Need a happiness boost? Discover your signature strengths and use them in a new way each day. Research has found this intervention gives a boost to happiness and a decrease to depression, with some studies finding effects lasting up to six months. Below are examples of how this intervention might be applied with each of the 24 universal, character strengths of the VIA Classification.
When you are exploring your character strengths or attempting to help someone connect more with their own, it is useful to have some guideposts. In other words, everyone needs a “road map” at one point or another, and the phrase “road map” can also serve as an acronym for ways that you can dig deeper into your character strengths. Each of the following "action verbs" can be applied to any of the 24 character strengths in the VIA Classification. You might take a general approach, such as, reflecting on your past strengths use and appreciating the strengths of others. Or, you could take a specific approach and target one or more strengths, such as discussing your strength of curiosity with a friend and planning out ways that you will use fairness more in your life. This template is intentionally general in attempt to be applicable to any strength. So, here’s your ROAD MAP for character strengths use:
A few years ago, I worked with a middle-aged man (I’ll call him “Jim”) who was legally blind and suffered from social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Jim also experienced panic attacks. He wanted to learn to manage his anxiety better and to not have to take his anti-anxiety pills. One day I asked Jim: “How did you make it here today?” “The usual way – by bus,” he said. “Actually, 2 buses, a little bit of biking, and a lot of walking.” “And what was that like for you to do today?” “It was fine…I felt fine. Nothing remarkable.” “Wow, Jim…Most people would be terrified to live in the darkness that you live in as a partially blind man. Yet, you go about your day taking buses, walking down busy streets, trying to improve yourself with therapy, volunteering at local agencies….and you successfully face the challenge of riding a bike despite limited vision. What courage you have! What perseverance!” My client was stunned.
Awhile back I was struggling to turn out of a downtown parking garage. Growing impatient, I forced my car into the traffic so I could get on with my day. In doing so I cut off another driver and I became the recipient of a short barrage of honks. The other driver and I met up at the next traffic light. Simultaneously, we rolled down our windows and my heart began to race. I, the initial guilty party, decided to wait to see the approach she would take. Although I felt tensions rise, I also experienced flashes of curiosity, wondering what she would say. How would she attack me? Would it be full of inflammation and obscenity? Would it be polite and gentle?
Using your top strengths – your signature strengths – has been shown to be effective to increasing happiness and decreasing depression. Several scientific studies have shown this. As a psychologist for many years helping clients with depression, I focused heavily on what was wrong. I asked my clients about the frequency-intensity-duration of their problems, the triggers to their conflicts, family issues, work struggles, and on and on. So many questions! Like most psychologists, I spent very little time asking about what was going right with my clients. Shouldn’t the focus on what is wrong and what is strong be at least 50-50?
In the midst of the most prestigious golf tournament of the year, the Masters, Tiger Woods is trying to solidify his comeback. He needs a major championship in order to seal the deal. A few years ago, he lied. He cheated on his wife. Repeatedly. He let down fans. He hurt many people, especially his family and friends. Former fans and spectators claimed Tiger was a man without character. Similar claims are made against other philanderers – politicians, ministers, and athletes (e.g., “she has no character”; “he has bad character”). New research into the science of character strengths is showing that such statements do not make much sense.
Signature strengths are at the core of our identity. They are our essence…they are what make us glow. Maybe you shine when you express kindness or hope? Or perhaps when you use humor or creativity? Whenever we express a signature strength we are probably at our best – authentic, strong, and real. When you think of Katniss, the star of The Hunger Games, what strengths make her glow? I asked this of a few people who read the book, saw the movie, and know quite a bit about the VIA Classification of character strengths. Here is what they said (for a list of character strengths go to the original source on the topic or check out my earlier blog).
How can the movie, The Hunger Games, possibly teach us something about developing character strengths? This movie can teach us ways to increase our courage. No doubt the premise of The Hunger Games is awful and disturbing – a society in which children must kill other children until there is only 1 survivor. It’s a society in which the authoritarian Capitol tries hard to glorify this process and make the various cultures (the 12 Districts) value the process of killing. They succeed with some (the seemingly more wealthy people who bet on the “games”) and fail with others (the poor and working class districts who suffer and feel controlled by the Capitol). Can a film that starts from such amoral grounds still offer something of substance to its viewers?
If you’re like most people (myself included), then you have work to do in terms of understanding your strengths. Survey research has found that most people do not have a meaningful awareness of their strengths. What’s more, it’s all-too-common for people to underuse their strengths. We forget to take notice of our best strengths and find ways to let them loose in our lives. Take Bill, for instance.
Four wins, 104 losses. That was the all-time record of the teams seeded at #15 heading into this year’s NCAA college basketball tournament for men. This year, in their first game, the #15-seeds went 2-2. This is why people love the NCAA tournament: A chance to root for the underdog! Not intimidated by their powerhouse opponents, Norfolk State and Lehigh exercised a David vs. Goliath fearlessness as they competed hard, improving their “fight” as the game progressed. The crowds rallied behind these underdogs excited for the distant possibility of an upset. Many of the fans had never heard of these schools before this month yet fans were jumping up and down with such passion and zest that one would think their own child was playing in the game. How could this be? What is the psychology behind this underdog phenomena?