Your Lower Strengths Matter (Thanks Jim Gaffigan!)

New research reveals that upper and lower strengths link with well-being.

Posted Aug 10, 2015

Stuart Miles
Source: Stuart Miles

This weekend I went to see the standup comic Jim Gaffigan, the funniest man alive, who offered his classic bits on “hot pockets” and plenty of stories on food, travel, and raising his 5 kids (or, as he puts it, watching his wife raise his 5 kids). I laughed wildly throughout the show and spent the evening repeating some of his jokes with my wife.

Humor is my lowest character strength, yet I highly value it and use it regularly. I use it to connect with others, to be socially appropriate, and sometimes consciously bring it forth to deal with stress. I particularly love using playfulness/humor with my young children. It is there where my humor strength really shines.

New research by Rene Proyer and colleagues shows that expressing either our highest character strengths OR our lowest strengths can be associated with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression. A takeaway point from this research is to regularly take time to work on your character strengths – whether they are high, low, or medium strengths. This supports one of the VIA Institute’s core teachings: All 24 character strengths matter. Each of the universal strengths that have been valued by philosophers over the centuries is an internal quality that you have and that you can find expression for in a given situation.

These researchers also found that people who are already high in character strengths use might benefit more from targeting their lesser strengths while those people starting off lower might benefit more from working on higher strengths.

Indeed, it feels good for me to flex my humor muscle or my prudence muscle (another lower strength for me). But I also realize and accept that my intention is not to make these strengths #1 and #2. Instead it is to be well-rounded and more versatile with my strengths.

I see no point in trying to make my lowest strengths become my highest strengths. That would not be very authentic, for one.  And, it would likely be at the cost of spending that time nurturing my best qualities (i.e., signature strengths) – those strengths that have led me to achieve, to build relationships, and to be happy.  But, is it possible? Could I train my humor strength and become a comedian? Sure, and there is research showing humor is malleable and can be built up with training. But why would I want to? My humor strength is fine just where it is - #24 of 24. This does not mean I won’t attend to my humor and nurture it. However, I won’t care whether in one year, the next time I re-assess my strengths with the VIA Survey, my humor remains at #24.

It really is amazing how we benefit from our lowest strengths…even if we use them only in little ways. I will continue to listen to Jim Gaffigan’s track on Pandora and laugh my head off. I’ll continue to make up quirky games with my kids, make silly faces, and pretend like I’m tripping over my feet. And, I’ll expand my humor strength by listening to a wider range of comics – hearing different types of jokes and styles of comedy. At the same time, I confirm that I have no intention of becoming Jim Gaffigan and doing standup comedy or to a much lesser extent, I have no intention of entertaining my social groups with long stories with punchlines at the end.

Instead, I will spend time attending to the full range of the 24 character strengths and give the greatest attention to my best qualities.


Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: A randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00456 


Free, validated test of character strengths: VIA Survey

List of 24 universal character strengths: VIA Classification