When you think of how to live a life in which you can flourish, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
For many, flourishing is tantamount to happiness. But, what is happiness? What contributes to a life well lived?
We are often at our happiest when our natural strengths and skills are put to use. Using strengths regularly and in new ways provides a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
Indeed, identifying signature strengths and then using them in everyday life may provide a route to life satisfaction and psychological fulfillment, while also acting as a buffer against negative outcomes (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
We may think of the six virtues (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence) as core characteristics that are valued universally. Strengths are widely-valued positive traits that reflect the universal capacity to think, feel, and behave in ways that benefit oneself and others – they are how one may exhibit a particular virtue.
Research into character strengths occupies a central role within the field of positive psychology and resulted in the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths. Led by Christopher Peterson, the VIA project examined what is right about people and the strengths of character that contribute to optimal development across the lifespan.
In the following article, you will find a selection of the best TED talks on character strengths and virtues presented by speakers with a wealth of professional and personal experience on the subject.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, the videos included have been selected to provide an overview of why a focus on strengths is important, finding strength in weakness, and some personal stories of character strengths in practice.
This article contains:
- Ryan Niemiec: A Universal Language that Describes What’s Best in Us
- Shane Lopez: Focusing on Your Strengths
- Chris Wejr: Want to Bring Out the Best in People? Start with Strengths
- Richard Shotton: The Strength in Weakness
- Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability
- Angela Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
- Louie Schwartzberg: Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.
- Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix: What Comes After Tragedy? Forgiveness
- Chris Abani: On Humanity
- Suzie Sheehy: The Case for Curiosity-driven Research
- A Take-Home Message
Ryan Niemiec: A Universal Language that Describes What’s Best in Us
Education director of the VIA Institute on Character, Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a leading figure in the research and application of character strengths and the creator of Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), an evidence-based 8-week program that integrates the practices of mindfulness and character strengths.
Niemiec is also the author of several best-selling books, including Character Strengths Interventions: A Field-Guide for Practitioners (2017), Mindfulness and Character Strengths (2014), and The Power of Character Strengths (2019) among many others.
Research examining character strengths using the VIA classification system indicates significant associations between character strengths and positive outcomes (Niemiec, 2013).
For instance, Ruch, Huber, Beermann, and Proyer (2007) found a strong relationship between specific character strengths and satisfaction with life, while a higher overall score of all 24 character strengths has been correlated with subjective well-being. Furthermore, Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2004) suggest that character strengths act as a buffer in times of poor physical and psychological wellness.
In this talk, Niemiec poses the question: How can we ever expect to reach positive outcomes without utilizing our character strengths? His answer is simple: we cannot. To achieve one’s goals, states Niemiec, tapping into one’s signature strengths is imperative.
The overriding theme in this video is the importance of finding strengths that feel natural and energizing, then using those strengths in real-life situations or new and different ways to create a positive contagion effect that spreads to others.
Shane Lopez: Focusing on Your Strengths
Before his death in 2016, Shane Lopez, Ph.D. was a Gallup Senior Scientist, a leading authority on the psychology of hope and the links between hope, strengths development, and overall well-being.
The author of countless books, associate editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and an editorial board member of the Journal of Positive Psychology, Shane Lopex has made invaluable contributions to the field of positive psychology.
In this TEDTalk, Lopez emphasizes the importance of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses, as we are often prone to do. His overarching message is that people should find something they are good at, grow it, and have the courage to put that strength to work in the world.
Lopez shares his insights regarding strengths and strength-spotting, explaining how to improve your strength-spotting skills in three ways:
- by developing a strengths mindset: it is all about believing that every person you encounter has strengths that can be named and nurtured;
- by catching people in moments of excellence: it is taking a moment to acknowledge when people do extraordinary things in ordinary situations; and
- by naming and nurturing the strengths that led to achieving the extraordinary.
After all, as Lopez postulates in his closing moments, wouldn’t it be great if someone found you exceptional and said the reasons why, and wouldn’t it be great if you did the same?
Chris Wejr: Want to Bring Out the Best in People? Start with Strengths
In this video, educator and esteemed speaker, Chris Wejr, asks the question: Why is it that we become so aware of the things that we cannot do and lose sight of the things that we can do?
Discussing the need to shift the focus within our school systems to a more strengths-based approach, Wejr suggests that within current deficit-based educational systems, educators are likely to know the areas in which children struggle, but what about the areas they excel?
When we look at our strengths and what is going well, we gain confidence in ourselves, we can harness our positive feelings, and we can direct that energy to areas where we’re struggling.
