In positive psychology, cultivating and using our personal strengths is an integral part of striving for “the good life” – very roughly speaking, the pursuit of eudaimonia or happiness.
When we draw on the positive parts of our personality, research shows we can have a more significant positive impact on others, improve our relationships, and enhance our wellbeing and happiness.
So, where to begin?
By recognizing our strengths, of course!
The VIA Survey is one validated tool that can help us discover our strengths, including those that we tend to use and rely on the most. Read on to find out more about the Survey and how you can use it to bring out the best in yourself and those around you.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
You can download the free PDF here.
This article contains:
- What is the VIA Character Personality Assessment?
- Getting to Know Your Strengths with the VIA Survey
- 7 Benefits of Recognizing Your Strengths
- 11 Other Ways to Recognize Your Strengths
- Positive Psychology Exercises To Recognize Your Strengths
- How To Use Your Strengths?
- 6 Tips for Applying Your Strengths
- Using Your Strengths in the Workplace
- A Take-Home Message
What is the VIA Character Personality Assessment?
Character strengths are a core and foundational part of who we are, a collection of positive individual character traits that we all possess and which are linked to our development, wellbeing, and life satisfaction (Niemiec, 2013). They can be thought of as key capabilities, influencing how we think, act, and feel, and representing what we value in ourselves and others.
The VIA Character Personality Assessment is a scientific instrument measuring our strengths, and it’s widely used in both academia and schools, organizations, and more (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Strengths and Virtues
The 24 strengths are categorized into six classes of ‘virtues’. In no particular order, they are (Ruch & Proyer, 2015; VIACharacter.org, 2020):
- Transcendence – including appreciation of excellence and beauty, gratitude, hope, spirituality, and humor. As a virtue, transcendence strengths connect us in a meaningful way to the world around us.
- Wisdom – curiosity, creativity, perspective, love of learning, and judgment are considered wisdom strengths because they are useful in helping us learn and gather knowledge.
- Humanity – this virtue class includes social intelligence, love, and kindness. Humanity strengths come into play by helping us build and maintain positive, warm relationships with others.
- Courage – strengths in this class include bravery, zest, honesty, and perseverance. These emotional strengths empower us to tackle adversity and how we tend to work through it.
- Temperance – Temperance strengths help us “manage habits and protect against excess”, including managing and overcoming vices (VIACharacter.org, 2020). They include self-regulation, prudence, humility, and forgiveness.
- Justice – in this category, strengths such as teamwork, leadership, and fairness. With these strengths, we relate to those around us in social or group situations.
The VIA-IS Instrument
The survey contains 240 total questions – ten items for each of the 24 identified strengths, laid out in a 5-point Likert scale format. Officially known as the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), it was developed by Dr. Christopher Peterson has long been considered a psychometric instrument, performing well on empirical tests of reliability and validity (Peterson & Park, 2009; Peterson et al., 2009).
The VIA Youth Survey
The VIA-IS has also been adapted for those between 10 and 17 years old, and this version includes only 96 items.
Getting to Know Your Strengths with the VIA Survey
Interested in finding out your signature character strengths? You can take the test at the VIA Institute on Character website.
The scale ranges from 1 to 5; 1 is “Very Much Unlike Me,” and “Very Much Like Me” is 5, indicating a high loading on the factor.
Example items from the adult survey include:
- “I know that I will succeed with the goals I set for myself.” (Hope)
- “I always treat people fairly, whether I like them or not.” (Fairness)
- “At least once a day, I stop and count my blessings.” (Gratitude)
After completing a free version of the VIA Survey, you’ll receive a ranking of your strengths along with a brief description of each.
Signature and Lesser Strengths
If you’re after a more in-depth understanding of your character, including further insight into your signature strengths and lesser strengths, you can order a Profile Report.
According to the instrument, signature strengths are the central, essential strengths that are used regularly by individuals; often, they are exercised quite naturally. They are considered innate, making it easier and often more fulfilling for us to develop and use them (Park & Peterson, 2009).
We use lesser strengths less frequently, and they may be underdeveloped or less important to us than our signature strengths – though that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. You’ll find them lower down in your Profile Report.
