I take a strengths and values approach to helping people. It is through these that we can create a what, how, and why for your life. That is, it is how we create direction and purpose. But why should you focus on strengths, rather than problems and weaknesses? Doesn’t that mean ignoring problems, and won’t that lead to more issues up ahead?
I invite you to begin this reflection by engaging in one of your own. Stop for a moment and consider these three questions, giving a minute to each.
What do you like best about yourself?
When were you at your best in life?
What are you most proud of?
I have no formula for how I work, but these are some of the opening questions I might ask a new client. A vital part of my skills includes reading others strength’s and values, and helping them to understand and to use them to better effect. Questions like these are great for revealing hidden strengths. I have found that this produces much better outcomes than focusing on fixing deficits.
But some people struggle at this point. One reason is that they don’t want to be arrogant, as though by focusing in their strengths they are praising themselves. That’s a good sentiment - there's enough arrogance in the world already - but people often go to the opposite extreme: false humility. If I say that I, Matthew, am a bad singer, it is clear-sighted humility. But if Frank Sinatra says the same, then it is false humility. And if his claim leads him to never open his mouth in song, then both he and all of us have lost out. Clear-sighted self-knowledge helps us to become better and happier and to contribute to the world.
Other people worry that a focus on strengths is naive positive thinking. This is not so. We need to address both weaknesses and strengths in life, but often we only focus on weakness. We become blinkered by that focus. Imagine that you are sailing a boat and there is a leak in the stern. If you do not address it you will sink. It matters greatly to address important weaknesses in life. But what happens once you have sealed the hole? Nothing; you sit there idle, adrift. You need a sail to give you momentum, and this equates to your strengths.
Take this a step further: if the boat is flawed in many ways but functions safely, should you spend your time improving the faults, or focus on setting a sail and getting somewhere? And is it naive to focus on what the boat can do well?
This is why we focus on strengths. I am writing this in 2017 and there is now a mass of scientific evidence that a strengths-focus is usually more important than a weakness focus. The movement known as positive psychology has been studying this since the late 1990s, subdividing into areas of research such as flourishing, happiness, performance, resilience, and so on. Positive psychology is a research focus that began with Martin Seligman when he was the head of the American Psychological Society. Second wave positive psychology now turns the lens on how we find strength and meaning even in protracted suffering. It is not pop psychology or naive positive thinking, rather it is science in the service of doing well amidst all the opportunities and challenges of being alive.
It is a major insight of this science that it is often more beneficial to focus on strengths than weaknesses, to help you move forward. This applies whether you are moving away from problems, or moving towards positive goals. Speaking from my background in philosophy, we live in a cynical age that can be nihilistic, pessimistic, and depressing. Speaking from my therapeutic background, time and again I see that when people opt into that negative mindset they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are your projections, you create your world in so many ways. Life can be very good. It can also be terrible. Usually it is a mixture that lies in between, but with much opportunity for goodness and flourishing if only you will rightly orient yourself. To recognise this is to express humility and gratitude at what is true. You don’t have a moral obligation to give up the goodness in life because others suffer; rather, if there is an obligation, it is to find the goodness in life for yourself and to share it with others. To create less suffering within yourself and others. If you ask what the point is to that, I challenge you to open your eyes and grow your heart. The world is full of people who need others. The world is full of good things that are wonderful in themselves. Life is a gift for those with properly open hearts. Be the reason that others believe in the goodness of life. In doing so you will also change your inner world. I knew this from experience before I read a single page of research. And now I know that the research proves it, too. Have the humility to appreciate the strengths in yourself; you did not create your life, or the world, but you can be a caretaker for your small corner of existence that has temporarily been given to you, to create a better world to the best of your abilities. To do this you need your strengths.