The Concept of Strengths within Positive Psychology

Coaching / Counselling / Positive Psychology / Strengths

This Log attempts to explore the idea of strengths as defined within the field of positive psychology and will define and critically analyse the main theories within the field, explore where strengths are identified within myself both recognized and latent, how I use those strengths or not and whether my own inflection and self-analysis matches with strength finder tools. Initially, I will explore and understand the idea of strengths and my own, prior to conducting external structured analysis. The rationale behind this approach is to ensure that I don’t create the answers with prior knowledge and therefore make them “fit”. The experiment will culminate in my own unbiased discoveries being compared against various strength-finder tools.

As I discover more about my own strengths, I will cross-check with existing theory to identify any correlation between my own experience and understanding and that of the scholars in the field.

I am also keen to understand the impact of using my strengths on my own levels of happiness and flourishing.

log entry – weeks 1 – 3 exploring my own strengths

The concept of strengths is easy to confuse with things that we are good at because of practice and “forced experience”. By “forced experience”, I am referring to the fact that many of us, including myself will become good at a task because we are exposed to it over a long period of time. An example would be within a job as a painter and decorator or builder – where a skill is learned. This skill could become highly specialized and when compared to an unskilled person attempting the same task, the “master” would certainly appear skilful and that “craftsmanship” or practicality is a strength. The question is- Is it really a strength or simply a learned skill? What if that builder hated the job? What if that builder was pressured into this career or ended up in the career but actually longs to write poetry? This is an interesting idea and perhaps strengths, as referred to in the field of positive psychology and written about by people like (Linley, 2008) are far more than being good at something and more than this, perhaps they can have nothing to do with being good at something With my mind now searching to grasp the idea of strengths, I am naturally drawn to the concept of “Weakness”. If strengths can be unrecognized and underused, it is entirely possible that some things that we consider to be weaknesses may actually be underdeveloped and underused strengths. Perhaps, in some cases because of the “emotional” attachment to a true strength, it is entirely possible that we, at some point shied away from the strength due to a bad childhood experience or to even please, or not displease a parent. I am reminded of the film Billy Elliot at this point…

The definitions:

(Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2007) considers strengths a being virtuous rather than just a matter of social convention or experience. The six virtues which Seligman suggests are common cross culturally are:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and Transcendence

Interestingly, Seligman makes the distinction between strengths, such as integrity and courage as having a “moral” component whereas talents, such as perfect pitch, speed or being blessed with good looks do not. It is this moral component that sets “strengths” aside from talents or skill acquired with practice. (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2007)

Even more interestingly, I discover something that surprises me and I am not, as yet sure that I accept, Seligman suggests that strengths are more “buildable” than talents! Whilst he accepts that one can increase speed, for example by practicing – you are simply augmenting a talent that is already there. He goes on to suggest that even a modicum of a strength like Humility can be built, with practice, into a tower of humility. This flies in the face of what I would have believed. I would, in fact have thought that it was the other way round and I intend to explore this in further detail…

Seligman suggests that there are a total of 24 strengths

  1. Curiosity / Interest in the world
  2. Love of Learning
  3. Judgment/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness
  4. Ingenuity/Originality/Practical Intelligence/Common Sense
  5. Social Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence
  6. Perspective
  7. Courage/Valor & Bravery
  8. Perseverance/Industry/Diligence
  9. Integrity/Genuineness/Honesty
  10. Kindness/Generosity
  11. Loving and allowing love
  12. Citizenship/Duty/Teamwork/Loyalty
  13. Fairness/Equity
  14. Leadership
  15. Self control
  16. Prudence
  17. Humility/Modesty
  18. Appreciation of Beauty/Excellence
  19. Gratitude
  20. Hope/Optimism/Future-mindedness
  21. Spirituality/Sense of Purpose/Religiousness
  22. Forgiveness & Mercy
  23. Playfulness & Humor
  24. Zest/Passion/Enthusiasm Strengths as defined by Linley (2008)

Linley says that approaches such as VIA Signature Strengths and the Clifton Strengths Finder which give a clearly defined number of strengths e.g. 34 in the case of Clifton Strengths Finder and 24 in the case of VIA may be a good starting point for identifying strengths.  However, using these approaches alone can be limiting and could even be disempowering as they are less able to fully capture and identify strengths as they naturally exist. Also, unlike Linley’s approach, the VIA for example does not claim to predict performance outcomes at work.

