How to Use Your Character Strengths

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This post explains how to use the results of the survey of your character strengths.

You may like to have your character strengths survey results to hand while thinking about these questions. Head over to the VIA Survey website to recap your strengths, or take the test if you haven’t done so already. This previous post explains the background.

What can I do with my list of strengths?

One common exercise is a discussion of your signature strengths with another person. Talk with someone you trust about which strengths strike you as more authentically associated with yourself. One thing you might discuss or have a think about is:

How do I know when to use which strength?

Sometimes it’s possible to be too courageous, too curious or even too kind. The trick is determining when to use which strength. Try to think of situations in which you’ve used your strengths successfully and times when you’ve used them unsuccessfully. Is there any pattern? If there is, what is this telling you? Schwartz and Sharpe (2005) argue that practical wisdom can only be reached through practice. There’s no substitute for exercising your strengths in the right way, and understanding why.

What if I’m uncomfortable discussing my strengths?

Negative points are easier to spot in others as well as in ourselves. As a result some people find it difficult to talk, or even just think about their strengths. It may also be partly cultural: Americans tend to be more comfortable discussing positivity, whereas other cultures like the British can be turned off by all this ‘happy-clappy’ positivity.

That’s fine, so instead of focusing on the top 5 character strengths, concentrate on the bottom of the list. These are your least strong strengths – I hesitate to say weaknesses because the survey isn’t concerned with rooting out weakness, it’s solely concerned with strengths. Still, those ‘strengths’ are at the bottom of the list for a reason.

Weakness can also be found in strengths if those strengths aren’t used in a balanced way. For example some people take critical thinking to extreme and end up highly cynical, finding it hard to see anything positive in the world. Similarly prudence is a highly admirable character strength, but too much prudence can lead to a boring and isolated life. Recognising the dangers inherent in some strengths can also be beneficial.

Are some character strengths more likely to be seen together in one person?

The strengths can be described on two dimensions: first on whether they are self or other-focused strengths, and second on whether they are strengths of mind or strengths of heart. Self-focused strengths include curiosity, self-regulation and zest, while other-focused strengths include modesty, kindness and forgiveness. Strengths of mind include open-mindedness, self-regulation and modesty, while strengths of heart include gratitude, hope and zest.

People are more likely to have signature strengths that are close on these two dimensions. For example people whose strength is perspective are also likely to have a love of learning. Similarly someone whose strength is kindness is also likely to be particularly forgiving. Do your strengths cluster together in this way, or are they more disparate?

[Your task is slightly hampered here by not being able to see all the strengths laid out along the dimensions - unfortunately I don't have access to a copy I can use here. You'll have to use your ingenuity to work out which strengths are closely related.]

Aren’t the answers I have given in the survey subject to a social desirability bias?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. All the questions in the VIA survey ask about positive traits, so there is clearly a bias in the way (most) people will respond. Naturally people tend to see themselves in a relatively positive light and so will tend to answer in the affirmative for most questions. For example, it’s an extremely rare person that says they have no morals or no curiosity at all.

The point with this survey is that as long as the response to every question isn’t exactly the same, then it will reveal something about your character. That variability between ‘very much like me’ and ‘most of the time’ reveals something. Using this variability the survey can work out which traits are most applicable and which least.

More generally, though, why should we only believe others when talking about their deficiencies, but not when point out their strengths?

Give me more ways to think about my strengths!

Certainly. You can think about your strengths in relation to all the major areas of your life:

  • Do your signature strengths match up with those used in your job. If not, could you adjust your job so that they do? Or perhaps even change your job?
  • How do your strengths fit with those closest to you, e.g. your partner?
  • Which strengths give you the most energy when you use them? How could you use them more? How could you use them differently – say in a different context or with different people?
  • What hobbies/interests do you have and how do your strengths contribute? Are there other interests you could develop on the basis of your strengths?

Image credit: StockMonkeys.com

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 5 January 2009

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