Encouragement of the use of character strengths would not only make young people happier, healthier, and more socially connected but also help them do better at school and to be more productive at their eventual place of work (Park & Peterson, 2009).
According to Wejr, when students’ character strengths and skills are embraced, they are given opportunities to excel: they are both connected and engaged with the learning process and their educators and are also provided opportunities to flourish.
Indeed, by being intensely interested in the individual strengths, educators are better able to motivate students to achieve above and beyond the construct of any given curriculum (Scheidecker & Freeman, 2015).
Wejr leaves us with a challenge: Work to bring out the best in people. Start with strengths and start today.
Richard Shotton: The Strength in Weakness
Behavioral economist, Richard Shotton, is the head of Behavioral Science at UK-based creative media agency, Manning Gottlieb, and the author of The Choice Factory: 25 behavioral biases that influence what we buy (2018).
Shotton’s best-seller examines the behavioral biases that influence a consumer’s choice to buy products, including the pratfall effect (Aronson, Willerman, & Floyd, 1966), which postulates that flaws can make brands significantly more appealing to consumers.
Strengths and weaknesses are often two sides of the same coin (McKergow, 2005), and in this video, Shotton explores the science behind why imperfections make people – and products – more attractive.
Much of Shotton’s career has focused on applying the findings from behavioral science to advertising, and here he shares how everyone from bands to brands can utilize the pratfall effect to become more authentic and likable.
The fundamental message in Shotton’s talk is that weaknesses not only make brands and products more appealing, but that the pratfall effect can be applied to the individual. So, what personal flaw could you admit that might make you more appealing to others?
Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown is a researcher, scholar, and best-selling author who has spent over a decade investigating vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TEDx talk – The Power of Vulnerability – is one of the most viewed TED talks in the world.
For Brown, there is value in vulnerability: you cannot numb negative feelings without also numbing the positive (Brown, 2012). Therefore, if we do not allow ourselves to show vulnerability to others, then many positive aspects of human connection may also be damaged.
According to Brown, most people hide behind a facade, projecting an illusion of strength. However, the acknowledgment, acceptance, and expression of personal vulnerabilities mean vulnerability can become a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness.
Indeed, the key to authenticity says Brown is the acknowledgment of personal vulnerabilities and the continued practice of letting go of who we’re supposed to be and embracing who we truly are.
Angela Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Psychologist and author of the best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, is also the co-founder of Character Lab, a research network that aims to apply the latest character development strategies to schools.
Her talk poses the question: What does it take to do well in life? According to Duckworth, what we truly need to succeed is grit; more specifically, we need perseverance.
Perseverance is strongly associated with the quality of work performance, academic achievement in middle school students and college students, and negatively associated with counterproductive behaviors (Littman-Ovadia & Lavy, 2015).
In this short video, Duckworth discusses the topic of grit and the importance of passion, perseverance, and character strengths in general.
Recalling her experiences as a teacher, Duckworth explains how she came to the gradual realization that doing well academically takes much more than IQ, talent, and the ability to learn quickly. Instead, the most significant predictor of success is grit: the passion, stamina, and perseverance to achieve long term goals.
Louie Schwartzberg: Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.
In this short Ted Talk, director, producer, and photographer Louie Schwartzberg explains that we are all born with a sense of wonder.
While extraordinary and astonishing feats might trigger this wonder, to truly experience wonder, we must appreciate the beauty that can be found in our everyday surroundings.
Schwartzberg’s talk is interspersed with impressive time-lapse images of wildlife and nature, each of which celebrates life and illustrates that nature’s beauty is a gift that evokes appreciation and gratitude.
Schwartzberg’s underlying message is that by opening our hearts to the blessings that are all around us, we can begin to recognize and appreciate that each day is a gift, and the only appropriate response is gratitude.
Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix: What Comes After Tragedy? Forgiveness
Central to the concept of forgiveness is the idea of a freely chosen motivation in which the desire to seek revenge and avoid contact with a transgressor is overcome and replaced with an increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Worthington & Scherer, 2004). This talk by Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix is an incredible illustration of forgiveness in action.
Azim Khamisa begins with the words: “We humans have many defining moments in our lives. Sometimes these moments are joyous, and sometimes they are heartbreaking, tragic”.
These words set the stage for a moving story of heartbreak, bravery, humanity, and forgiveness. In 1995, Tariq, the unarmed son of Azim, was shot and killed by Ples Felix’s 14-year-old grandson, Tony, in a gang initiation. How can a family move on after such a tragic event?