Rather than using specific and fixed categories in which to slot people, Linley’s subscribes to a more flexible approach. One of those approaches is the Realise 2 tool –which considers and assesses a large number of strengths according to energy, performance and the use of those strengths.  This tool builds on the VIA and Clifton Strengths Finder. The purpose of the tool is to consider and measure realised and unrealised strengths and raise awareness of weaknesses which may actually be underdeveloped strengths. www.realise2.comThe PERMA model (Seligman, FLOURISH, 2011) is an acronym for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. The PERMA model certainly has its part to play in happiness and flourishing.

log entry – weeks 4 – 6 inflection

With an understanding of the field of strengths in the context of positive psychology, I now start the process of exploring and recognizing my own strengths. This initial assessment will start by looking at the activities I regularly indulge in and whether or not I am comfortable in them, natural, feel energized and believe that they are exercising my strengths. I will also pick out my top 5 signature strengths without attempting any strength-finder tools. The rationale is to be as unbiased as possible and to compare the results to see if the strength finders match my own assessments. Looking at the list of 24 strengths (Seligman, FLOURISH, 2011) I feel a resonance with:

    • 2) Love of learning
    • 5) Social Intelligence
    • 7) Courage
    • 20) Optimism
    • 23) Humour

After logging some significant experiences over a week that had either a positive or negative impact, I noted that bad endings seem to colour my experience inasmuch as if any experience had a bad ending, the overall feeling that I had was always bad, even though the entire experience was equal to or greater than other events where there was a positive ending overall. This suggests that endings are important as in the Hedonics experiment where colonoscopies were given to two sets of people, one where there was greater total pain but where the final minute of the procedure was better by way of the device not moving, and another which was less painful until the end. Although the first group had greater total pain, they reported a much more positive experience and willingness to repeat the procedure than the one that ended badly. (Kahneman, 2003).

I also noted that creativity and the state of flow that I seem to reach and the enjoyment, energy and effortless way that I can immerse myself in any creative task, seems to have been something that I was blind to. When I think back to my childhood, I realize that many times where I was drawing, or even creating interactive story programs on my computer, I would become so immersed that I remember my mother having to drag me down to meals and hours would just fly by. I would almost say that I had become blind to this strength as in the theory of Strengths Blindness (Alex Linley, 2010).

journal entry – weeks 7 – 9

As I start to dig deeper into my inflection, I pose the following questions: do we need others to help us to recognize and develop strengths? – The role of a mentor? Seeing in others what they don’t see in themselves?

Does the presence of flow indicate that we are using, engaging or indulging a strength?

From my earlier diary, I noted most definitely that I feel that creativity is one of my top strengths and one where I experience the state of flow (Csikszentmahalyi, 1990). Following a meeting with Piers Worth, I also consider that I have been considering another potential strength as a weakness, namely that I feel tremendous empathy and social understanding with people and I am profoundly socially aware. This has given rise to a lack of tolerance in others who do not have nor exercise the same levels.

Reflecting on what I now understand to be my signature strengths (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2007) I have also been considering one which did not come up on any of my questionnaires. I am creative and incredibly so. I am not entirely sure when I lost sight of that, but when I think back to my childhood, I realize that many times where I was drawing, or even creating interactive story programs on my computer, I would become so immersed that I remember my mother having to drag me down to meals and hours would just fly by. I would almost say that I had become blind to this strength. One of the issues with any self questionnaire is the extent to which you are honest with yourself when faced with many “nice to have” questions and many answers where a negative score may colour you in a bad light. Another is simply the blindness factor, as in Joharis window where there is an unseen self, a blind spot. (Joseph Luft, 1955)

journal entry – weeks 7 – 9

Strengths finder tools:

www.authentichappiness.org strengths survey

Top 5 of 24 are your signature strengths

After completing the VIA Strengths finder tool (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2007) the following results came to light:

Your Top Strength

      • Social intelligence –

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Your Second Strength

      • Creativity, ingenuity, and originality –

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Strength #3

      • Love of learning –

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Strength #4

      • Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness –

You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Strength #5

      • Curiosity and interest in the world –

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Linley:

The Realise2 4M Model sits at the heart of Realise2. It represents the core theory and research on which Realise2 is based, representing the four combinations of energy, performance, and use, which together define the four quadrants of the model.

