Understanding strengths

What are Strengths?

Strengths can be defined as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2008, p.9).

According to this definition, strengths are way of thinking, feeling and behaving that come naturally and easily and enable optimal functioning, development and performance (Linley, Harrington & Wood 2006). Peterson and Seligman (2004) define character strengths as a subset of personality traits that have moral value. The correct use of character strengths enables optimal functioning and performance and provides a pathway for individual well-being and life satisfaction as well as management of problems.

When people use their strengths, they enjoy what they are doing; the focus is on the process rather than on the outcome of the activity. There is an internal drive (intrinsic motivation) to use strengths, rather than feeling the pressure of the outside world to use strengths (extrinsic motivation). Hence, the development of strengths is often a natural and self-guided process.

Strengths are similar to but need to be distinguished from skill, talent, interests and values. Whereas strengths are assumed to come naturally to a person, skills are learned through training or experience. Talents on the other hand are innate abilities which are characterized by a strong biological background and may or may not be well- developed (Niemiec, 2013). In other words, talents seem to come naturally to a person, but they may not necessarily evoke feelings of energy, joy, or authenticity, as the use of character strengths does. A strength is valued for intrinsic and moral reason while talents are valued for their tangible outcomes (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Skills on the other hand are specific proficiencies that are developed through training. Interests refer to areas or topics that a person is passionate about and driven to pursue while values are enduring beliefs, principles or ideal that are of key importance to the person.

Strengths illustrate interpersonal differences, which are particularly visible in human behavior: strengths guide our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Those that champion a strength-based approach suggest that anything that assists an individual in dealing with the challenges of life should be regarded as a strength. These strengths will vary from person to person and, consequently, it can be difficult to draw up a fully comprehensive list of strengths. To recognize strengths, it is important to have an open mindset and remember that strengths can be expressed in many different ways.

Although every person has certain signature strengths, it is alleged that most people are not truly aware of the strengths they possess (Niemiec, 2013). Moreover, there are those that maintain that people’s awareness of strengths are biased by significant others, such as teachers, family, and friends, who mainly focus on a person’s weaknesses rather than on the promotion of his or her strengths (Jones-Smith, 2014). Encouraging people to stop focusing on deficits is an important activity for human beings as it is very easy for us to pay attention to the negative (Biswas-Diener, 2011).

A Strength-based approach

A strength-based approach focuses on the positive attributes of a person or a group rather than the negative. This approach allows for the right conditions for a person to see themselves at their best, to see the value that they bring by just being themselves. It should be noted that strengths can be overdone and underdone thereby undermining motivation and performance. A strength-based approach would teach people to use the right strength, to the right amount, in the right way and at the right time (Linley, 2008).

As with physical health being more than the absence of disease, the World Health Organization defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (WHO p. 18). A focus on disease and mental deficit limits our understanding and knowledge-base of human functioning, as relatively little attention is given to factors that make life worth living. While toxic stress can have debilitating effects on the well-being of children, not all stress is damaging. Positive stress has the potential to help children learn, grow and adapt if it is successfully managed. Waters (2015) maintains that children are more likely to use their strengths to effectively cope with minor stress in their life if they have parents who adopt a strength-based approach to parenting.

Essentially, the strengths perspective is the equivalent of Antonovsky’s salutogenesis which highlights the factors that create and support human health rather than those that cause disease (Antonovsky, 1987). Research has shown that deficit-based programs focus on what children and youth are doing wrong and are not nearly as effective as programs that focus on the strengths of the children and youth. Moreover, these risk-based interventions appear to not sustain change (Skodol, 2010).

While a deficit-based approach tends to focus on needs and problems in people or helping people avoid risks associated with negative outcomes, a strengths-based approach focuses on what is working well to support the growth of individuals and communities. This perspective is based on the assumption that people have existing competencies and resources for their own empowerment; that people are capable of solving problems and learning new skills and are a part of the process rather than merely guided by a professional (Alliance for Children and Youth of Waterloo Region, 2009).
Although the concept behind the deficit-model may appear intuitive i.e. fixing weakness will increase well-being, this idea is far from complete and includes fundamental misconceptions about strength use and wellbeing.

  • Positive affect is not on a continuum with negative affect: removing depression fear and anger does not lead to joy, peace and love.
  • Although many strengths are already present at a very young age, they need to be nurtured to realize their full
  • When strengths are not used or trained, their potential effect on well-being remains limited.
  • Strengths can be overdone and underdone thereby undermining motivation and performance and ultimately well-being. This applies to all strengths; every strength that is used too much, and/or used in the wrong context loses its adaptive value.
  • Focusing on strengths does not mean ignoring challenges or spinning struggles into strengths.
  • Well-being and human flourishing are not merely how negative experience may be avoided or ignored but rather of how positive and negative experiences are
  • Strengths need to be understood in context: strengths may recede into the background, or advance into the foreground, depending on context and need.
  • Boosting strengths means increasing not only the frequency of use but also the number of different situations in which the strength is
  • Strengths are potentials for excellence that can be cultivated through enhanced awareness, accessibility and effort.
  • When it comes to strengths overuse and underuse, everything starts with awareness.

Assessing Strengths
There are a number of assessment scales developed to assess strength-related constructs. Below is a very brief overview of four of these tools.

