The Research-Backed Key to Happiness at Work and in Life
Strengths are foundational to the study of positive psychology. If the history of psychology is all about ameliorating things that are wrong or that could be considered as weaknesses, then positive psychology chooses to take a very different perspective: what is going right within people, organizations and societies? This fundamental perspective shift can have incredibly powerful implications for the way that we choose to engage in the different domains of our lives, including our work, family, play, hobbies, and goals.
From my perspective, there are two major things that get in the way of a strengths-based, capitalization focus. One is our biology: we have evolved to react strongly to negative stimuli in comparison to positive ones. This plays out very clearly for us in our regular performance reviews, where our manager builds a ‘compliment-sandwich’ to soften the blow of any constructive feedback, failing to recognize that we will always be more drawn towards this perceived criticism than any kudos. The second is our history: many of us have spent most of our lives trying to fix parts of ourselves to be ‘up to snuff’. Many schools and organizations and families invest solely in remedying weaknesses, far more than amplifying strengths. There is, of course, a fine balance here: individuals who fail to possess basic table-manners or a rudimentary grasp of grammar might have a ceiling put on their progress. However, this focus on what we are failing at is redirecting our focus away from what we are good at.
As psychology began to study strengths, many of the leading researchers realized that they need to come up with a more precise definition for strengths, bearing in mind the loving message of Dr. Angela Duckworth, who reminds us that "all measures suck!" and to calibrate our expectations accordingly. Once we could operationalize strengths, then we could begin to see how they might be used in various settings, and if there would be any impact on individual well-being or other interesting markers.
What is character?
This is a question that has preoccupied a lot of people for a lot of time, all the way back to Aristotle, who articulated that the appropriate use of our virtues is what helps us to experience well-being and to be a good person. Many philosophical, psychological and theological scholars have been hotly debating this question ever since his time. Positive psychology views good character as “a family of positive dispositions, characteristics like perspective, teamwork, kindness, and hope”.
Given the years of debate and utter lack of consensus on the topic, psychologists decided that it was ripe to bring their expertise to bear. It took fifty-four scientists over three years to complete this project, a pursuit that began with one question: “Where might we look for examples of virtues or strengths of character?”
The team did a rigorous review of wisdom, philosophical and religious traditions and identified the core virtues within each text, from stories to cultural artifacts. Those lucky researchers also got to travel to some of the most remote places on the planet to observe other cultures, validating if each was valued, even among cultures such as the Maasai or the Inuit. This brainstorming left them with a list of the team identified ten criteria that would be used to help identify the common features of any entries. These criteria were: “fulfilling, morally valued, does not diminish others; has non-felicitous opposites; traitlike; distinctive from other strengths; has paragons who exemplify it; has prodigies; selective absence of it in some situations; has institutions/rituals to celebrate or express it.”
They came up with the following list of twenty-four character strengths, grouped into six different categories of Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, Humanity, Courage, and Transcendence.
The classification is known in the positive psychology world as the VIA Classification of Strengths. Each strength is distinct from one another. While they are considered stable, they are also influenced by both an individual’s choices, by their environment, and by other factors.
Why does this matter to me?
Your employer might invest a lot of time and energy into training you on new knowledge or systems, equipping you with new skills, or inviting you to review yourself during twice-yearly appraisals. These are all valuable contributions and can certainly make a difference in your life. However, research shows that those people who become aware of what makes them at their best as a human being, and seek to craft the circumstances that enable those best human selves are far likelier to be both happy at work and in life.
Your strengths are not just words that are dusted off a shelf and applied to you: you possess signature strengths, which are those that you care about, that inspire you, that define who you are as a human being, and that you are also good at. Your strengths can help to propel you to new fulfillment and success, because their very nature integrates both what you are good at and what you value. When people describe you, they say that you're honest or brave or kind, and when you describe yourself, you echo those same sentiments. You find ways to use the strengths, no matter what, you are energized by their application, and sometimes, you even choose to reorganize your life around them.
Research in the field has exploded. Below are some of the most compelling results that speak to me:
Character strengths were related to job performance across two samples of employees (Harzer & Ruch, in press).
Employees who used four or more of their signature strengths had more positive work experiences and work-as-a-calling than those who expressed less than four (Harzer & Ruch, 2012a).
Regardless of which character strengths are used, the congruent use of strengths in the situational circumstances at work is important for fostering job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in one’s job (i.e., the alignment of one’s signature strengths with work activities is what matters; Harzer & Ruch, 2012b).
In a longitudinal study, strengths use was found to be an important predictor of well-being and led to less stress and increased positive affect, vitality, and self-esteem at 3-month and 6-month follow-up (Wood et al., 2011).
Itching to take the test yet? You can sign up for a free account here and take the assessment, which should take a little bit less than fifteen minutes. But don't go away just yet! While awareness of your signature strengths is very important, it is also critical to make sure that you find ways to apply them to your life. In a study of nearly 10,000 New Zealand workers, workers who reported a high awareness of their strengths had a 9.5 times more likely to be flourishing than those with low strengths awareness. However, workers who reported high strengths use were 18 times more likely to be flourishing than those with low strengths use.
How can you bring your strengths to life?
Here's the data on what happens the more that you actually use your strengths:
- The less sadness, worry, pain, anger or stress that you feel
- The more positive emotions, high energy. feelings of happiness, likelihood of learning something interesting, and being treated with respect that we are
Perhaps most compellingly, using one's strengths can have a long-lasting impact. One intervention, which asks individuals to use a character strength in a new way every day for a week, increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for up to six months. Interestingly, those participants who continued to benefit from the intervention spontaneously continued to use their strengths after the one week period, showing that they had enjoyed some success at building the skill of using their strengths and also had fun with the process, thus creating a ‘self-reinforcing exercise’.
You have your own unique constellation of character strengths. By exploring how they manifest within you, how you can use them, and how you can structure your life to unleash them, you can observe the impact on your own life. One way to do so is the Aware - Explore - Apply model from Ryan Niemiec.
Aware Discussion Questions
- What are your initial feelings about these strengths?
- Do these strengths resonate with you?
- Do you feel like these strengths are essential to who you are as an individual?
- Write one or two sentences about how you bring your signature strength across in three areas of your life. (Social / Community, Work / School, Home / Family)
- What about the less present strengths? How do you feel when reviewing the list?
Explore Discussion Questions
- Choose a strength. What example can you give me of how you use this today to some positive end?
- What does X strength ‘think like’? What does X strength ‘feel like’? What does X strength ‘act like’?
- Choose a strength. How does this manifest in you? How does this manifest in others who you might admire?
- Name a problem, stressor, or conflict that you successfully overcame / resolved. What character strengths did you use to manage or resolve it?
- How would it feel if you couldn’t use your top signature strength in the next month?
- In what way does your top signature strength make you feel most alive?
- How do some of your strengths work together? What is a specific moment when you saw this process in action?
- Tell me about a time that you used your signature strengths too much.
Apply Discussion Questions
How would you like to use your strengths moving forward?
What insights have you gleaned from this discussion?
What domains of your life would you like to bring this strength to bear upon?
In what ways might you apply this information to your life in a new way?
How will you hold yourself accountable for using this strength?
How will you craft your job to allow you to use your strength, either through a task, a relationship, or through your cognitive perception of it?
What domains do you feel might be in need of a bit of strengths-TLC?
How can the people surrounding you support you as you apply your strengths?