      • A realised strength is characterised by high energy, high performance, and high use.
      • A learned behaviour is characterised by lower energy but high performance, while use may be variable.
      • A weakness is characterised by lower energy and lower performance, while again use may be variable.
      • An unrealised strength is characterised by high energy and high performance, but lower use.

These four characteristics – realised strengths, unrealised strengths, learned behaviours, and weaknesses – together make up the four quadrants of the Realise2 4M Model.

The 4 “Ms” refer to the advice that follows from the model, following clockwise:

      • Marshal realised strengths – use them appropriately for your situation and context.
      • Moderate learned behaviours – use them in moderation and only when you need to.
      • Minimise weaknesses – use them as little as possible and only where necessary.
      • Maximise unrealised strengths – find opportunities to use them more.

The Dynamic Nature of the Realise2 4M Model

The Realise2 4M Model is a dynamic model, and Realise2 is a dynamic assessment tool. Unlike personality assessments, where personality is expected to be pretty much fixed over time, strengths are different. The strengths we use and don’t use are influenced by the situations we are in. How often we do something can impact on how we feel about it. How we focus on developing something, and whether it comes naturally or not, will impact on how we perform at it. All of these dynamic elements are captured by the Realise2 4M Model.FIG 2 REALISE 2 4M MODEL

conclusions & key findings

After cross checking my own feelings and discoveries against strength-finder tools and questionnaires, I would consider the VIA strength-finder (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2007) to be incredibly accurate. Before I started, I considered the list of 34 strengths and which ones resonated with me, prior to completing any analysis or structured questionnaires. I managed to completely miss the fact that I love to create, problem solve and had a high level of practical intelligence. More than this, when I use this strength I experience flow and a sense of energy and ease. I simply do not tire! I also noted that any negative social interactions would seem to sap my energy and that I am also very sensitive to other peoples negativity. This weakness may well be an underdeveloped strength. Looking at (Linley, 2008) Realise 2 4M Model, it is possible that I have some an unrealized strength in the form of creativity and some Weaknesses which certainly de-energize me. This model is highly useful to consider the dynamic aspect of strengths rather than the fact that they are static and inherent.  Linley suggests that weaknesses are bith de-energizing and things that we perform poorly. I can relate to this with some of my social interactions and acute empathy with people. I am therefore very easy to de-energize by other peoples moods. I believe that this very fact has led me to shy away from many social interactions. Interestingly and in contradiction, I have noted that social intelligence was my top strength on the VIA Strength Finder. How is this possible? I hypothesize that perhaps my high levels of empathy without learning how to channel this productively, can leave me open to negative energy and emotion. My social adeptness also makes me acutely aware of other peoples lack of adeptness and results in feelings of outrage and annoyance. In situations where it is required that I make other people feel good and energize them, as in the role of a coach, this has proven very useful. It doesn’t seem to present any negatives and actually results in huge energy when I am coaching and the relationship is angled in that one direction, whereas, in the case of social interaction in an equal and mixed environment, I experience the strength as a weakness. This is interesting as up until now, I had not realized that a strength could be a weakness depending on the context and perspective

REFERENCES

Argyle, M. H. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. Oxford: Oxford University.

Csikszentmahalyi, M. (1990). Flow. London: Harper Collins.

Diener, E. (1946).

Keyes, C. L. (20002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of health and social behaviour.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). The How to Happiness. London: Piatkus.

Maslow, A. (1935). Hierarchy of Needs.

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything or is it? Journal of personality and psychology.

Seligman, M. (2011). FLOURISH. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Worth, P. (2010). Four Questions of Creativity. Victoria: Trafford Publishing.

This Article was written by Reece Coker SAC Dip, Dip,ed, MITD, MSc
Ex-military, expert in counter terrorism, Close Quarter Combat and a Psychologist, Reece is passionate about helping victims of violence grow and flourish post traumatically. Reece has studied and researched the...
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