[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


[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 6] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

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

  • Does fear of failure sometimes prevent you from doing things you want to do?
  • Do you sometimes focus a lot of your energy on trying to prove yourself?
  • When you experience a setback or failure, are you likely to give up and conclude that you lack the ability to reach your goal?

In recent years, psychologists have recognized that there are two very different mindsets that people can hold with regard to their own abilities:  a fixed mindset or a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). Those who have a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are set for life and tend to focus on proving themselves. Those who have a growth mindset recognize that their abilities can be enhanced through effort, so they focus on developing their abilities instead of trying to prove themselves. If you answered “yes” to one or more of the questions above, you may be approaching things with a fixed mindset.

Studies show that if you believe your abilities are fixed, you are less likely to take risks and more likely to avoid challenges, which can end up limiting your potential. On the other hand, if you believe you have the capacity to grow and improve, it can strengthen your willingness to take risks, accept challenges, and persist in the face of failure or rejection, which in turn can enhance your potential.

Fixed and growth mindsets can impact virtually any ability, including intelligence, academic performance, career achievements, physical abilities, etc. Having a fixed or growth mindset in one area does not necessarily mean you will have that same mindset with regard to all of your abilities; you may see yourself as capable of learning and growing in one area, but not in another.


If you find yourself thinking that one or more of your abilities is fixed, try to remember that this belief is almost certainly incorrect. With sufficient effort, perseverance and planning, it is possible to grow and improve in a wide spectrum of areas. When you encounter a setback or failure, the strategies discussed in the article on Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism will help you to diminish your distress. But, if you focus only on helping yourself to feel better, and you give up on your goal because of the setback, you may end up unnecessarily limiting your potential. While it makes sense to let go of goals that don’t fit with what you really want in your life – or that are unreachable due to circumstances that are truly beyond your control – abandoning a goal because you don’t think you have the ability to succeed is almost certainly selling yourself short.

So, when you experience rejection or failure, first recognize that you most likely do have the ability to reach your goal (or some version of your goal), but that you might need to employ different strategies to get there. In the event that you really don’t have the ability at present, if the goal is really important to you, it may still be possible to develop that ability over time. The following ideas and strategies can help you to cultivate a growth mindset in virtually any area:

CATCH YOURSELF GROWING:  When you encounter a setback or failure, ask yourself “what did I do right/well in this situation,” “What have I learned from this setback?” and “What works, and what needs to be adjusted or eliminated?” These questions will help you manage the emotional impact of your setback, and help you to identify some new strategies you can use to reach your goal. And, don’t forget to give yourself credit for all your efforts – those that were successful, as well those that weren’t.

REWIRE YOUR BRAIN:  Imagine what it would be like to overcome the feeling that you lack the ability to achieve your goal, and visualize yourself knowing that you can. Come up with some things you can tell  yourself, to help yourself recognize and remember that with the right amount of effort, and some good strategies, you can do it. Write those things down, and review them every day until they become part of your mindset.

CAROL DWECK’S (2006) PROCESS FOR CULTIVATING A GROWTH MINDSET: (1) recognize that how you performed, or what you experienced in a given situation, doesn’t define you or your potential; (2) challenge any beliefs that your abilities are fixed; (3) remember that your purpose isn’t simply to reduce your distress, but to move forward toward your bigger goal; and (4) make a concrete plan for achieving your goal. Your plan may involve adjusting your approach or breaking the goal down into smaller pieces. The critical issue is to have a plan that is very specific and clear: what will you do, when will you do it, and where will you do it? Visualize the steps you will take, and then hold yourself accountable for implementing each step of your plan. If your efforts toward your goal are blocked or frustrated in some way, make another plan; this could even involve learning new skills or seeking help from others. Heidi Halvorson (2010) recommends that you also include the following component to your plan: identify obstacles you might encounter and clarify how you will address those obstacles. (See “The Trouble With New Year’s Resolutions” for more information on pursuing and accomplishing goals.)

As you work toward achieving your goal, you may find it helpful to take some inspiration from a great inventor:

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  ~ Thomas Edison


Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and living well in the face of life challenges such as chronic illness or creating a new life after divorce/loss or breast cancer treatment. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. Since coaching can readily take place on the phone, you can coach with Audrey no matter where you are located. To learn more about Audrey’s coaching services, and to arrange a complimentary coaching consultation, go to http://www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached by email at info@turningpointlifecoaching.com or by phone at (585) 292-0095.

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Dweck, C.  (2006-02-28). Mindset: The new psychology of success. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Seligman, M. E. (2011-08-10). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (Vintage). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.


“Developing A Growth Mindset” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

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

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism