Whether overcoming adversity, or striving to make things better, research shows you should focus on your strengths rather than trying to overcome your weaknesses. In this reflection you'll get an accurate assessment of your strengths and practical guidance in how to use them to succeed in daily life.
This insight into the priority of favouring strengths over countering weaknesses reflects the research of Positive Psychology, a field of psychological research which focuses on human flourishing and success. In essence it is the effort among psychologists to stop just looking at problems - at how life goes wrong - and to study how life goes right. The outcomes of this research flow into counselling and coaching to help individuals become stronger and make their lives better.
Researchers in this field have created a list of 24 virtues - or strengths - which are valued across all cultures. They went on to develop The VIA Survey, a measure of how present each of these strengths are in your life, from most to least. The assessment is free and can be completed here. Research has shown that your top five strengths on the list are the most important for you. Rather than focus on improving your weaknesses - you lowest strengths - you should focus on using your top strengths. This is often called a “strengths focus.” What do I mean?
Here are two photos which I use elsewhere on this site to talk about aspects of my own self-improvement. These photos of my six months apart, from my early 30s.
In order to lose that weight I needed to do one simple thing: take in less calories than I burned. However that was hard for a variety of reasons. One reason was that the strength of self-regulation is number 22 on my list - third from the bottom! What can I say, I’m voracious about the good things in life. I’m now 40 years old and I’ve kept that weight off for years, but trust me it’s been hard. I constantly want to take into myself the glorious sunshine of those calories there in front of me: the muffins, chocolate, and beer that sing to me from the shelves. How have I self-regulated when I’m so weak in that strength? I use my top strengths.
Here are my top five strengths:
3. Love of learning
And here are the bananas I bought this morning, one for breakfast and the other for snacks as I write these words here in my counselling office.
I'm a coffee addict and while I know a good drop, I can be quite a low-brow man. I went to a Coles servo earlier to get my $1 morning coffee. I went there because I wanted to get a muffic and coffee deal, because those muffins call to me! God I wanted it. But, it's like 700 calories! Make a habit of such indulgence, and it's fatty Matt all over again. What was I to do, when I've low self-regulation, when a voice in my head was saying, "You only live once," and "Matt, one of the sexiest women you've ever known used to go on about how she likes to see the love of life in a man's body"? Such good reasons to indulge.
But there were other voices in my head. I'll write another time about the power of cultivating pro-social emotions, directed at yourself, in order to vastly increase your willpower, as per the breakthrough work of David DeSteno.
That was a part of what work this morning, but another part is that, instead of trying to increase my self-regulation, I used my top strengths.
Let's break it down, though of course the reality of how I did it is more intuitive because I've done this for years and it's now natural.
I started with my strengths of judgement and honesty. Yes, I desire that muffin right now, but I am fooling myself about how much I want it, about how pleasurable it will be, I am forgetting how quickly the pleasure will pass, I am undermining my desire to be healthy, and that reference to the sexy woman is bullshit because with my history I know all too well the sexual consequences of being fat versus in good shape. In short I was able to push past all my bullshit rationalisations, and be honest with myself, and clearheaded about reality. Winning.
I then used my strengths of creativity and perspective to imagine what it would be like a few minutes after eating the muffin, when I would feel remorse for the passing pleasure, knowing it wasn't that good and that I'm now on the fatty boomba train. I also imagined myself a year from now, overweight again, and the social consequences. And I imagined what, on the other hand, it will be like to feel great and look great - maybe even better than I do now. Thanks to the power of strengths like honesty with myself, and creativity in imagining the future, I found the ability to walk away from the muffin. Bi-winning! I used my top strengths to give me an alternative form of the self-regulation which I lack as a virtue in itself. And so I succeeded, because the strengths I used are natural and easy for me - they work. The proof is in the pudding; I mean, in the lack of pudding. in my mouth and around my waist. Self-regulation would probably have failed me. Using my strengths got me there, and made it easy.
Consider one of the bigger challenges you have faced in life, which you overcame. What did you do which enabled you to succeed? How did your top strengths show themselves, both emotionally and in terms of what you did?