How often do you think about your strengths?
We talk about our weaknesses much more often—at job interviews, with friends, co-workers, and family, when thinking about what we might improve about ourselves.
Your strengths are an afterthought, even though they’re so valuable for your functioning and happiness!
So when the first week of Yale’s Coursera course on the Science of Well-Being had us discover our signature strengths, I was very excited. Practicing these strengths with intention will boost your happiness and confidence!
So, let’s talk about signature strengths and what to do with them.
- What are signature strengths?
- Why should I know my signature strengths?
- How do you find your signature strengths?
- How do you use your signature strengths?
- How do you improve your signature strengths?
- My experience with my signature strengths
What are signature strengths?
Your signature strengths are characteristics that are most essential to who you are and define you as a person.
Scientists identified 24 signature strengths divided over six categories: Wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Everyone has all 24 characteristics but to different degrees.
Your character strengths are the qualities that come most naturally to you. Every individual possesses all 24 character strengths in different degrees, giving each person a unique character strength profile. When you know your strengths, you can improve your life and thrive. – VIA Institute
The VIA Institute on Character is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the science of character strengths to the world. They create and validate character surveys, support researchers, and develop practical strengths-based tools for individuals and professionals.
You can find out more about all 24 strengths on VIA’s website.
Why should I know my signature strengths?
Knowing your signature strengths will improve your life and boost your happiness.
As Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, one of VIA’s founders, says: “The pleasant life might be had by drinking champagne and driving a Porsche, but not the good life. Rather, the good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness.”
Your signature strengths can bring meaning to your life, as described by Zaid K. Dahhaj in his article about signature strengths. “When we do what we’re inherently great at personality-wise, we feel amazing along the journey and open ourselves up to new opportunities.”
Following your signature strengths will allow you to live a life, both professionally and personally, that’s productive and meaningful to you.
Think about your work. Do you have a job that you’re good at? Does it make it easier to do your job—and more enjoyable? Is your job tailored to your strengths?
There’s a long list of research showing positive results on your health from focusing on your signature strengths. Mental health, as well as physical health!
- There’s this case study of a patient suffering after eye surgery and struggling with a lower quality of life. Her doctors did a strength intervention to improve her psychological well-being. As a result, her quality of life and life satisfaction went up—even though her vision stayed the same.
- Unpublished research in Kenya created a community-based program for youth focused on character strengths development. When the kids learned and reflected on their strengths and shared them publicly, their health and hygiene habits increased in frequency, they missed less school and had fewer water-related illnesses.
- Trials in India worked with girls in poverty. Those who received a curriculum incorporating character strengths had more significant physical (and psychosocial) health than girls who received a similar curriculum without character strengths.
Another research shows that you’re nine times more likely to be flourishing if you have an active awareness of your character strengths! And you’re not just positively impacting yourself, but people around you and your relationships as well.
How do you find your signature strengths?
You can take the free online test on VIA’s website. There are 120 questions, and the test takes about 20 minutes. Just so you know, VIA offers the test for free in return for your answers.
This way, their researchers have access to years of (anonymous!) survey results data to advance the science and practice of strengths. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can try to self-diagnose while reviewing the list of signature strengths.
How do you use your signature strengths?
Using your signature strengths in your daily life (work, school, and privately) will increase your happiness and positively impact your mental and physical health.
Becoming more comfortable with your strengths will also help you grow them and learn how they can benefit you and the people around you.
Once you’ve taken the test, maybe you’ll notice a few strengths you’re already using quite a lot. Perhaps there are others that you could work with a bit more or more intentionally.
You can do this by keeping track of them. At the end of every day, think back and reflect on how you’ve used your signature strengths that day. If you find you can’t think of anything, set an intention (or even plan) to use your strength the next day. Using your strength in a new way comes with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression.
VIA has examples of how to apply each signature strength if you’re curious about how you can use your top strengths. I also like this list from Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjum with over 300 ways to use your character strengths.
