By Patricia Bouweraerts —
Americans spend considerable funds, sprints of willpower, and primal screams in self-improvement efforts—building weak qualities—but experts say that these bursts of energy may begin at the wrong side of the weak-strong equation.
At first it seems counter-intuitive to build strengths instead of weaknesses.
But boosting a person’s best traits is a useful strategy to conquer difficulty, according to the strength-based techniques of Lynn Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Brief Therapy Center in Salt Lake City and adjunct professor of management at the University of Utah and the M.B.A. program at Brigham Young University.
“When the going gets tough, you look at your top five strengths and use them to get you through the challenge,” he said.
Johnson said that if a person magnifies his or her top five strengths out of 24 character traits, it will increase happiness and effectiveness more than working to improve weaknesses.
The 24 universal characteristics identified by Chris Peterson, Ph.D. and Martin Seligman, Ph.D. appear to be valued across cultures, Johnson said.
A strength is magnified by looking for an obvious way to use that strong characteristic more often, or finding a new setting where that strength can be put to work. Other ways to play to one’s strong traits can be sharing the particular strength with someone else, or using it to solve a problem.
One example Johnson presented at a January workshop in Reno, Nev. concerned a person facing a difficult college writing assignment. If that student’s strength is kindness, he or she could find another classmate who is struggling and offer to do research together – sharing results. Both would then benefit.
Online surveys are available for each individual to discover how their 24 strengths are distributed. One such free assessment is offered by the VIA Institute on Character at ViaCharacter.org. Results from the 115 questions can be printed or downloaded as a PDF file. Traits in alphabetical order are:
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Love, sharing and being close
- Love of learning
- Perseverance, completing tasks
- Perspective, wisdom
- Prudence, being careful
- Self-regulation of appetites, emotions
- Social intelligence
- Zest, enthusiasm and energy
Chris Peterson developed the Values in Action (VIA) survey – other professionals may have slightly different labeling for the characteristics, such as vitality for zest, citizenship for teamwork, open-mindedness for judgement and integrity for honesty.
Three of a person’s top five character strengths typically will stay the same if a survey like this is taken at different times in life, Johnson said. However, the traits near the other end of the scale will most likely not migrate to the top.
“The environment brings out certain things in us, but we’re hard-wired to be strong in some areas,” he said.
Johnson added that it is good to keep a journal about the experiences of playing to each strength, because a person then relives the memory.
He lists strategies for magnifying specific strengths in his book “Enjoy Life: Healing with Happiness.” The following activities are examples for playing up strong enthusiasm, or zest:
- Become more involved in a group you’re already a part of
- Take a greater interest in someone else’s work, help a coworker with a project
- Concentrate on sensations of food or drink, appreciating the experience
- Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast
- Do something energetic in the morning, like exercise, and notice how you feel 10 minutes later, an hour later
When the going gets tough, you look at your top five strengths and use them to get you through the challenge.Lynn Johnson
After strengths, then think about weaker traits
During the workshop in Reno, he said that happy and successful people often exhibit the traits of tenacity, optimism (hope), gratitude, social intelligence and enthusiasm.
One way to increase general success at work is to ask which one of these five traits is already most characteristic and magnify that one. People can then pick one they are low on, and rate themselves on it, such as a three, for instance. Describe what a four would look like and what friends would describe a four to look like in you, he said.
“Just start acting as if you were already at a four,” he added. “No need to go farther. Just one single step is quite enough.”
Then, rotate through the low strengths, or work at the first one until it is at about an eight or nine.
Enjoying work is a skill, not something you are born with. Like any skill, the more you practice it, the more you will like it.Lynn Johnson
People can learn to be happy in many careers
If a person finds they are in a job that’s not the career of their dreams, a few techniques are available to tackle it inwardly, Johnson wrote in his book.
“Enjoying work is a skill, not something you are born with,” Johnson wrote. “Like any skill, the more you practice it, the more you will like it.”
One way to learn to like the work is to distract negative thoughts. If something you don’t like about the job runs through your thoughts, simply refuse to pursue it further, and it will move off – not persist, he wrote.
Another technique is to think about how your work helps others. Whether it is pumping outhouses or selling window shades, there are ways these tasks help other people. Thinking about helping, or service, reinforces the notion that the task contributes something important, something greater than the individual.
Showing a cheerful demeanor has proven to be even more valued by employers than the work tasks themselves, he added, and being genuinely helpful to others will have the greatest result toward pay raises. One way that can be achieved is by cultivating a true appreciation for customers and workmates.
It is common thought that success brings happiness. Johnson turns this idea around.
“Raising happiness will make you more successful,” he said.