All in all, the adult test generally takes under 15 minutes to complete in full.
7 Benefits of Recognizing Your Strengths
Logically, knowing our strengths allows us to use those that benefit us consciously and more actively. All while developing those that we might potentially find useful.
But what does the research say about those benefits, specifically? Here are a few of the most well-established and recent findings on the benefits.
1. Enhanced Well-being
Perhaps the most critical overall advantage: exercising one’s signature strengths has been shown to contribute to greater wellbeing and lower psychological distress in adults (Linley et al., 2010; Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews, 2012; Fava & Ruini, 2014).
In youths, research by Seligman and colleagues (2006) indicates that the same applies to children – using core strengths in action was related to higher life satisfaction and decreased depressive symptoms.
Significant correlations have also been found between specific character strengths (zest, hope) and self-acceptance (Harzer, 2016). In positive psychology, self-acceptance is an integral part of maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s self, helping us look past our perceived deficiencies, and knowing deeply that we are “enough.”
3. Greater Happiness
Plenty of researchers have looked at the relationship between character strengths and happiness. Among them:
- An Israeli study showing that transcendence strengths are a predictor of positive affect and life satisfaction (Weber et al., 2013).
- Another, by Peterson and colleagues in 2007, identified several strengths important to happiness through meaning, a key element of Seligman’s PERMA model – including curiosity, zest, and hope. The same study revealed relationships between the “engagement” and “pleasure” routes to happiness (Schueller & Seligman, 2010).
- A 2019 study by Schutte and Malouff recently examined the impact of signature strengths interventions, which found that developing these core strengths can improve positive affect and boost life satisfaction (Schutte & Malouff, 2019).
4. Improved Mental Health
Building on the above, Schutte and Malouff’s (2019) study also found that developing signature strengths can play a role in reducing depression. But as we know, mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. In essence, their findings correspond with those of Tehranchi and colleagues (2018), which show that character strengths negatively impact dysfunctional attitudes and positively influence our happiness.
Elsewhere, Zhang and Chen (2018) present evidence linking strengths application and future self-continuity with subjective wellbeing (SWB), which supports earlier studies lining strengths with SWB. In the latter, Gillham and colleagues (2011) worked with adolescents to look at the vital role of interpersonal connections and a sense of purpose in future wellbeing.
5. Positive Work Experiences
Harzer and Ruch (2013) used the Applicability of Character Strengths Rating Scales (ACS-RS) to examine signature strengths usage in organizations, and found that the more signature strengths were put into action at work, the higher people’s positive subjective experiences were. This was important, regardless of the nature of the work (its “content”).
More recently, studies have emerged, showing that applying signature strengths has a particularly strong impact on behavioral outcomes such as job performance and organizational citizenship behavior. Using happiness strengths, however, may impact more strongly on psycho-emotional outcomes in the workplace, such as satisfaction, engagement, and experienced meaning (Littman-Ovadia et al., 2017).
6. Positive Affect at School
Studies of students have also found positive correlations between positive moods at school, and the character strengths of perseverance, social intelligence, zest, and love of learning. Others were linked to overall academic achievement, and still others correlated negatively with school-related negative affect (hope and love, among others) (Weber et al., 2016).
With this knowledge, we can help students fulfill their potential and create more positive school experiences. By designing curricula, training teachers and educators, and equipping schools with the resources to foster strength development, we are promoting better student quality of life (Lavy, 2019).
7. Efficient Problem-Solving
Studies have shown that helping youths recognize, cultivate, and apply their strengths has at least a few benefits. When testing the efficacy of strengths interventions, Rashid and colleagues (2013) demonstrate that children could solve problems more efficiently when taught to utilize their strengths when tackling problems.
The same study provided evidence that doing so also had a positive impact on their wellbeing.
In a Nutshell
Clearly, strengths research is a popular and fast-growing area in positive psychology – it would be impossible to cover all the benefits of knowing your strengths in this article.
The key benefits of this awareness, to sum it all up, lie in:
- Allowing us to more consciously apply them – at work, in building and cultivating relationships, when tackling adversity, trying to boost our performance, and myriad more aspects of life (Hodges & Clifton, 2004).
