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Happiness Rx: Use Your Strengths

In the movie The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney, played by actor Matt Damon, uses perseverance, ingenuity and a wicked sense of humor to survive the red planet’s killer conditions. While you may never be stranded 140 million miles from home, using your own top strengths can help you overcome big challenges, thrive and get a major happiness boost, research shows.

Everybody’s got character strengths that just come naturally. You may have qualities such as creativity, modesty, curiosity, love, generosity, forgiveness and leadership, among many others. Experts in the field of positive psychology say there are 24 major ones! But too often, you may ignore or downplay them. In one survey, two out of three people said they didn’t know or appreciate their own positive traits.

When you learn to tune into yours, you’ll reap a lot of health benefits

  • One study from Switzerland’s University of Zurich found people who focused on using one of their top strengths in new ways decreased blue moods and increased happiness.
  • Another University of Zurich study found that deploying strengths like curiosity, a love of learning, creativity, kindness, humor and teamwork helped nurses and others with tension-filled workplaces cope better and feel less bothered by stress.
  • A study from Israel’s University of Haifa found spouses who recognized and used their own character strengths had more marriage satisfaction than those who didn’t.
  • Another study found that having a workout plan - matched to study volunteers’ key strengths - helped people stick with their plan and enjoy it more.
  • A University of Hong Kong study of people who survived traumatic events, such as an assault or a natural disaster, found that those with strengths like conscientiousness and a zest for life were least likely to experience post-traumatic stress. Plus, they were most likely to say they’d learned something positive from their difficult experience.

How to Spot -- and Use -- Your Strengths
Most of us have several top strengths, not just one. And chances are you’ve already got an inkling of what yours are. You may be the type who organizes family events and dispenses trusted advice (you’re a leader), can’t wait to read a new nonfiction book or watch the latest documentary (you love learning), feel awe in nature (you love beauty), volunteer at a local charity (you’re generous) or are an avid do-it-yourselfer who’d rather fix the sink than call a plumber (you’re a creative problem-solver). But just to make sure you’re fully aware of yours.

Interview yourself. Get a handle on your top traits by asking yourself these questions: 

1. What am I good at and what do I really like to do?

2. What comes naturally to me and energizes me when I do it?

3. What strengths do I use at home, at work, with friends, alone?

4. What strength is so important to me that I would feel suffocated if I had to forgo it for a month?

…or, take a quiz. An even easier way to get a handle on your best qualities is to take the strengths survey at the website of the VIA Institute on Character (Google “VIA Character Survey”). Developed under the direction of leaders in the field of positive psychology, the survey shows your top traits and offers advice for making them even stronger.

After you’ve identified your traits, train them. Like an NBA basketball star or a concert violinist, making the most of your in-born talents requires practice. Make it fun. Hone your sense of humor by learning new jokes; satisfy your curiosity by trying out new (and healthy) foods; visit a new art museum or park to deepen your love of beauty and nature. In a British study, people who trained their strengths felt more cheerful and satisfied with their lives. Like fictional astronaut Mark Watney, you’ll feel more accomplished -- but without leaving planet Earth.