Is that a cape billowing behind you? You may not realise it, but you possess
superpowers—what psychologists call signature strengths. One of the founders of the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania, identified 24 character strengths such as curiosity, fairness, and bravery. These strengths are universal, found across cultures. As individuals, we have them in different measures.
“Your strengths are at the core of who you are. Expressing them feels easy and natural. When you are using one, you feel This is the real me,” explains Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., educational director and psychologist at the global nonprofit VIA Institute on Character. If creativity is one of your biggies, for example, you may feel transported by painting a watercolour or solving a hall-closet organising crisis using only shoeboxes. If kindness is at your core, you may feel most alive walking a dog from a local shelter.
Seligman’s research found that when subjects identified their top strengths and made a point of using them in a new way every day for a week, they felt less depressed and happier for months afterward.
Maybe you already have an intuitive sense of your own powers. “But research shows that most people are not aware of their best qualities,” says Niemiec. Reflect on a moment when you did something well or maybe even were downright extraordinary. What was it about you that allowed this greatness?
Once you find your top strengths—start with Challenge #1 below—make a point of applying them in fresh ways daily. If one of yours is a love of learning, for instance, tackle a fresh challenge at work or take up the oboe at last.
It’s natural to obsess about our problems, failures, and shortcomings. But “struggles often hone our strengths,” Niemiec notes. Remind yourself that you have the internal resources inside to cope, thrive, and flourish.
Answer these six prompts from Prevention’s book Find Your Joy to help you grow into your best self. You can do them all in one day, or come back to them over the next several days.
Challenge #1: ID your strengths
These are the 24 qualities Seligman says can make up a person’s character. Which are your biggest strengths? Choose from the list and write them down.
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Love of
- Social intelligence
Challenge #2: Reflect on your successes
To gird yourself to cope with a current problem, it helps to reflect on your past successes. Think of a life challenge you faced and emerged from successfully. What inner resources helped you do this? What lessons did you take away from this experience? Ponder these questions fully before moving on to the next challenge.
Challenge #3: Consider how you’ve changed
What are you able to do today that you couldn’t have pulled off five years ago? Answer honestly and think through what those things are. Then consider: What has changed in you to make those things possible?
Challenge #4: Take a step back
What would your friends and family say you are totally awesome at? Think about it from their perspective and don’t worry if your answers don’t feel modest. This is for you to recognise your special talents and abilities.
Challenge #5: Acknowledge what you’re capable of
In your notebook, write about a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone
and really impressed yourself. What happened? Why did you do it? How did you feel?
Challenge #6: Chalk up your daily wins
Keep your momentum going: Research has found that subjects who spend a few minutes each night writing about what has gone well that day feel measurably happier. “Most of us focus on our weaknesses and on what we don’t have,” says Carol Kauffman, Ph.D., a life coach and an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “By listing good things, you’re training yourself to reverse your focus from what you did wrong to what you did right. You’re emphasising your strengths,” she says.
To get even more impact, Beth Kurland, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind and Awakening to Your Fullest Life, suggests that you share the day’s little achievements with a partner or another family member over dinner. Or, write your small daily successes on little slips of paper and store them in a jar you keep in view. Once a week, take them out and reread them. “Call up a felt sense in your body of any positive emotions associated with the win—for instance, a sense of calmness or competence. Soak in that experience for a minute or more—really take it in,” Kurland suggests.