What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

Top 6 Misconceptions About Strengths

Positive psychology concepts you can use

Many, if not most, practitioners refer to themselves as “strengths-based.” However, the word strengths has become a generic term that does not have universal meaning. What follows are 6 common misconceptions people have about strengths. Understanding the misconception, as well as the truth of each, can help us understand what is meant by "strengths-based practitioner."

1. All strengths are created equal.

Not true. You have many different types of strengths: strengths of talent, skill, and intelligence. You have strengths of interest and external resources. You also have strengths of character (view my blog post on understanding the different types of strengths). Each of these categories is important and offers different benefits. Your character traits are often viewed as the pathway or mechanism to make the other strength areas stronger or more efficient. For example, we must use the character strengths of perseverance and self-regulation to bring forth a musical talent, and we use our character strengths of love, forgiveness, and social intelligence to connect with friends & family (which are strengths of resources).

2. You either have a strength or you don’t have a strength.

This is an all-or-none thinking pattern that often occurs outside of your awareness. The science of character strengths informs us that, as far as we know, all people have all 24 of the core character strengths, and that these strengths exist in degrees of expression. It might be that an individual has allowed one or several of their character strengths to lie dormant for years but this does not mean they do not have the strength within them.

3. People who are strengths-based are one-dimensional.

Many leaders in positive psychology (who shall remain nameless) make this proclamation, either directly or indirectly. Such leaders make the case that if someone is advising another to “use their strengths” or is trying to help an organization be “strengths-based” then this automatically means that individual is neglecting what is wrong or problematic and that that individual is narrowly focusing only on strengths. This is, of course, untrue. We must give people who work with strengths more credit than that. Usually such leaders go on to make the case that one might overuse their strengths, as if strengths overuse was a new idea to people who are entrenched in strengths-based work. Such transparent marketing approaches minimize the depth and nuanced approach that many people in the strengths world are deploying.

4. Strengths are static.

The VIA Institute on Character, the leading scientific organization in the field of character, explains that character strengths are part of our personality and decades of research on personality shows that it is quite stable over time however it can be impacted and it can shift over time. Our character strengths might be affected by changes in our life role (e.g., having a child or joining the military), by atypical events (e.g., trauma), or by deliberate interventions (e.g., a goal to focus on building curiosity). Further longitudinal studies are needed to give greater insight into the developmental changes and factors that influence our character strengths over the decades. Conclusion: character strengths are both stable and malleable to a degree.

5. Strengths of character can be boiled down to a handful of strengths.

What is character? The field of “character” – and many organizations that teach character – have long argued that character can be boiled down to one core attribute (e.g., honesty or integrity) or to a select handful of attributes (e.g., kindness, respect, fairness, and responsibility). The new science of character refutes this antiquated thinking and observes that character is far more idiosyncratic and can be viewed as plural. We are composed of many character traits and the expression of these comes in strength combinations or constellations rather than as isolated traits.

6. Knowing your strengths is enough.

Strengths knowledge is necessary but not sufficient in order to reap all the benefits we can from our strengths. Research shows that it is indeed important and beneficial to have greater strengths awareness, but research also shows that greater benefits occur for those that use their strengths in their personal life and work. Those that use their strengths are more likely to be happier and engaged in what they are doing.

Conclusion

There are many more misconceptions that we all have about character strengths. As the science continues to unfold, more clarity will emerge on these powerful attributes of goodness within us. Future posts will continue to bring these issues out into the open. Is there a misconception about strengths that bothers you? Feel free to share it here or with me by e-mail.

References

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106–118.

Borghans, L., Duckworth, A. L., Heckman, J. J., & ter Weel, B. (2008). The economics and psychology of personality traits. Journal of Human Resources, 43(4), 972–1059.

Linkins, M., Niemiec, R. M., & Gillham, J., & Mayerson, D. (2014). Through the strengths lens: A framework for educating the heart. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.888581

Littman-Ovadia, H., & Steger, M. (2010). Character strengths and well-being among volunteers and employees: Toward an integrative model. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 (6), 419–430.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Additional Resources

VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)

VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)

VIA Survey (the research-validated test)

Character Strengths Research (up-to-date findings)

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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