[Happiness and Well-Being Series, Part 13]   by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.                                  “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies   within.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Would you be able to name your personal strengths if you were asked? Many people can’t, either because they take their own strengths for granted, or because they think of themselves primarily in terms of shortcomings. But, research has found that we benefit greatly when we’re able to recognize and embrace our own strengths. In fact, numerous studies have shown that regularly using our strengths can lead to enduring increases in happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, optimism, confidence, achievement, vitality and resilience, and can help to decrease stress and depression.


There are different ways you can begin to recognize (or recognize more of) your own strengths. For example, you can begin to clarify some of your top strengths by answering the following questions:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What fulfills you?
  • When are you at your best?
  • What motivates or energizes you?

There are also a number of assessment tools available to help identify your strengths. One  particularly useful assessment tool is called the VIA Character Strengths Survey. It measures 24  character strengths: creativity; curiosity; love of learning; perspective; judgment; bravery; persistence; honesty; zest; love; kindness; social intelligence; citizenship; fairness;  leadership; forgiveness; humility; prudence; self-control, gratitude; hope; humor; spirituality; appreciation of beauty and excellence. If you take the VIA survey, you’ll receive a personalized rank ordering of these 24 strengths. Your top 5 – 7  strengths are considered to be  your “signature” strengths –  i.e. the ones that come most naturally to you.


I highly recommend that you complete the VIA Character Strengths Survey, so that you can learn to identify and further enhance your character strengths. It takes only 15 minutes, and it’s free.  Once you’re able to recognize and appreciate your signature strengths, you can make a point of using them to improve your life. Studies have found that people are “at their best” when they’re most able to use their signature strengths. What follows are some ideas for powerful activities that can help you to further develop your top strengths (or any of the other strengths that you’d like to augment):


    Write about a time when you were ‘at your best’ – i.e. when you acted in a way that you think reflects the best of who you are. It can be a time when you did something you felt good about, when you were successful in some way, and/or when you overcame some type of obstacle. It can be recent or something that happened a long time ago. (Of course, there may be many examples that would fit this description, and you can do this activity for as many of them as you like.) Review what you’ve written, and try to search for the strengths you demonstrated in that situation. You might be amazed at how moving and powerful this activity can be.


    Take a close look at your top 5 – 7 VIA character strengths, and think about other times/ways you have used them. Write down as many such instances as you can recall.  If you want, you can ask your friends and family for examples of when you have demonstrated some of these strengths.  Be sure to continue to call on those strengths regularly in the future.


    Take one of the signature strengths you have identified, and for a week, use that strength in a new way every day. Studies have found this exercise to be very powerful. Here are a few examples of things you can do: if creativity is a signature strength, choose an object in your home and find a new and unusual use for it, or take a class in some type of creative activity; if curiosity is a signature strength, attend a lecture on a topic about which you know nothing, or go to a restaurant that serves a type of cuisine you’ve never had; if perseverance is a signature strength, make a list of things to do, and do one thing from the list every day; if social intelligence is a signature strength, every day make someone feel at ease. These are only a small number of possible ways to use and increase character strengths. For more ideas, you can see Peterson’s more complete list (Peterson, 2006, p 159- 162). You can also find ideas at Via Character Strengths Blog.


    Keep a list of your top 5 -7 strengths handy, and look at it frequently. Think about how you have used your strengths recently, and then consider how you can use your strengths going forward. Think about some goals you would like to pursue, and then think about how you might be able to use your strengths to facilitate progress toward your goals.

If we all did the things we were capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison    


Biswas-Diener, Robert; Dean, Ben (2009-05-18). Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook  New York. Oxford University Press.

Peterson, Christopher (2006-06-28). A primer in positive psychology (Oxford Positive Psychology Series) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Free Press. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011-04-05). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Atria Books. Kindle Edition.          

VIA Character Strengths Blog:  http://www.viacharacter.org/blog/category/via-strengths-exercise/.

VIA Character Strengths Survey: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/                           

If you haven’t yet read the twelve previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 11: Finding Flow                                                                                Happiness & Well-Being, Part 12: Making Life Choices