How do you improve your strengths?
Using your signature strengths in new ways every day will help with your happiness and improve that strength.
But maybe you feel your signature strengths don’t need much improvement, and you’d like to develop another strength instead.
Developing another strength than your signature strengths will boost your happiness while you do it, but the boost won’t be as long-term as working on your signature strengths.
Don’t let that stop you though!
- Use the strength daily (keep track in a journal!)
- Find new ways to use the strength
- Create a strengths habit—for example, every day before bed, note down five things you’re grateful for that day to improve your gratitude (this will help with a positive mindset too!)
My experience with my signature strengths
I did the VIA test when I enrolled in Yale’s Coursera course about the Science of Well-Being, and my top 5 strengths are:
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Love of learning
I notice all of these in what I do, but I see my appreciation of beauty and excellence daily.
Here are some examples of how I use my signature strengths.
Appreciation of beauty and excellence
I grew up appreciating beautiful nature. I don’t think even one day goes by where I don’t enjoy the sun rays through the trees, or the pattern in the clouds, or a beautiful sunset.
But I see and appreciate a lot more than that.
A funny abbreviation on a license plate. Raindrops on leaves. Nice packaging. Someone smiling while cycling. How Google Drive and Asana make my life so much easier. My favorite artist’s voice. How green a perfect avocado is. The way this particular brick building contrasts with the sky. A crane’s shadow against the hospital on the other side of the street. That one rain puddle that has the shape of Texas. My full bookshelves. Puns. ❤️️
And because I’m now aware of this strength, I notice it when I practice it. That makes me smile and feel happy.
Love of learning and curiosity
I feel like love of learning and curiosity are very similar. They surprised me a little at first, but now I see it. I have always enjoyed learning new things, and I often ask questions.
I’m enrolled in a couple of online courses where I learn about online marketing, freelancing, and psychology, and I’m currently learning how to drive. I have a long list of future classes I want to take, including a handful of languages.
Recently, I started reading self-development books, and I’m learning about habits and fitness, and self-help. And there are more practical things too. I learned how to set up a document so it automatically opens when I start my computer. I’m finally learning how to work with spreadsheets.
My love of travel is also explained by my character strengths of appreciation of beauty and excellence, love of learning, and curiosity.
Honesty and fairness
Another two that I think are very similar are honesty and fairness. Maybe these strengths even strengthen each other?
For example, my driving instructor often tells me how honest I am. When she asks me if I checked something (or sometimes even without her asking me) and I tell her I forgot, she always laughs and says most of her students probably wouldn’t tell her. But that just makes me wonder—who does it help if I don’t tell her? What if that makes her think I know something, and then when I go for my exam I forget it and fail my exam? It makes no sense!
Not being honest is just confusing for myself and others!
Fairness is a newer strength for me, I think. Although maybe it was just always there, and I never intentionally focused on it as much.
But in the past few years, I’ve felt my moral compass grow. Mostly under the influence of other people and recent events, if I’m honest.
I started looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly after my best friend started being very active with it. At first mostly to please her. Then I started changing small things in my life on my own.
I’m almost ashamed to say it took this long, but the Black Lives Matter protests this spring sparked something in me. I’d been reading into it a few years ago, but my mental health made me hide away from it in my privilege. This time around, I’m taking action. I’m learning through consuming all kinds of media (there we go with curiosity and love of learning), and I’m actively finding ways to support BLM. A friend and I started a book club where we read and talk about a book recommended by anti-racism groups every month, and every week I create an email with more ways to learn and support.
Knowing your signature strengths can only benefit you
Learning about my signature strengths felt like such a small thing at the time. But reflecting on it now, I think it has taught me about myself and why I act and think in certain ways.
Has it made me happier? That’s tough to say because so much more is happening that has an impact on my happiness. It has definitely made me more confident about myself and some of the things I do!
I think learning about your signature strengths will give you an insight into yourself. Developing and using them can only benefit you.