The value of strengths
A focus on strengths is an integral part of Positive Psychology. Research shows us that those who regularly use their strengths have greater wellbeing in terms of health, happiness, relationships and even performance. Strengths use is associated with greater authenticity and the ability to cope with adversity. Perspective is one of the 24 strengths identified by the Values in Action (VIA) classification of character strengths and virtues (https://www.viacharacter.org/).
These 24 strengths are grouped under 6 virtues (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence). They are derived from analysis of a wide variety of religious, philosophical and cultural texts and reflect positive personality traits that are universally recognised, distinct, valued across culture and time and promote positive outcomes for individuals, others and society. Everyone is purported to show all 24 strengths to a greater or lesser degree. While there has been an emphasis on signature strengths, which are your top rated 5-7 strengths, there is a recent move towards emphasising the importance of all our strengths according to context and how they interact with one another (Niemiec & Pearce 2021). Here, I aim to explain the nature of perspective and look at how developing it may be helpful, explore potential over and underuse of this strength and think about why it might be especially useful in situations of adversity.
What is perspective?
Perspective is a component of the wisdom virtue, along with creativity, curiosity, judgement and love of learning. It is the ability to see the bigger picture in a situation. The flexibility to see both the wood and the trees, coupled with the knowledge and life experience and the ability to coordinate these to give a balanced view of what is really important. People who are high in perspective are generally good listeners, ask pertinent questions, are sensitive to context, have a high degree of self-knowledge and are able to give insightful advice. An interesting thing about perspective is that it requires not only cognitive abilities such as rational decision making and the ability to weigh evidence but also understanding of people, feelings, good levels of empathy, insight into one’s own limitations and the nuance to balance these factors. It bridges the gap between thinking and feeling while taking into account the situation. Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) argue that “practical wisdom” typified in perspective is essential in our ability to use to allow us our full symphony of strengths in balance with one another and the social and cultural context, preventing over or underuse of any one strength.
What are the benefits of perspective?
Research from the VIA indicates perspective is associated with the ability to learn from mistakes, and balance the short and long term consequences of actions. Individuals high in perspective are valued by others as providing wise counsel. It is particularly linked to wellbeing in older adults, more so than other factors such as physical health and socioeconomic status. Wagner et al. (2019) found perspective to be one of the two top strengths associated with meaning and accomplishment elements of wellbeing assessed using the PERMA model.
Perspective-taking is a skill valued and developed in many forms of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), particularly the “third wave” forms such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This is because it is helpful in identifying and counteracting negative thoughts and beliefs and thus useful for helping to manage emotions, counteract anxiety and depression and promote resilience. Perspective helps us to broaden our view of situations and counteract our negativity bias.
Perspective in balance
So perspective is a good strength to develop for all of us and can help us maximise use of our other strengths. It’s one of my signature strengths. As those of you who have read my previous blogs will know, I was not initially enamoured of some of my signature strengths, which are largely the soft skills of forgiveness, love, kindness etc. Perspective, I like the idea of. I have found that learning to use it within the “golden mean”, without overuse or underuse in context is not as easy as you might think. Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork on strengths (Seligman 2015) suggested that all strengths exist on a continuum and that each strength has an unhealthy opposite, absence and excess associated with it. The opposite of perspective is considered to be foolishness, its absence, shallowness and the excess “ivory tower” behaviour. These extremes give some insight into possible avenues of under and over use.
Over and underuse
Overuse of perspective can be seen as “preachy” or intrusive, giving people advice or insights that seem irrelevant, high brow or unwanted. I would argue that this is not proper perspective, as it does not take into account the person’s situation, but it is easy to see how perspective can be seen as judgement. This is the sort of difficult situation that people such as social workers may find themselves in when there are competing needs for different people. Life is messy and complicated and often there is no right solution but being able to take the perspective of different individuals, see the impact on them and balance emotional and practical needs is a good goal. Perspective can also be overused if we forget that sometimes people need to learn for themselves and trying to take that learning from them does them a disservice. This can be a hard lesson if you are the parent of a teenager!
Underuse of perspective can occur when we are very emotional or disconnected from people and issues so don’t have the motivation to engage. It’s helpful to be aware of your own blind spots in these areas to alert you to when you might need to step up using perspective. For example, personally, I have found I am great at using perspective when big or out of the ordinary things happen. A car accident, a serious problem and I can easily stand back and see what really matters and act accordingly. I tend to underuse perspective in everyday hassles especially when disruption conflicts with my need for order. I’ve really worked on invoking perspective when (for example) my cat is sick and I need to make a time-sensitive phone call, and other similar everyday challenges. I’ve found it really helps.
Whether perspective is one of your top strengths or not, it’s a good one to try and develop for all the reasons discussed above. Particularly in situations of adversity where it is easy to jump to an emotional response or a rigid judgement based on the letter of a rule, perspective can be useful. Think about all the times you’ve felt “triggered” in the past year by the behaviour of others in relation to pandemic regulations. Here are my top questions for invoking perspective:
What is the best thing that could happen here? What’s the worst? What’s the most likely?
What are the other people here thinking and feeling? What might be going on that I don’t see? How might their background/context impact this? What does this person/situation need?
Am I making some kind of unhelpful assumption or thought error such as catastrophising/ black and white thinking/ jumping to conclusions? Is there another view?
Will this matter tomorrow/next week/ month/year?
What is really needed here? What is the most helpful response? How does this connect to my values?
What is the conflict e.g. relationship vs justice/control? (Is it more important to be kind or to be right?)
Is this one of my blind spots? Am I over-emotional?
Does this issue need addressing urgently, would it be better to reflect?
When have I dealt with a situation like this before? What helped?
What would I/you say to a friend in this situation?
What would the wisest person I know say about this?
What strengths or strategies can be brought to bear here?
What supports or resources can be used to help here?
On balance, I see perspective as helping people (including yourself) by asking questions and offering insights rather than giving advice. As a coach this is my philosophy, coupled with the belief that people are all trying to become the best they can and be happy in the way that is right for them. I hope that these thoughts help you in some way.
Niemiec, R. M., & Pearce, R. (2021). The Practice of Character Strengths: Unifying Definitions, Principles, and Exploration of What’s Soaring, Emerging, and Ripe With Potential in Science and in Practice. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 590220. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.590220
Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 377–395
Seligman. M.E.P. (2015). Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork: The real mental illness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 3-6
Wagner, L., Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2019). Character strengths and PERMA: Investigating the relationships of character strengths with a multidimensional framework of well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-018-9695-z
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