Starting Over Using Your Signature Strengths
By Vicki Duncan
Have you seen the recently released movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? If not, put it on your list for an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing. It is, indeed, the curious case in which Benjamin, the main character played by Brad Pitt, ages in reverse. In other words, he is born as a wizened infant who grows to be a geriatric toddler, a middle-aged man, a young man and a baby. It’s a long movie and a technical marvel because the reverse aging is so effectively presented.
While there are many themes and layers to this movie based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one stand-out piece is the lesson that it is never too late to start over. If you don’t like what you’re doing, how you’re spending your time, or how you are operating within your important relationships, start again in a new way. That is sound advice for us boomers and beyond, who may find ourselves at various crossroads. It is also sound advice for those of us who grew up hearing that we could have it all but somehow never quite pulled it off—at least not all at the same time or in the manner that we had wished to do.
Possibly now is the time to backtrack and pick up some of those pieces dropped along the way while we were raising children and pursuing careers. Perhaps it isn’t too late to start over and do something totally new, either as a job or an avocation. Maybe you’re not ready to toss it all, but the old way of doing things feels stale. Or perhaps you just feel an inner restlessness for a change and really do not have a clue what that could be. You’re a good sport and willing to give something new a whirl—if only to shake things up a bit—but you don’t know where to start.
Science to the Rescue
The answer may lie in the burgeoning field of positive psychology. This relatively new focus of psychology, a field that traditionally focuses on pathology and treating mental illness, seeks to understand and promote what makes us have more satisfying and happier lives. By applying some of the principles which have been extensively researched, we can improve the level of fulfillment and increase our amount of positive emotion in areas such as our jobs, our relationships and even in the way we spend our leisure time. We can apply these principles in order to get a fresh start in any part of our life.
For example, take a look at the much researched concept of “signature strengths.” Psychologists trained in the field of positive psychology maintain that each of us possess a number of attributes or constructive traits. Among these qualities, there exist just a handful of strengths that are so deeply embedded in our individual character that they are intrinsic to whom we are as a person. This individualized cluster of positive characteristics comprises our signature strengths and when we identify and incorporate them into our lives, research suggests that we are happier.
These researchers have identified 24 core signature strengths (listed in the side bar) found to be valued across all cultures and belief systems. These strengths are not to be confused with talents, such as the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the physical attributes of Scarlett Johansson, or the resonant voice of Andrea Bocelli. While talents can be improved upon with instruction and practice, we are born with these basic aptitudes. On the other hand, strengths are qualities that can be acquired by any ordinary person with enough time, effort and determination.
Identifying Your Own Signature Strengths
If you’re wondering what the heck your own signature strengths are, where they’ve been hiding, and how you can track down these qualities without hiring an expensive psychologist, don’t despair. Some industrious researchers have done the work for you and made it incredibly easy to have a personal encounter with your very own signature strengths.
The easiest and most accurate way to lasso your distinctive profile of strengths is by taking the free VIA (values in action) Strengths survey online at either www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ or at www.viastrengths.org/ Both of these sites require registration to access the test and a wealth of other information about this subject. If you’d prefer to go it on your own, there is an abbreviated form of the survey in Martin Seligman’s interesting book, Authentic Happiness, which is now available in paperback.
As you read over the list of strengths, some may jump out to you more than others. For example, some of the traits will speak to you as: 1) Those that you enjoy, e.g., your friends refer to you as the next Martha Stewart (creativity); 2). Those that come easily to you, e.g., it’s natural for you to stick with a project (persistence); 3) Those that you are able to do well but don’t enjoy, e.g., you’ve learned to chair a committee with efficiency (leadership), but find it tedious and tiresome.; 4) Those that you want to do well but that do not come easily, –e.g., you’d love to be able to tell jokes but always forget the punch line (humor).
The strengths that you are looking for are the ones that you both enjoy doing and are also good at using. These are the ones that when used with innovation and regularity will bring you the most joy and satisfaction. And while you may certainly choose to build on those that are less strong, positive psychology holds that it is more useful and rewarding to capitalize on your natural abilities rather than focus on your deficiencies.
Using your Strengths
After you’ve identified your signature strengths, you’ll know when you are using them because you’ll have the feeling of being in flow with your natural abilities. You probably already do this to some extent and may even take it for granted because it’s second nature. You’ll learn to pay attention to these strengths, feel a sense of ownership for them, and seek new opportunities to re-create that easy flow of energy and effort. When we use our signature strengths, we learn related activities easily, become engrossed in what we are doing and look forward to using these special gifts more often.
Incorporating Your Strengths into Your Life
Now that you’re acquainted with what comprises your personal bests and understand what it feels like to be “in the zone” of using and enjoying them, move on to incorporate them into all parts of your life. Whether it is your job, your leisure or in the arena of personal relationships, these special abilities are rich reservoirs from which you can draw upon to enhance your entire life. Choose just one of your identified strengths and commit to using it in a new way every day. Research has shown that this practice will have long-term positive effects on your level of happiness.
Let’s look at an example of how you can do this with just one signature strength. If you’ve identified love of learning as one of your top strengths, it can be applied to your career in several ways. You could search out and attend seminars and workshops to learn skills that will further you in your present job or you could also consider going back to school for an entirely new career. In your leisure time, you could play to this interest and ability and sign up for a Spanish class, visit a new museum each month or join a local book club. In your personal life, share your love of learning with your grandchildren and teach them a new skill. And with your spouse, consider taking an educational vacation where you can each focus on a particular interest or hobby.
Keep on Growing
As you become more adept and creative about using your signature strengths in a variety of situations, a positive, upward spiral begins to take shape. You may find that you have a new bounce in your step that stems from using your natural abilities in new ways and you will find relief from dwelling on your shortcomings.
The 24 Signature Strengths
Classified by Dr. Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan
1. Curiosity: interest, novelty-seeking, open to experience
2. Creativity: ingenuity and originality
3. Open-mindedness: judgment, critical thinking
4. Love of learning
5. Perspective: wisdom
6. Bravery: valor
7. Persistence: perseverance, industriousness
8. Integrity: honesty, authenticity
9. Vitality: zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy
11. Kindness: generosity, care, nurturing, compassion, altruistic love, “niceness”
12. Social intelligence: emotional intelligence, personal intelligence
13. Citizenship: social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork
14. Fairness, equity, and justice
16. Forgiveness and mercy
17. Humility and modesty
19. Self-Regulation: self-control
20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence: awe, wonder, elevation
22. Hope: optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation
23. Humor: playfulness
24. Spirituality: religiousness, faith, purpose