One of the most popular exercises in the science of positive psychology (some argue it is the
single most popular exercise) is referred to as “use your signature strengths in new ways.” But what does this exercise mean? How do you make the most of it to benefit yourself and others?
On the surface, the exercise is self-explanatory:
a) Select one of your highest strengths – one of your character strengths that is core to who you are, is easy for you to use, and gives you energy;
b) Consider a new way to express the strength each day;
c) Express the strength in a new way each day for at least 1 week.
Studies repeatedly show that this exercise is connected with long-term benefits (e.g., 6 months) such as higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression.
In practice, however, people sometimes find it surprisingly challenging to come up with new ways to use one of their signature strengths. This is because we are very accustomed to using our strengths. We frequently use our strengths mindlessly without much awareness. For example, have you paid much attention to your use of self-regulation as you brush your teeth? Your level of prudence or kindness while driving? Your humility while at a team meeting?
For some strengths, it is easy to come up with examples. Want to apply curiosity in a new way? Here is a sample mapping of what you might do. Keep it simple. Make it complex. It’s up to you!
- On Monday, take a new route home from work and explore your environment as you drive.
- On Tuesday, ask one of your co-workers a question you have not previously asked them.
- On Wednesday, try a new food for lunch – something that piques your curiosity to taste.
- On Thursday, call a family member and explore their feelings about a recent positive experience they had.
- On Friday, take the stairs instead of the elevator and explore the environment as you do.
- On Saturday, as you do one household chore (e.g., washing the dishes, vacuuming), pay attention to 3 novel features of the activity while you do it. Example: Notice the whirring sound of the vacuum, the accumulation of dust swirling around in the container, the warmth of the water as you wash the dishes, the sensation of the weight of a single plate or cup, and so on.
- On Sunday, ask yourself 2 questions you want to explore about yourself – reflect or journal your immediate responses.
- Next Monday….keep going!
Widening the scope
In some instances, you might feel challenged to come up with examples. Let me help. After you choose one of your signature strengths, consider the following 10 areas to help jolt new ideas within you and stretch your approach to the strength.
How might I express the character strength…
- At work
- In my closest relationship
- While I engage in a hobby
- When with my friends
- When with my parents or children
- When I am alone at home
- When I am on a team
- As the leader of a project or group
- While I am driving
- While I am eating
Bringing in psychology
You can also consider any of the 24 character strengths from the psychological perspective, since, after all, each strength is a capacity for thinking, feeling, and behaving:
- Thoughts: What does perspective think like? When I’m expressing perspective, what thoughts go through my mind? What thoughts are present when I am acting in a prudent way? A kind way?
- Emotions: What does bravery feel like? How might I notice humility as a feeling in my body…what bodily sensations align with the expression of humility?
- Behavior: What does it look like for me to express gratitude? When I enact judgment/critical thinking, how am I coming across? What is the action involved when I am expressing fairness?
- Check out this link here in which I offer 2 ideas for each of the 24 character strengths.
- If you are a visual person, you might like the pin-board of images I created on Pinterest for using strengths in new ways.
- Additional ideas are provided by positive psychologist, Tayyab Rashid, here.
Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2012). Strength-based positive interventions: Further evidence for their potential in enhancing well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s10902-012-9380-0
Linley, P. A., Nielsen, K. M., Gillett, R., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Using signature strengths in pursuit of goals: Effects on goal progress, need satisfaction, and well-being, and implications for coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 5 (1), 6–15.
Madden, W., Green, S., & Grant, A. M. (2011). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. International Coaching Psychology Review, 6 (1), 71–83.
Mitchell, J., Stanimirovic, R., Klein, B., & Vella-Brodrick, D. (2009). A randomised controlled trial of a self-guided internet intervention promoting well- being. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 749-760.
Mongrain, M., & Anselmo-Matthews, T. (2012). Do positive psychology exercises work? A replication of Seligman et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68 (4), 382–389.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Proctor, C., Maltby, J., & Linley, P. A. (2009) Strengths use as a predictor of well-being and health-related quality of life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10, 583–630.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)
VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)
VIA Survey (the research-validated test)
VIA resources for practitioners