- Helping us focus our development – both in ourselves and others, including students and children (e.g., Fava & Ruini, 2014).
- Creating environments that promote strengths applications – such as in organizations, therapy, coaching, healthcare, and education (e.g., Littman-Ovadia et al., 2017).
So, are there other ways that we can know our strengths?
11 Other Ways to Recognize Your Strengths
Strengths Tests and Assessments
There are more than a few alternative assessments if you’re hoping to recognize your strengths.
Here’s a brief overview of some that we’ve covered elsewhere, but you can also find out more about most of these tests, questionnaires, and worksheets, activities, and exercises in this article: 7 Most Accurate Character Strengths Assessments and Tests:
- Signature Strength Questionnaire (SSQ-72). An online assessment based on the VIA framework that identifies five or six of your top (signature) strengths. It takes roughly 20 minutes to complete this questionnaire. There are three items for each of the 24 character strengths.
- The DISC Profile. Originally developed by psychologist Dr. William Marston almost a century ago, the DISC Profile focuses on four individual traits: Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness (S), and Conscientiousness (C) (Marston, 2013). The assessment itself, however, was developed in 1956 by organizational psychologist Walter Clarke, and a version is now available online.
- Personal Strengths Inventory. An informal online test based on Professor Martin Seligman’s strengths research, which identifies the strengths you utilize most, how they appear in your day-to-day, and how you can leverage them to your advantage.
- CliftonStrengths. Formerly known as the Clifton StrengthsFinder, this online instrument helps you identify your strengths and understand how you can develop your key talents into strengths. This is based on research by author Don Clifton and designed primarily for educators and organizations.
Positive Psychology Exercises To Recognize Your Strengths
Some other science-based ways to find your strengths can be found right here on our site.
- Use the You, At Your Best exercise to discover your strengths using narrative therapy. Leveraging the power of storytelling, you can draw on past experiences to relive times when your positive traits and competencies came to life.
- Strengths Spotting by Exception Finding is not just highly useful for therapists, counselors, coaches, and other practitioners to use with clients. It is also a powerful way to find your own strengths. By inviting you to look at how you deal with challenges, it gives you insight into the resources that you rely on and leverage for positive results – your strengths.
- A Reflected Best Self Portrait helps you search for positive patterns in the things said about you by friends, relatives, colleagues, and others. You’ll structure these into a coherent narrative, and then create an action plan based on your enhanced strengths knowledge.
Discovering Your Strengths in Everyday Life
Plenty of simple exercises and habits can also help you identify your strengths as you go about your everyday life. Niemec & McGrath (2019) suggest that the following are good sources of information on what we do well:
- Customer, employee, or performance reviews.
- Your social media posts (a surprising one!).
- Compliments that we receive at work.
- Our brains, when we actively reflect on our strengths before approaching any (often challenging) situation – it’s called “resource priming” (Fluckiger et al., 2009; 2010).
Use all the information you’ve got, and expand your thinking – what makes you feel great, or what do you excel at in different life domains?
How To Use Your Strengths?
Knowing your strengths is a fantastic starting point, as we’ve seen. The next step is applying them, but how do we do that?
Michelle McQuaid, author of the best-selling Your Strengths Blueprint, recommends trying to spot them at work in our daily lives, so we can better understand what they look like in action. As we grow more aware of what it feels like to leverage specific strengths, we can become more conscious about when and where they might benefit us and others.
As well as this, you can try (Roberts et al., 2005; McQuaid et al., 2019):
1. Using a Strengths Journal
If you go blank when you try to recall your strengths in action, try keeping a log of your greatest moments at the end of each day or week. Take some time to reflect on events and instances that made you feel proud, happy, or fulfilled, and ask yourself a couple of questions. Namely:
- What was I doing at that moment? (e.g., helping a friend), and
- What strengths might I have been applying? (e.g., kindness)
2. Asking Others
Reach out to someone you feel comfortable talking to and ask them what they like about you. It might seem daunting at first, but they’re sure to be able to think of some things that you do particularly well, or even excel at.
