Wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice, and moderation are the six values that Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson have directed much research towards.
What do these different values mean to you? Which of these have the greatest impact on your well-being?
Seligman describes in his book “Authentic Happiness” how he and Peterson identified values that are pervasive across time and cultures around the globe. In their research, they analyzed different religious and philosophical material including Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius; the Bible, the Koran, and Buddhism, to name a few.
They found a surprising amount of overlap in the virtues that are considered fundamental to each culture. Each virtue is characterized by specific character strengths, twenty-four in total, and can be achieved by exercising these strengths. For instance, displaying love, kindness and social intelligence lead to the virtue of “humanity.”
These strengths are often ingrained in rituals, stories, and parables, as well as institutions.
This article contains:
Getting to Know Your Strengths
One version of the VIA survey can be found here. It identifies your signature strengths by asking 120 self-rating questions, for example:
- To what extent do you agree with the statements “Being able to come up with new and different ideas is one of my strong points”, or
- “I know how to handle myself in different social situations”?
Another way to get to know your strengths is by answering the following questions:
- Childhood memories: What do you remember doing as a child that you still do now – but most likely much better? Strengths often have deep roots in our early lives.
- Energy: What activities give you an energetic buzz when you are doing them? These activities are very likely calling on your strengths.
- Authenticity: When do you feel most like the “real you”? The chances are that you’re using your strengths in some way.
- Ease: Which activities come naturally to you? The ones you have a tendency to excel in without a lot of effort are likely to use your strengths.
- Attention: See where you naturally pay attention. You are most likely to focus on things that are playing to your strengths.
- Rapid learning: What are the things that you have picked up quickly, learning them almost effortlessly? Rapid learning often indicates an underlying strength.
- “To Do” lists: Notice the things that never make it on your “to do” list. The things that always seem to get done often reveal an underlying strength that means we never need to be asked twice.
Ask some people who know you well, to name the 5 strengths that characterize you using the list that can be downloaded here. Most often, there is a great overlap between the strengths that others believe you possess and your signature strengths.
Marcus Buckingham, one of the leading experts on Strengths, explains it in this short video:
In “Authentic Happiness,” Seligman talks in depth about positive emotions, strengths and their application in various areas of life, and provides a shorter version of the survey. But let’s back up for a moment. Why is it so important to know your strengths and virtues?
“Character strengths are viewed as our positive personality in that they are our core capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that can bring benefit to oneself and others. We express our character strengths universally across all domains – work, relationships, school, social, etc.”
VIA Character Personality Assessment
Seligman describes how exercising one’s signature strengths leads to lasting positive feelings such as gratification and authenticity.
Put into the wider context of positive psychology research, we know from Barbara Fredrickson’s work on the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions that cultivating positive feelings helps us develop and grow our repertoire of social, intellectual and physical skills, both as individuals and as a society.
Being able to identify our authentic self via our values and strengths gives us a head start. So, once you’ve completed the VIA survey, how do you work with the results? The questionnaire will identify, in order of importance, your signature strengths. You will most likely see a mix of strengths related to different values.
This table has a helpful overview and description of the values and strengths. To identify which of the strengths particularly represent your authentic self, Seligman recommends considering if one or more of the following statements apply:
- A sense of ownership and authenticity (“This is the real me”);
- A feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first;
- A rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced;
- Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength;
- A sense of yearning to find ways to use it;
- A feeling of inevitability in using the strength (“Try and stop me”);
- Invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the strength;
- The creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around it;
- Joy, zest, enthusiasm, even ecstasy.
Strengths in the Workplace
How does the application of your signature character strengths in the workplace affect one’s work experience? This question was addressed in a study by Harzer and Ruch (2012).
They investigated the topic of positive experiences at work (job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, meaning) using a sample of 1,111 employees.
They found that the more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the higher the positive experiences at work were. People who expressed less than four of their top strengths had less positive work experiences.
In other words, if you’re using at least four of your signature strengths regularly at work you are more likely to have more positive experiences at work. So, with this in mind here’s what you can do:
- First, you need to know what your top strengths are, as we’ve covered above (using a combination of the survey, answering the questions above and asking people around you for their insights is a great way to go about it).
- Next ask yourself: which strengths am I regularly using at work? Which of these strengths do I have more potential to use in my work regularly?
- After you identified the strengths get your pen and paper and brainstorm all the different ways in which you could use those strengths at work. Is there a way for you to adjust your tasks so that they could be a better fit with your strengths? First, get creative before deciding on which of the ideas you’re going to start with, then take action and give it a try.
If there is a good match between personal strengths and job demands, people are more likely to be satisfied with their work and experience positive emotions.
Research also shows that people who use their strengths at work are more engaged and productive which shows just how important it is to develop this awareness and to start creating more opportunities and environments where people can put their best qualities to use.
Marcus Buckingham quickly summarizes how to do this below.
Character Experts, Character Strengths: VIA Character. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53.
Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2012): When the job is a calling: The role of applying one’s signature strengths at work. Journal of Positive Psychology.
Seligman, M. (2002): Authentic Happiness, Free Press, New York