How are strengths defined in positive psychology?

Ronald Siegel
In positive psychology, strengths are built-in capacities for certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Everyone possesses all the character strengths associated with the six virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, to a greater and lesser extent. You can be particularly gifted in one area and weak in another, but if you are like most people, you are often somewhere in between. Your particular pattern of strengths is part of what makes you unique.

You probably enjoy using your strengths and do it well naturally. When you play from your strengths, you are likely to feel more energetic and perform better than when you are trying to use a capacity that comes less naturally. For example, one person trying to influence a local school board to ban soft drink sales might have the strength to speak up forcefully and clearly at a general meeting (despite the almost-universal fear of public speaking). Another person strong in team-building might feel uncomfortable speaking out in a meeting but could successfully build consensus among parents, nutritionists, and others to weigh the issue and come to a decision. Likewise, when you set out to do something in alignment with the values you hold dear, you are likely to work harder and have more energy and persistence for the task at hand.

Because deploying a strength is usually the easiest as well as the most effective way to accomplish a goal, you can think of using your strengths as the smallest thing that you can do to make the biggest difference.

Knowing your strengths is helpful only if you use them. A study published in American Psychologist asked people to identify their key strengths and then use one in a new and different way every day for a week. Compared with a control exercise (spending time each day writing about early memories), just identifying strengths (but not using them) had no impact on happiness (feelings of contentment or joy; the overall experience of pleasure, well-being, and meaning in life).

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