Shift Focus from Weakness to Strength


If I asked you, “Do people focus more on their strengths or their weaknesses?” What would your answer be? If I asked you which one you tend to focus on, what would your answer be? Studies demonstrate that most people focus on their weaknesses first, and there are several reasons as to why this could be.

The first and foremost reason is the negativity bias, wherein negative events have a stronger impact on our psychological well-being. Secondly, there is a common misconception that there’s more bad in the world than good. This even shows up in the English language: there are 1.5 times more words with a negative connotation than a positive one. Finally, society lends itself for us to focus on the negative. For example, in research with parents checking their child’s report cards, 77 percent of parents focus on the Ds or Fs rather than the As or Bs. While there is value in identifying our weaknesses and what we need to improve, there is just as much value in identifying our strengths as well. But how to get there? What Are Character Strengths?


The research behind identifying our strengths comes from psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues. They knew individuals focused more on weaknesses, but they posited this was the result of strengths being more difficult to identify. Therefore, they set out to answer the question, “What is good character?” They did not know how they were going to answer this question, but they knew the importance of answering it all the same. They searched across continents, different cultures, looked at movie characters like Harry Potter, and even dove into the world of Pokémon to see what made certain cards “good cards”. They turned over every stone to find any insight as to what is meant by good character. Three years and 55 researchers later, they found an answer: character strengths.

Character strengths are the best parts of our personality, including but not limited to: curiosity, love of learning, critical thinking and open mindedness, creativity, perspective, bravery, diligence and perseverance, honesty and authenticity, zest and enthusiasm, capacity to love and be loved, kindness and generosity, social intelligence, citizenship and loyalty, fairness and justice, leadership, forgiveness and mercy, modesty and humility, caution and prudence, self-control and self-regulation, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope and optimism, humor and playfulness, and spirituality. Our character strengths influence how we think, feel, and behave on a daily basis; additionally, they are recognized by various cultures and are morally valued. Seligman’s study also acknowledged that individuals possess signature character strengths: your top character strengths are those you are most comfortable using; they are true to who you are, they provide energy rather than feelings of exhaustion, and come from within.


Living By Your Character Strengths

As I was getting acclimated into my new career and starting to teach a new generation of soldiers how to become more mentally tough, I found myself struggling. I soon realized that it was difficult not just because I was new to the environment, but I never felt I was my true self when I was teaching. Then came the day when I learned about character strengths. Through this instruction, I found out that my top signature character strengths were leadership, humor and playfulness, and honesty and authenticity. A colleague asked me, “How do these strengths show up in your instructing?” to which I had no answer, but I knew that this was the reason why I was struggling. I felt that these signature character strengths identified me to the fullest, but I was not showcasing them in my everyday life. From that point on, I started incorporating my signature character strengths into everything I did, including teaching, and everything changed. Not only did I become a more effective instructor, but I was also having a lot more fun, and I felt like I was more of my true self.


Do Your Homework

To make things easy, you can go online and take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths through the University of Pennsylvania. This survey provides insight into the 24 character strengths and which ones are considered your signature character strengths, but will also provide you with a brief description of what each character strength means.

However, you can also identify your signature character strengths by looking at the list mentioned earlier and using the following criteria: One believes that he/she is being “true to him/herself” when using the Character Strength, one feels energized rather than exhausted when using the character strength, and the motivation to use the Character Strength comes from within the person.

Once you have identified your top three to seven signature character strengths, the next step is to incorporate them into your everyday life. One way is to find new ways to use your signature character strengths throughout your day. Whether it be at work or when hanging out with your friends, doing this can lead to long-term positive effects on overall happiness. Another way is through acknowledgment in your relationships with other people. Being able to recognize and appreciate your significant other’s strengths have been connected to higher levels of commitments, satisfaction, investment and intimacy. You can take the same approach if you have children. Being able to identify and cultivate your adolescents’ strengths has been shown to enhance life satisfaction and their ability to cope with stress and adversity. Finally, incorporate your character strengths with your family. Being able to adopt an orientation to promote goodness has been associated with higher levels of physical health, mental wellness, and feelings of connectedness.


Final thoughts

Your signature character strengths make you who you are. They can make life more enjoyable if you learn to live through your character strengths. While we may need to pull on other strengths to get us through different situations, do not try and be someone you are not. Be the best version of yourself, live through your signature character strengths, and help make the world – and your corner of it – a better place.