Clifton Strengths Finder (CSF)

Developed by the Gallup Poll organization, the Clifton Strengths Finder measures 34 different talent themes using 178 items. The questionnaire is appropriate for use with adolescents and adults with reading levels of 10th grade or higher. Upon the completion of the CSF, respondents receive a report on their top five talent themes, 10 ideas for putting each of their top five talent themes into action, and a “strength-based action plan” for designing and implementing short and long-term goals for using their talents and building strengths at home and work.

The Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer (for ages 10-14) assesses 10 possible talent themes of students, including (Discoverer, Achiever, Future Thinker, and Organizer).

For further information, please go to: https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/252137/home.aspx
Or http://www.bookdepository.com/StrengthsExplorer-for-Ages-10-14-Gallup-Youth-Development-Specialists/9781595620187

Strength Profile

The Strengths Profile (previously known at the R2 Strengths Profiler) is an online strengths assessment and development tool created by Linley and Dovey at the CAPP. This assessment measures 6 different strengths, which the respondent must rate according to the dimensions of performance, energy, and use. By combining these three dimensions, the tool provides information about the respondents’ unrealized strengths, realized strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. Rather than a research tool, the  Strengths Profile is more commonly used as an applied instrument for recruitment and placement of personnel as well as for leadership development and teamwork.  For further information, please go to:

Multiple Intelligences Developmental Assessment Scales (MIDAS)

Multiple Intelligences Developmental Assessment Scales (MIDAS) created by Dr. Branton Shearer is one of the few reliable and valid instruments to measure students’ (or adults’) multiple intelligences (linguistic, spatial, logical-mathematical, musical, naturalist, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic). It should be noted that there is basic certification required for administration of the scales. For further information, please go to:

The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)

VIA stands for “Values in Action”. Created by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, the VIA Inventory of Strengths by Youth (VIA Youth Survey) is one of the most comprehensive assessment tools for adolescents to measure character strengths. Upon completing the questionnaire, respondents receive information about their 24 character strengths in rank order. Everyone possesses all 24 character strengths in different degrees with each individual presenting with a unique character strengths profile. Each character strength falls under six broad virtue categories (humanity, courage, bravery, wisdom & knowledge, transcendence, temperance and justice). Among these different assessments, the VIA-IS is the one that has been studied the most in a scientific context. For further information, please go to: https://www.viacharacter.org/

Strengths, Wellbeing and Flourishing

The key to well-being is the way that people look at themselves and the relationship that individuals have with themselves. However, while knowing one’s strengths is important, it is not enough to increase well- being. Research has shown that it is using, rather than merely having or knowing one’s strengths, that enhances well-being. Strength use can contribute to people’s sense of authenticity by internalizing the expression of their strength into their core self or identity. Research has identified an association between personal strengths in young people and academic success, self-determination and life satisfaction (Park & Peterson, 2006; Arnold, Walsh, Oldham & Rapp, 2007; Lounsbury, Fisher, Levy & Welsh, 2009). Other studies have shown that using one’s strengths is associated with higher levels of well-being e.g. Wood, Linley, Maltby, Kashdan, & Hurling (2011) conducted a longitudinal study and found that using strengths was a good predictor of well-being, increased positive affect, vitality and self-esteem as well as reduced levels of stress. Similarly, Hone et al (2015) found that those who used their strengths are 18 times more likely to flourish compared to those who do not .

However, optimal strength use is contextual and requires conscious regulation of strengths so as to avoid overuse, underuse of misuse of strengths. Underusing, overusing and misusing strengths are often related to negative outcomes. For example, Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, and Niemiec (2016) found that overusing social intelligence and humility and underusing zest, humor, self-regulation and social intelligence was collated with social anxiety. Interestingly, their study demonstrated that underuse had a stronger association with negative outcomes than did overuse of strengths. It was suggested that underusing strengths may be the result of living on ‘autopilot’ and becoming lost in autopilot tendencies and unaware of potentiality and action that could be taken.

Most researchers and psychologists would agree that flourishing encompasses well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction; however, even these components of flourishing have their own subcomponents, including:
• Meaning
• Purpose
• Autonomy
• Self-acceptance
• Optimism
• Positive relationships
• Mastery
• Self-determination
• Resilience
• Personal growth
• Vitality
• Engagement
• Self-esteem

Deci & Ryan (2008) propose that in order to thrive, one needs relatedness, competence, autonomy and self-regulation while Seligman (2011) purports one requires positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA). Although I concur with these concepts, my definition of thriving, of growing or developing successfully, is a more dynamic, bidirectional, multidimensional developmental process that exists as a continuum (Benson & Scales, 2009) extending over time requiring physical vitality, good family and social relationships, emotional balance and positive self-image, a meaningful role in society and a sense of purpose and engagement in life (Kern, Della Porta & Friedman, 2014).

Although separated by a period of over 2000 years, there is a noticeable consensus between the comments below of two outstanding educators of their age. It is also particularly apt for our youth today: learners flourish when they are engaged and intrinsically motivated and are playing to their strengths. In fact , the hallmark of strengths is that they are energizing; people feel vital and engaged when they talk about and apply their strengths.

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” – Plato (c. 428 BCE–c. 348 BCE)

“The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” – Sir Ken Robinson (1950 – )


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