Ples and Azim talk candidly about Tariq, Tony, the tragic events that brought them together, and their journey to forgiveness. While Tony is still serving his sentence, both men are working to have him released. In a beautiful display of forgiveness and compassion, Khamisa states that on Tony’s release, he will join them on their mission to save young men from the same fate.
Chris Abani: On Humanity
Chris Abani is a South African novelist, poet, playwright, and public speaker who has become an international voice on humanity. Through his rich and provocative works, Abani has earned many literary distinctions and prestigious awards.
In this talk, Abani shares everyday stories about everyday people which eloquently convey the idea that the world is never saved in grand gestures, but in the simple accumulation of everyday acts of compassion.
The South African philosophy of Ubuntu states that the only way we can be human is for others to reflect our humanity back. Put simply, according to Ubuntu, there is no way for us to be human without other people.
Using the concept of Ubuntu as a springboard, Abani goes on to share stories of war, prison, trauma, and the simple acts of kindness that can help people reclaim their humanity.
Suzie Sheehy: The Case for Curiosity-driven Research
Curiosity is one of the strengths most reliably linked to satisfaction with life, happiness, health, longevity, and positive social relationships (Park et al., 2014; Buschor et al., 2013).
Physicist, Suzie Sheehy, talks about the importance of curiosity within scientific research and shows how much of the technology we utilize today is directly tied to curiosity-driven experimentation.
Much of the research carried out over the centuries has been initiated by idle curiosities. While the real-world applications of curiosity-driven research may not be immediately evident, this seemingly pointless scientific research often leads to extraordinary future discoveries.
Sheehy uses the excellent example of J.J. Thompson, whose curiosity led to the accidental discovery of the subatomic particle. At the time, Thompson’s research was deemed impractical and useless, and yet, modern life as we know it is built on this discovery.
Without his curiosity-driven research and discovery of electrons, many of the technologies we rely on today, such as X-rays, PET scans, television, and smartphones, simply would not exist.
A Take-Home Message
Using our signature strengths regularly and in novel ways contributes to a life well lived and a life worth living. In utilizing our strengths, we are better able to achieve one of the most important goals that most of us share: cultivating and maintaining a happy, healthy, and morally good life. And yet, there is strength to be found in weakness.
As Christopher Peterson so eloquently stated:
If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all.
I hope you have enjoyed this foray into strengths and virtues. Do you have a TED Talk that you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments.
- Abani, C. (2008, February). On humanity [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_abani_on_humanity/up-next
- Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966). The effect of pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science, 4, 227-228.
- Brown, B. (2012). The power of vulnerability. Louisville: Sounds True Inc.
- Buschor, C., Proyer, R.T., & Ruch, W. (2013). Self- and peer-rated character strengths: how do they relate to satisfaction with life and orientations to happiness? Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 116–127.
- Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Harper-Collins Publishers. Ltd.
- Khamisa, A. & Felix, P. (2017, November). What comes after tragedy? Forgiveness [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/azim_khamisa_and_ples_felix_what_comes_after_tragedy_forgiveness/up-next
- Littman-Ovadia, H. & Lavy, S. (2015). Going the extra mile: perseverance as a key character strength at work. Journal of Career Assessment, 1-13.
- Lopez, S. (2016, May). Focusing on Your Strengths [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/shane_lopez_focusing_on_your_strengths/up-next
- McKergow, M. (2005). Positive approaches to organizations and people. In M. McKergow & J. Clarke (Eds). Positive approaches to change. Gloucester: Action Publishing.
- Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2009) Character Strengths: Research and Practice. Journal of College and Character, 10, 1-10.
- Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first ten years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Wellbeing and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York. NY: Springer.
- Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Hogrefe Publishing.
- Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe Publishing.
- Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.
- Ruch, W., Proyer, R. T., Harzer, C., Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2010). Values in action inventory of strengths (VIA-IS): Adaptation and validation of the German version and the development of a peer-rating form. Journal of Individual Differences, 31, 138-149.
- Scheidecker, D. & Freeman, W. (2015). Bringing out the best in students: how legendary teachers motivate kids. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
- Schwartzberg, L. (2001, June). Nature. Beauty. Gratitude. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/louie_schwartzberg_nature_beauty_gratitude/up-next
- Shotton, R. (2018). The choice factory: 25 behavioral biases that influence what we buy. UK: Harriman House.
- TED. (2016, March 2). Chris Wejr: Want to Bring Out the Best in People? Start with Strengths [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1107&v=MtduVS9BSxw&feature=emb_logo
- TED. (2017, June 29). Ryan Niemiec: A Universal Language that Describes What’s Best in Us [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMWck0mKGWc
- Worthington, E.L., & Scherer, M.(2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology and Health, 19, 385–405.