How often do we feel that we are “at our best”? What does our “best self” mean or look like? Are there ways we can purposefully move toward our highest functioning? Over the past few decades, these questions have been a driving force behind the expanding field of positive psychology. Fortunately for all of us, through the application of the scientific method to the study of human flourishing, psychologists have now identified factors that contribute to a meaningful and fulfilling life. They have developed evidence-based tools and practices that offer us a pathway toward well-being.
Know our Strengths
One particularly powerful finding in this body of research is the impact of identifying and applying personal character strengths. Our top strengths—sometimes referred to as “signature strengths” —are defined as the particular patterns of our thinking, behaving and feeling that excite or energize us when purposefully brought forward to meet the experiences of our lives. Because our core strengths are often so natural to us, many adults do not perceive them as strengths. We may assume everyone possesses the strengths as we do when, in fact, we each bring to the world a unique combination that informs how we approach our work and life.
Philosophers, theologians and educators have examined the world of virtues and strengths for thousands of years. But it is only recently that positive psychologists have focused on the systematic study and organization of character strengths. As an outgrowth of this work, there are now several tools we can use to identify our own strengths. One tool that is both accessible as well as scientifically validated is the VIA Character Survey (VIACharacter.org), developed by two psychologists, the late Christopher Peterson, then at the University of Michigan, and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. Their collaboration and research examined the areas of virtues and strengths across time and cultures and resulted in a classification of six universally valued virtues and 24 character strengths. As individuals, we each possess a combination of five to 10 “signature strengths,” which are patterns that reflect our true nature. Here we are offered a key to finding our best selves.
While the online tool offers a controlled, validated assessment, we might alternatively choose to explore our personal signature strengths by thinking back to a time when we felt most at home with ourselves. Perhaps it was a time of feeling connected and effective at our workplace, enjoying meaningful relationships in our personal life, or losing track of time when immersed in a project. Those times occur most frequently when our core strengths are called upon. Can we recall what aspects of ourselves were evident? They can be, for instance, curiosity, perspective, fairness or courage. Can we identify the strengths that lead us to say, “Yes, that is who I am!”?
The Benefits of Exercising Strengths
Whether we choose to identify our strengths through informal, narrative review of past experiences or through more formalized, validated surveys, knowing and applying our top strengths can reap significant benefits in work and life. Top strengths are the qualities that make each of us who we are as individuals. In his book, Flourish, Seligman explains that “deploying your highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment, and to better relationships.”
While perhaps difficult to do, it is important to remember that even in the midst of our greatest challenges—even at times of struggle or self-doubt—we still possess strengths. In fact, it is at those very moments in life that we might benefit the most from bringing our true selves forward. Whether we choose to structure 10 minutes each day in which we purposefully focus on a top strength or we ask ourselves the more general question of which strength is resonating at this time, focusing on those parts of our character can shift our experience. Recognizing who we are at our core and arriving in our lives with those strengths offers opportunities for success, engagement, enjoyment and well-being.