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New Positive Psychology Exercise: What are Your “Defining Moments”?


Life is what happens between monotony and miracles, as one sage put it.

Indeed, our lives are a collection of moments in time – some mundane and routine, some extraordinary, and many others. I’m not sure that we are shaped by every moment and every event of our lives, but certainly there is potential in each moment to impact us.

After a stagnant and difficult first date, I recall walking out of the Mexican restaurant with my date and saying to myself, “Give it one more try.” And so, while kicking a stone into the bushes and with my chin at my chest, I mumbled, “Um, do you want to go get some coffee or something?” The woman replied, “Sure!” I was flabbergasted. The evening and coffee shifted into high gear and a wonderful connection ensued. That woman later became my wife.

That moment – my kicking the stone and deciding, “Don’t give up just yet. Give it one more try. Just one more” – was a defining moment for me. One of the character strengths at play was perseverance, another was hope (the latter is one of my signature strengths, the former is not). This impacted my identity – who I am – because when something is really important to me I give things that extra push and effort.

I turn to my innate strength and call forth perseverance to overcome the thoughts of “I can’t,” “but I might fail,” and “what’s the point?” In such moments, it takes courage to deploy strengths, and for me, I had to at least “act brave,” even if I didn’t feel so brave in that moment.

Bringing a careful attention – or mindfulness – to the important moments in our lives can help us not only better understand ourselves, but help us realize we can take an active role and impact our life for the better.

This can be boiled into a positive intervention called the Defining Moments Exercise. Want to give it a try?

Here are the steps to practice the Defining Moments Exercise:

1.) Defining moment:

  • Name one moment in time that has had a positive effect on you. Preferably, choose a moment in which you took action in some way. This moment doesn’t have to be dramatic, simply any moment that has had a meaningful impact on you.

2.) Character strengths:

  • List the character strengths you used in that situation. Which character strengths did you bring forth? Be able to provide evidence for how they were expressed.

3.) Identity:

  • Explore how this moment has shaped who you are. How has this moment contributed to your identity? No matter how small, how has it affected your view of yourself?

4.) Courage:

  • Reflect on your use of courage to mobilize your strengths in that moment. Many individuals rally their bravery strength in order to take action in their defining moment – this action might be to deploy one’s signature strengths or to use a strength less familiar. In these instances, the strength of bravery seems to become a meta-strength (a power strength that helps to mobilize other strengths).

Additional considerations:

We can have defining moments that are not positive at first. Life transitions, trauma, major stressors and hardship are far from pleasurable yet in retrospect, many people will note that these moments have defined who they are.

We do not have to participate in the action of all our defining moments. I recall one man sharing how one of his defining moments occurred when he was in active duty during the Vietnam War. He recalls passively observing a fellow soldier rescue a young boy, pulling the boy away from an explosive device and bringing him to safety. This observed act of self-sacrifice and kindness shaped the man’s identity and served as a model for the behaviors he strives to display.

The Defining Moments Exercise has not been tested in scientific studies. It’s based on my observations of clients and students who have found benefit from this and similar exercises. I have used this in Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice groups to help individuals connect with who they are. I hope practitioners and researchers will study and practice the exercise.

Potential benefits: I view this exercise as useful in a number of ways – here are some initial thoughts:

  • Helps individuals recall detailed positive events in their lives (accessing positive autobiographical memory).
  • Offers a mechanism for savoring the past and cherishing impactful experiences.
  • Builds self-efficacy by helping people connect with internal strengths they might not be aware of having used.
  • Offers an opportunity to positively perceive and evaluate one’s core identity (this might be particularly helpful for people with a negative view of themselves).
  • Allows people a pathway to label courage in themselves (research has found that labeling bravery is one way to increase it).

Take a moment to re-connect with yourself. Doing so with consciousness will pull you out of “monotony” and while it may not create a “miracle,” it may help you discover some of the most important moments of your life.



*Interested in learning more? The VIA Institute’s next workshop for practitioners starts Monday. Learn more and register here.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Stephan Rebernik

New Positive Psychology Exercise: What are Your “Defining Moments”?

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2019). New Positive Psychology Exercise: What are Your “Defining Moments”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Mar 2019
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