Instead of beating ourselves up about improving our lives, how about looking at what we are good at? Psychologists suggest that the route to a contented life isn’t necessarily through looking at illness, disorder and distress (as therapy has traditionally done) but by focusing on happiness, health, wellbeing and fulfilment – so-called ‘positive psychology’. The philosophy advocates playing to our ‘signature strengths’, rather than giving ourselves a hard time about our failings.
The theory In 2004, US psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman produced the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, a tool to test what your best strengths are. Peterson and Seligman said that once we become aware of what our positive attributes are, we can apply them to our lives on a daily basis and make better choices, leading to greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The process enables us to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. The importance of getting in touch with our signature strengths has been proven time and again. Several studies (Gander et al, 2012; and Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012) found that using signature strengths in a new way increased happiness and decreased depression. But that’s easier said than done. Surveys asking people to name their strengths have found that only one-third of them can readily do so (Hill, 2001) because many may find it hard to say exactly what it is they’re good at. So if you need some help, read on.
1. Take a look at the 24 signature strengths below. Create a list from these of the top five that make you think, ‘That’s me!’
2. Whatever your top five, try to use one or more of them each day. Each time you’ve put your strength into action, write down how happy it makes you feel, on a scale of one to 10, one being ‘'not at all’, 10 being ‘very’.
3. As a long-term project, think about your signature strengths in relation to the aspects of your life that you might like to change. If one of your strengths is ‘creativity’ and you love to think outside the box but are in a job where you crunch numbers all day, you’re not playing to your signature strengths. Think about how you would rectify this – you may be able to adjust the scope of what you do. Even if your job is defined by others, you can still decide how to approach it – for example, if your strengths include ‘love of learning’, challenge yourself to learn something new from each person you work with.
Find your signature strengths
Love: Intimacy, Kindness, Sociability
Wisdom and knowledge: Creativity, Judgement, Curiosity, Love of Learning, Perspective
Courage: Bravery, Perseverance, Integrity, Enthusiasm
Justice: Sense of Responsibility, Fairness, Leadership
Temperance: Forgiveness, Humility, Caution, Self-control
Transcendence: Appreciation, Gratitude, Optimism, Humour, Spirituality
Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com