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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


Action 8

Find your strengths and focus on using them

It makes sense to make the most of what we've got doesn't it? Understanding and using our strengths is about focusing on the things that come most naturally to us and that we love to do. And science is now showing that this can make us happier too, even after just one week of practice! [1]

Why do it?

Strengths are personal characteristics that allow us to perform well or at our personal best. But, it's not enough just to know what our strengths are, we have to put them into practice. [1] When we use our strengths we are usually energised and feel at our best. We find ourselves drawn to using them in different areas of our lives for example at work, at home and our during our leisure activities. They are areas where we learn fast and often (but not always) others will recognise them in us too.

Psychologists in the US found that people who tried using their strengths in new ways each day for a week were happier and less depressed six months later. [1] Another study in the UK recently showed that people who felt they were using their strengths have more positive emotion, greater vitality and self-esteem, compared with people who did not feel they used theirs. [2]

Using your strengths doesn't mean ignoring our weaker areas, but it's a question of emphasis. Positive psychology argues that if we focus on developing and using more of our strengths it will help us to get the best from ourselves and feel happier. Of course we need to manage our weaker areas, especially those that are holding us back, but often we don't need to be brilliant at these, good enough is usually good enough.

The steps below will help you identify your strengths and find ideas for using them.

Where to start

1. Identify your strengths

It is sometimes hard to think of these off the top of our heads because strengths can come naturally to us so we don't notice them, or we focus only on one aspect or even we don't thing we have any strengths. For this reason psychologists have developed questionnaires to help us.

One of the most widely used strength questionnaires was developed by two of the founders of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman and Dr Chris Peterson. Their research identified 24 character strengths that were universally valued across cultures. Of course there are more possible strengths than 24, but it's a good place to start exploring what your strengths are.

Take the VIA Character Strengths Questionaire. It's free and takes about 30 minutes to do. Make sure you answer the questions as you really are, not how you think you should be. Note: The free version gives you a short feedback report showing the rank order of your VIA character strengths. This is enough to get you thinking. A detailed report is available for $40.

2. Review your strengths

Have a look at the list - you will see all 24 are included, but the top five might be considered your personal blend of 'signature strengths'. Note: the bottom of the list are not necessarily weaknesses, they are just for you not as strong characteristics as the top of the list.

Have a look at each of your top 5 in turn and ask yourself:

  • Do I feel naturally drawn to this strength?
  • Is this the real me?
  • Do I feel excited or energised by it?
  • Do I feel surprised by it
  • How much do I use this strength currently - at work, at home, in my hobbies, in my community?
  • Would others see it in me? (Why not ask them?)

If you don't feel that one of these strengths is the real you, then look at numbers 6, 7 or 8 on the list and ask the same questions. Get to a list of 5 that you feel really are 'you'. That you are energised by.

3. Use your strengths

Pick one of your top 5. Ask yourself:

  • How do I use this already?
  • In what areas of my life do I use it?
  • What are other areas in my life that I could use it more?
  • What are other ways I could use it?

Every day over the next week, try to use this strength in a new way or area of your life. Repeat this the following week using another of your top five. And so on.

For example: If your top strength is 'Curiosity and interest in the world' why not try:

  • Taking a different route to work
  • Reading a different newspaper
  • Attending a talk on a subject you don't know about
  • Trying food from a different culture
  • Using your curiosity to connect with people you meet
  • Visiting a museum or gallery that you've not been to before or for ages
  • A new exercise class or routine
  • Asking people you know what makes them most happy
  • Asking a charity organisation near you for ways you could help
  • Exploring this website to get ideas on what else you could do….

[1] Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

[2] Wood, A.M., Linley, P.A., Maltby, J., Kasden, T.B., & Hurling,R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire.Personality and Individual Differences, 50 (2011) 15-19