Revisiting Positive Psychology (part 2 of 3)
Signature Strengths, what are they, and what are they good for?
By Dr Galia Barhava
There’s a lot I could write about positive psychology, as a lot has been written about the topic. But after more than 13 years of studying it, practicing it, and working with many hundreds of people using it, I believe that the most important contribution the field has made that is relevant for every person, is Seligman’s work on signature. strengths.
Classification of mental disorders in a way that is respected. and upheld all over the world is the backbone of psychology and. psychiatry. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Menta Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the handbook for mental health professionals. It lists different categories of mental disorders and the criteria for diagnosing them. The DSM is used worldwide by clinicians and researchers as well as insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and policy makers. It’s the bible on ‘What’s Wrong with People’.
Martin Seligman, who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers and the leading spokesman of Positive Psychology, figured out that without a similar, agreed way to classify the ‘sanities’, Positive Psychology would run the huge risk of using subjective, culturally specific and unreliable measures. So, Seligman and Co enlisted Christopher Peterson, who at the time was the director of the clinical psychology programme at the University of Michigan to oversee the creation of an authoritative classification and measurement system of human strengths.
Strengths are different from talents
Strengths are different from talents. Talents are highly heritable and are quite fixed in the sense that you are either talented in something – like music – or you’re not. Even with the best teachers, if you have no or little musical talent, you’d be at best average.
You can, however, choose to nurture your talent: if you have musical talent, and have the best teachers, and if you work very hard, the chances are your talent will be greatly enhanced. But you can’t choose to possess musical talent!
Strengths are different
Strengths are different. Possessing strengths involves choices; you choose whether you want to develop them and keep building and using them. Strengths, as Seligman, Peterson et al define them, are things that we can keep building and proactively enhancing throughout our lives. And much of our happiness and fulfilment depends on our doing so, but more on this later.
The six core
To undertake this mammoth task of classifying and measuring strengths, Peterson’s group began by searching for virtues that are ubiquitous across the most globally representative cultures. Drawing on the writings of Aristotle, Plato, the Old Testament, the Talmud, Buddha and Confucius to name but a few, they found that almost every single one of these traditions endorses six core
- Wisdom and knowledge
- Love and humanity
- Spirituality and transcendence
Being psychologists, however, this was not enough! Their task developed into translating these six virtues into something that could be clearly defined, measured, evaluated and studied.
Enter: Signature Strengths
Seligman, Peterson et al developed twenty-four signature strengths that can be measured. These strengths underlie the six character virtues. The way to acquire each virtue is through developing the signature strengths behind it. To find out what your signature strengths are, visit the https://www.viacharacter.org/ to register and take the free VIA test.
Much has been written about Positive Psychology, but what’s stuck with me and what I’ve been practising ever since I started delving into this field over a decade ago, is finding ways to use my signature strengths every day and in everything I do. As an insecure over-achiever working for high pressure organisations, I spent half a life time focusing on my areas for development. The positive psychology approach of identifying and focusing on my strengths, further developing them and finding ways to use them more in my life, my whole life, has
all but revolutionized how I relate and operate both personally and professionally.
Many professionals and people who work in high pressure – fast changing environments are consumed with what they are not good at and how they should work on their ‘weaknesses’ or, in management speak, their ‘areas for development’.
If this feels familiar to you – register on https://www.viacharacter.org/ to find out your signature strengths and for a week try consciously to use one of your strengths in an area you wouldn’t normally use it. Long term studies have found this simple little intervention sustainably increases happiness and decreases depressive symptoms. It might also make work a bit more fun!
In Part 3, I’ll deep dive into the work-fulfilment nexus – Signature Strengths, being appreciated and values alignment
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