro-habits, where you keep a ridiculously small version of your habit, for which it is almost impossible to find excuses not to do them. The more effortful and time-consuming the activity is, the easier it is to find a reason not to do it. This might lead to breaking your streak and eventually giving up on the habit altogether. But when you take something small (like “do one push-up” instead of “30-minute workout routine”), it’s easy to ensure that you do it as regularly as you wish to. That doesn’t mean that you can only do this mini version of your habit. Instead, keep two versions for a habit, a regular one and a tiny habit as a fallback.
Given that you’re reading newsletters and blog posts regularly, you likely share an affinity to this strength with me and agree with his statement:
“I am motivated to acquire new levels of knowledge, or deepen my existing knowledge or skills in a significant way.” - VIA Institute on Character
To feed my own love of learning, I’m currently learning from various sources, often on my phone and often during short time periods in between work and chores and what the day throws at me. Here are my current plates I nibble from:
On an ideal day, I learn a little with each of them. Optimally, I can also apply something I’ve read or watched about directly on the same day, since just hearing or reading something won’t make it much of a learning experience yet, but more passive consumption. On other days I might end up just reading one page. Any progress helps. I have realized that I feel more accomplished when I progress in my learning, even if my workday was uneventful.
But where do I fit this learning into my day? There are some activities during which I can also learn on the side. For example, I often listen to a few minutes of an audiobook while walking with our dog, or look through a video from an online course when I eat breakfast alone. Your commute might also lend itself to this.
With that, I leave you to explore your own pattern of VIA character strengths and wish you the best in your practice. Once you begin to hone your strenghts regularly, you might just notice some of the benefits found to be connected to them, like heightened confidence and happiness.
(For those interested in learning more about the research behind these character strengths.)
¹ Here’s a collection of recent openly available scientific articles on the topic: https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/11879/via-character-strengths-theory-research-and-practice#articles
² And here's an even larger collection of scientific articles categorized into topics like "Character strengths and health and wellness": https://www.viacharacter.org/research/findings
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