If I asked you to name your top 5 character strengths – those qualities that reflect the very best of who you are – would they easily roll off your tongue or would you feel stuck for words?
Don’t worry. Researchers estimate 1/3 of us have no idea what our character strengths are – and yet, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that developing your character strengths can make you more confident, feel more energized and ultimately lead to a happier and healthier life. Literally making the best of what’s in you, can make you feel your best. How sweet is that?
Understanding and using our character strengths is about focusing on the things that come most naturally to us and that we love to do. Over 10 years ago, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, some of the world’s leading positive psychologists, came together to compile a list of character strengths that people of all ages, cultures and nations exhibit. The VIA (Values in Action) is a framework of 24 strengths that define 6 encompassing virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. These strengths manifest in a range of behaviors, thoughts and feelings and can be measured in an individual using the VIA questionnaire.
Over the last 3 years, I’ve taken the VIA survey 3 times. Interestingly enough, and quite humorously, I tend to do so around this time of year. Maybe it’s the post-January assessment on life or the constant desire to learn more about myself, but either way, the VIA survey is a tool I always go back to so that I can tap into and leverage my strengths and make sure I’m doing things in my life that allow me to flex my biggest muscles.
Here’s why: Since I was 6, I knew with absolutely certainty that I wanted to be a teacher. And while the subject matter may have changed over the years from history to biology to English, the desire to teach never wavered. I didn’t have the VIA tools at my fingertips back in 2005 to explain it, but there was something about how teaching made me feel. It lit me up and just felt so right, like this was what I was meant to do. Looking back, teaching high school English for five years in an interdisciplinary humanities program felt so good because it allowed me to flex my top character strengths. I was able to utilize my creativity to design integrated lessons to meet state standards, tap into a higher purpose of serving others, be constantly in a state of learning and to look at various perspectives from other cultures and even the teachers with whom I worked. Looking at my top 5 character strengths, which have been fairly consistent throughout the years and I doubt have changed much since college, teaching proved to be a happy marriage of the things that came naturally to me and what I genuinely loved to do. No doubt it’s the reason why I feel so fulfilled in my current role teaching fitness.
But, that wasn’t always the case.
During my last year of college, as part of our coursework for graduation, we had to complete student teaching assignments at both a middle school and a high school – and suddenly what I loved and what I was good at were no longer meeting a common ground. I felt like my creativity was stifled by my supervisors and the overwhelming to-do lists diminished my love of learning. Rather than finding another perspective, one of my strong suits, I felt like a deer in headlights questioning: What do I do if I don’t teach? With so many of my top strengths being underutilized, it’s no wonder I found myself in a quandary. While I was miserable in my assignments, the thought of not teaching didn’t seem right either.
Thankfully, the perspective I couldn’t find was offered to me by a friend who had graduated the year prior. She urged me to ride out my teaching assignments and assured me that having your own classroom was the polar opposite of student teaching. Basically, what she offered me was a piece of advice I’ve taken forward into every venture: don’t base everything on this one little thing. That small token was a huge gift that enabled me to shift my perspective and figure out ways I could still leverage my strengths to the situation at hand.
When it comes to our strengths, the important thing to remember is even with our top strengths, there will be situations where we feel challenged to bring forth the best in us.
In some instances, this might mean that thing, situation or person isn’t for us. Other times, it will require us to widen the scope of our strengths and consider new ways in which our strengths might be useful. Those times where it is necessary to widen the scope of our strengths rather than throw in the towel on the situation are paramount to our success: not everything is negotiable. If I wanted to teach, going through student teaching was non-negotiable. Now, if my own classroom had presented the same feelings, that would be a different story and conversation to have with myself. But suffice it to say, that was my non-negotiable. There will always be challenges on the path to what we want and in order to grow ourselves, we must find new and different means of expressing our strengths.
The steps below will help you identify your strengths and find ideas for flexing those muscles:
- Identify your strengths
The VIA character strengths questionnaire is a great tool to explore your strengths and the best part is, it’s free. After answering some questions, you’ll get a short feedback report showing the ranking of your 24 strengths. I’ve done the free version for the last 3 years and find it super informative. Know that a detailed version is also available for $40 should you want to explore deeper.
- Review your strengths
While the VIA survey will rank all 24 strengths, your top 5 are what’s considered your personal blend of signature strengths. It’s what makes you unique. Keep in mind, those listed toward the bottom aren’t necessarily weaknesses; they’re just qualities you don’t use or leverage as much.
To review your strengths, look at your top 5 and ask yourself:
Do I naturally feel drawn to this strength?
Does this strength make me feel energized or excited?
Am I surprised by this strength?
How much do I use this strength (in work, at home, in my hobbies, etc.)?
If you don’t feel that one of your top 5 is the real you, look at numbers 6, 7, or 8 and ask yourself the same questions. Get to the 5 strengths that are the most you, the ones that energize and excite you.
- Use your strengths
When you find your top 5, pick one that you want to use and ask yourself:
How do I use this strength already?
In what areas of my life do I currently use this strength?
What are ways in which I can widen the scope of this strength? In what other areas of my life can I use this strength?
Then, every day over the next week, try to use this strength in a new way or in a new area of your life. Repeat this for the following week using another one of your top 5 strengths. And so on.
Need ideas on how to put your character strengths into action? Here’s 340 ideas to get you going.