3. Spot Strengths in Others
Most people (some figures say 95%) find it much easier to spot strengths in others (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
In The Power of Character Strengths, Psychologist Dr. Ryan Niemec introduces a SEA acronym that you can use to identify strengths in action, allowing you to get a better feel for the link between strengths and behaviors.
This framework is also a great way for you to build more positive relationships with the people whose strengths you’re spotting:
- (S) Spot: Label the strength you see in a friend, relative, or co-worker. Is it a VIA character strength that you recognize?
- (E) Explain: Describe what you saw and the reason behind it when you talk to them.
- (A) Appreciate: Tell them what it means to you and the value it brings. Express your gratitude!
All of these help you gain a stronger sense of those times when you’re already using your strengths, as well as what it feels like when you do. From here, you can think about what contexts enable you to utilize them and how you can proactively create more situations where your strengths shine.
6 Tips for Applying Your Strengths
After some ready-to-go tips for applying your strengths? Try these:
1. Build a Strengths Self-Portrait
One reason the Reflected Best Self exercise we just described is so effective – it helps you create a very clear overall picture of how you act in different contexts. We can’t change every context that we find ourselves in, but we can take steps to shape some of our surroundings.
Ideally, we want to create possibilities for leveraging strengths where we see the opportunity (Linley & Harrington, 2006). Are you able to find a new role, or apply for a promotion?
2. Get Help From Others
Invite others to talk about strengths with you, both yours and theirs. Have you thought about asking for professional coaching, or an online course that will help you make better use of your talents and strengths?
3. Try Job Crafting
If a new role or position isn’t a possibility right now, or not something you’re interested in, why not change the way you approach your job? Among other things, this article on job crafting outlines how you can find more meaning and purpose in your work by leveraging your signature strengths.
4. Do More of What You Love
It goes without saying, but our hobbies and passions are superb instances of things we either do well or love getting better at. These are your strengths at work, and all the more reason to get stuck into them!
5. Create a Daily Strength Habit
The more we ingrain strengths usage into our daily lives, the more our brains become hard-wired to do those actions naturally. Why? Because of neuroplasticity.
Seek out as many opportunities as you can to implement your strengths in daily life, no matter how small. Is gratitude one of yours? Say thanks to a stranger who does something kind, or reach out to someone with a gratitude letter. Is kindness a signature strength of yours? Volunteer for a charity or help an elderly neighbor with their groceries!
Using Your Strengths in the Workplace
Source: McQuaid et al. (2019, p. 21)
Applying your strengths at work more effectively means seeking out opportunities to do so – and that relies on having a few key elements in place.
As McQuaid and colleagues describe in the Strengths Lab 2019 Survey, they are (McQuaid et al., 2019):
- Psychological Safety – An accepting environment in which team members feel comfortable displaying vulnerability with one another, making mistakes, and taking risks (Frazier et al., 2017).
- Meaningful Conversations with Leadership – In which employees and higher-ups talk about topics such as top individual strengths, their impact, application, and development.
- Organizational Commitment to developing co-workers’ strengths, through activation, initiatives, and support.
If these elements are in place, co-workers like you and I are more likely to find chances to implement our strengths for the benefit of our companies. As they require collective effort on the part of everyone employed at an organization, there is a key takeaway.
That is, for more chances to implement your strengths at work – and for others to do the same – we need to play our role in building and nurturing strengths-based workplaces. Initiate conversations, ask for feedback, show support, and you’ll be enabling your own strengths activation.
A Take-Home Message
There continue to be more and more evidence-based reasons for us to cultivate a good knowledge of our character strengths. Doing so not only empowers us to plan and prioritize their development, but it means we can get proactive about taking steps to do so.
Whether you’re keen to improve your work performance or find more meaning in your everyday life, there is a wealth of tools and daily techniques out there at your fingertips. Why not try the VIA Survey as a start, and let us know how you go?
Do you use the VIA Survey in your practice to help clients? If not, is that on purpose? Have you taken the test yourself, out of curiosity? Share your thoughts below as a comment!
If you enjoyed this topic, head on over to the 10 Best Ted Talks on Via Character Strengths for more inspiration.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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