A cornerstone of Positive Psychology

A focus on strengths rather than weaknesses is a fundamental aspect of Positive Psychology. Research supports the idea that regularly using our strengths is good for both well-being and performance because capitalising on our natural abilities allows us to shine and feel good about ourselves as opposed to wading through the treacle of imposed expectations.

Given that many people are unaware of their strengths, psychologists and coaches have often relied on an “identify and use” approach to developing strengths. It seems to me that there is a need to find a more nuanced, complex way of progressing this field and I hope to discuss a little of that here.

A complex question

Alex Linley and colleagues at CAPP (Center for Applied Positive Psychology) are at the forefront of such developments. One of the difficulties is that Positive Psychology prides itself on being based on scientific research. However, researching complex interactions between different strengths constellations, in varying contexts, for widely varying individuals, across the lifespan, is a huge task and is in its infancy. My MAPP colleague Sue Roberts in her blog on this site (The very subtle art of cooking up your strengths, 24 Sept 2018) gives an excellent insight from her own experience of the level of complexity involved in considering the dynamic ways strengths interact in the real world. So where do we start?

Defining strengths and what we know

There are a number of different ways of defining strengths but most approaches contain the ideas that:

●      Strengths are based on an innate natural capacity, there is likely to be a genetic component.

●      We have a natural tendency to want to use our strengths, they feel authentic and energising to use, we achieve more and perform better when using them.

●      However, because strengths feel natural, it is easy for people to undervalue them, not recognise them at all or take them for granted.

●      Strengths although stable are influenced by context. Thus strength profiles may change over time and in different circumstances.

●      The personal potentials embodied in strengths need to be developed effortfully for us to fully realise them.

●      Strengths can be underused and overused. Thus strengths development can involve improved proficiency in using them, using them more frequently but also recognising how to use them appropriately in context. I recently witnessed a catastrophic over use of humour where the person just kept making more jokes as the interpersonal situation deteriorated.

●      Strengths can interact with a person’s interests and values influencing how they are expressed. Of course interests also change over time and life stage.

●      How different constellations of strengths interact with one another can be important to their expression and usefulness in different circumstances. Particularly, strengths which could work against one another (e.g. honesty and kindness) need consideration.

●      Failing to use a valued strength in a particular context could have more significant psychological costs for an individual than failures associated with weaknesses.

It can be seen how complex research in this area could be when trying to take in all these factors.

How to help clients

As we wait for further nuanced strengths research to help inform our practice of Positive Psychology, how do we aid our clients development? It seems to me that helping people understand the true complexities of strengths so they can be their own experts in noticing when, how and in what combinations they are using them is important. Discussions around strengths need to reflect the dynamic potential to move forward that they offer, rather than a static “this is who you are” approach. Most practitioners I have come across already work in this way and perhaps we could try to help one another by publishing more case studies exploring strengths development in detail. My clinical background leads me to want to see detailed psychological formulations of how strengths use helps and hinders individuals in different contexts.

A personal example

I offer a personal example as an illustration in the hope it might help someone better understand their own strengths use.

I have completed the Values in Action strengths questionnaire three times over a period of about six years. While my strength profile was not identical each time, the same cluster of strengths seemed to be found at the top, middle or bottom which supports the idea of stability of strengths over time. When a particular strength had moved significantly in the ranking (i.e. more than one or two places) it generally seemed to relate to something going on in my life at the time such as a boost of love of learning when I started my masters. This supports the idea of the importance of context in strength expression.

I have spent time over the last three years looking at the role of one of my signature strengths- kindness. This began as part of an assignment exercise for the MAPP but has continued as I try to cope with understanding my personal authenticity. Initially I had difficulty recognising kindness as a strength (everyone’s kind aren’t they?) but as I observed my thoughts feelings and behaviour I did find that doing kind things for others really did make me feel energised, authentic and “like me at my best”.

So I worked on carrying out random acts of kindness on Fridays for several months and I loved it, my well-being was indeed boosted on objective self-report measures. In time however, I came to realise that I was underusing kindness in certain circumstances especially towards myself and those close to me. Whilst I have no problem being kind to others, I have high standards for myself and am not good at self-compassion. I guess this had never particularly worried me until I realised that I applied the same attitudes to my close family.

Psychologically those who I identify as “part of me” in some way seem to get the same treatment as I give myself. Realising that I could lack kindness towards the people I care about most was really devastating. Kindness is part of the core me, how could I be failing to use it in this fundamental way? This illustrates how impactful failure of a strength can be. I don’t really worry about not being able to produce a beautiful looking birthday cake for my children, I know I’m not that creative, it doesn’t bother me, I order one from someone who is!

But not being kind is just not OK. So I have recognised and tried to work on this issue. I have completed a self-compassion course and actively cultivated kindness to myself and my family. Recognising the underuse of kindness in this context has been an important start and I have had to bring in some of my other top strengths of forgiveness, perspective and social intelligence to really help me address the situations where I am less kind than I would like to be to my family. This is an ongoing process of trying to achieve the golden mean of the right amount of kindness use for each situation and reflecting and re-evaluating as I seek to improve.

I hope this personal example illustrates some of the complexities of trying to dynamically develop our strengths in context.

About the author: Sarah Monk

‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’


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