Harnessing Character Strengths For Behaviour Change

The idea that one has to focus on that which is weak (or lacking) to attain a state of optimal health is pervasive in society. Studies in the field of positive psychology show that focusing - and building - on one's existing strengths is much more likely to achieve a desired outcome. Read on to find out more.

Character strengths - as defined by Dr. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson - are positive traits (or capacities) that tick the following boxes:

  • Provide personal fulfillment.

  • Do not diminish others.

  • Ubiquitous and valued across cultures.

  • Aligned with numerous positive outcomes for oneself and others.

Interestingly, many of us are far more adept at pinpointing where we feel we fall short - more on that in a minute - than we are at recognising our best qualities. Strengths blindness, as it is often called, inevitably leads to overuse or underuse, turning one's latent strengths into what can often be perceived as weaknesses. The key here is to first discover one's strengths and begin to use them optimally as often as possible.

Take creativity, for example. Once overused, it soon manifests as eccentricity while underuse gives an air of conformity. Used optimally, creativity becomes an originality that is highly adaptive and widely applicable to any number of situations to achieve a positive outcome.

It is important to note, however, that not every strength is appropriate for any and all situations. The truth is, applying one’s strengths is a matter of trial and error and not a guarantee of success in every endeavour. It is, therefore, best to view the use of any particular strength in any particular scenario as an experiment, the success or failure of which will provide valuable data on the best next step to take - or strength to bring into play.

The VIA Institute offers a free, scientifically validated Character Strengths Test if you would like to find out your signature strengths. Should you choose to take it, here are a few suggestions for experiments you could conduct once you have your results:

  • Play around with the intensity with which you apply each of your strengths to a health-related behaviour you would like to change. What outcome do you notice when they are dialled up or down?

  • Choose two strengths and see if you are able to use them in tandem to tackle a health challenge you may be facing.