What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve ever had to overcome in your life? Or, if you feel like you have been fortunate enough so far to not have to overcome any major challenges, what do you think could be the biggest challenge that you might need to overcome?
I’m fairly confident that whatever you brought to mind was not a physical challenge. Physical challenges, of course, rely on physical strength to complete. We all know, either from our own actual experience or simple reflection, that the greater our physical strength is, the more likely we are to be able to tackle physical challenges effectively.
I suspect that the biggest challenge that may have come to mind for you is something that would involve strength of a different kind – character strength. Things like bravery and courage; or gratitude, forgiveness or humility. For most of us, when we are asked to reflect on the most challenging situations we may have to face, we begin to think about things like dealing with a serious illness, managing a major change to employment or housing, dealing with a relationship break up or the death of someone significant to us. Physical strength is never going to be useful in these situations, but character strengths are.
There’s been a great deal of psychological research over the past 20 to 30 years on character strengths. Much of it was initiated by Professor Martin Seligman, who is often thought of as the “father” of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what it means to “thrive” or “flourish” – to live a good life, using the best of our abilities and strengths to develop not only our own well-being, but also the well-being of people in our communities.
So what are character strengths? They’re probably best thought of as the virtues and characteristics that any person can develop and which are universally agreed upon as desirable parts of a personality. For example, if you were asked which characteristic you would prefer to have in your personality – jealousy or bravery – you would probably opt for bravery. And most people likely would. Unsurprisingly, bravery is one of 24 character strengths identified by Seligman and his colleague Christopher Peterson in their 2004 book, published by the American Psychological Association, Character Strengths and Virtues.
Broadly, there are six “virtues”:
and within each of these virtues there are several strengths. The strengths include things like curiosity, bravery, kindness, fairness and gratitude. If you’d like to explore the 24 strengths identified by Seligman and Peterson, you can locate them and read more detail about each of them here.
Learning about our own character strengths is the same as learning about our own physical strengths. If you’ve ever done a gym program, then you’ll know that one of the things that happens early on is an assessment of your current capacities – leg strength, arm strength, shoulder strength, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility. These are important to understand because they give us baseline measurements and also show us the areas where we are doing well and areas where we could improve. That way, whatever program you follow at the gym can be tailored for you and can produce the best results for you, for the effort you put in.
Character strengths can be assessed in the same way. If you haven’t before engaged with understanding what your own character strengths might be, there’s a free survey that you can take here. Doing this will give you a way of being able to describe some of the characteristics that really define you as a person and will help you to understand more about the particular attributes that you bring to various aspects of your life – work relationships, personal relationships and personal challenges.
Once these character strengths are understood, then we can look more closely at ways in which we can use them even more for the benefit of ourselves and others and more importantly, we can look at ways to further develop the “lesser strengths” that we have.
So what are some of the benefits to be gained from taking the time to focus on building our character strengths? A great deal of research has been undertaken over recent years and the great news is that taking the time to cultivate aspects of our character (in the same way as we might take time to develop and maintain physical fitness) leads to some potentially great outcomes.
Research published in Australia shows that when we use our signature strengths, we experience greater levels of psychological satisfaction and well-being and we make better progress towards achieving personal goals. Similarly research suggests that developing our strengths can result in increased positive emotions and an overall increase in life satisfaction.
Utilising our character strengths can also lead to greater engagement at work, a greater sense of meaning derived from work and an overall increased experience of satisfaction related to work. From an educational viewpoint, research also suggests that when teachers are equipped to support the development of character strengths in school students, it can lead to improvements in quality of life for students.
You can find out more about some of the exciting research that’s been undertaken in relation to character strengths and their capacity to enrich our lives here.
If you’d like to begin doing some things to develop your own character strengths, there are many very straightforward, no cost, activities that you can do to learn more about yourself and boost your capacity for positivity, satisfaction and well-being. Here are a few suggestions to get you going:
- Firstly, consider taking the character strengths survey described above. It’s free to take and you can begin to learn more about the strengths that describe who you are and how you “show up” in your everyday life. This process of building awareness and being able to describe clearly what your strengths are is probably the most useful first step if you haven’t previously done this.
- Keep a character strengths journal. This is easy to do and also gives you an opportunity to reflect on the best moments of each day. At the end of the day set-aside just 10 minutes or so to reflect on what your “best moments” were. Maybe it was when you performed a random act of kindness; or when someone thanked you or complimented you; or when you felt the satisfaction of completing a particular task. Write down these moments and then reflect on the strengths that you used to achieve those things. Make a note of those strengths alongside the best moments and continue looking for ways that you can use those strengths in your everyday life.
- Keep a “challenges” journal. Take a few minutes one or two times a week to reflect on some aspects of the week that you found most challenging. Look through your list of identified character strengths and ask yourself: “Which strengths might have been helpful to me here?” Look for ways to practice these particular strengths in the coming days. For example if one of the strengths you identified might have been useful is “kindness”, look for opportunities to deliberately initiate and practice acts of kindness in the coming days. As with anything, whether it’s muscle development, learning a musical instrument, learning a language or learning to drive a car, the more we practice something the more skilled we become at it.
- Consider who you admire in your life. What character strengths do you see in that person? Write them down and, similarly to the suggestion above, look for opportunities to practice and develop those strengths in your own life. If you admire someone in your life for their capacity to speak up courageously, look for ways to do this as well. This could mean speaking up when you see something happen that you think is not right or just.
The identification of character strengths in the way that we understand them now, has been one of the best offerings from the field of psychology in the last 25 years. When we focus on the strengths that we have within us, naturally, as well as the strengths that we can continue to develop, we have the opportunity to create a powerful sense of well-being, satisfaction, meaning and purpose in our own lives. And more importantly than that, knowing what our strengths are and how we can use them gives us the capacity to make an impact on the lives of those around us.
FASLM, MHlthSci, DipIBLM, MAPS
Simon is the CEO of Wellcoaches® Australia, an AHPRA Registered Psychologist, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Professional, Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Fitness Trainer
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