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Systems of Strengths

On a new approach to understanding and building systems of strengths

In an earlier blog post, Approaching Power with Humility and Wisdom, I took a look at Ian Robertson's brilliant book and considered the impact that winning and power has on our brain and behavior. From a positive psychology perspective, the feeling of power and empowerment that is reinforced by ‘winning’ may be similar in certain respects to the feeling of courage. This feeling may extend over time to the more stable, trait-like experience of possessing the strength of courage, which involves the ability to overcome fear in the face of challenges. Naturally, it is possible for courage to co-exist alongside other strengths like humility and wisdom, and it is reasonable to assume that both humility and wisdom may significantly enhance the way in which courage is exercised in different contexts, for example, when someone reflects deeply and modestly gathers necessary knowledge before courageously taking on a new sporting, academic, vocational, or social challenge.

This morning I awoke to an email from one of my students, who directed me to an interesting blog post by Todd Kashdan entitled, Two Strengths that Together, Reduce the Risk of Suicidality. Kashdan reports on a very interesting research study, which found that adults who were both grateful and gritty experienced near-zero suicidal thoughts over the period of a month. He explains this finding by reference to the idea that gratitude is about being attentive and attuned to the outside world and both past and present experiences – the kindness of friends and family, the cool breeze upon exiting a hot building. Grit, on the other hand, is about internal determination to persevere in the face of life's obstacles while orienting oneself to the future and accepting the pain associated with following through with meaningful goals. According to Kashdan, a person with this pair of strength – both Grit and Gratitude – may be a person with a healthy time orientation towards the past, present, and future, and may as a consequence be very resilient to suicide.

Kashdan has also noticed that when it comes to studying or trying to cultivate psychological strengths, people have a tendency to focus on one strength at a time rather than seek to understand the multi-dimensional interdependencies between strengths. I agree that this is a potential barrier to understanding and application and I’d like to share a new method we have developed which can be used to help people understand their system of strengths.

Building upon the work of John Warfield, past president for the International Society for the Systems Sciences, we have developed a software package that can be used to model interdependencies between strengths and thus help people understand how their strengths enhance one another in a system of strengths. Notably, as many systems scientists have noted, each of us is a unique living system and thus it is reasonable to assume that each of us works with a unique system of strengths. We use interpretive structural modeling (ISM; Warfield, 1994), a computer-assisted matrix structuring methodology that helps people to build systems models. The five steps of ISM are: (a) identification and clarification of a list of ideas (e.g., core strengths to be included in the system building exercise); (b) identification and clarification of a “relational question” for exploring relationships among ideas (e.g., “Does strength A significantly enhance strength B?”; (c) development of a structural map by using the relational question to explore connections between pairs of ideas; (d) display and discussion of the systems model; and (e) generating, selecting and possibly structuring activities designed to reinforce strengths and their interdependent links in the system of strengths.

Consider the system of strengths one of my students developed. The model can be read from left to right, with lines connecting strengths indicating ‘significantly enhances’. When two or more strengths appear in a box together it means that they are reciprocally inter-related (i.e., strength A significantly enhances strength B, and vice versa).

There are nine strengths in the system, with courage argued by my student to be the most fundamental strength in his system. His courage significantly enhances his humour and playfulness and his creativity, ingenuity, and originality. His creativity, ingenuity, and originality in turn significantly enhance a collection of interdependent strengths, including appreciation of beauty and excellence, curiosity and interest in the world, and love of learning. Other interesting paths of influence can be examined by following other paths of influence in the system. The model is truly fascinating, as is every system of strengths that people develop using our systems thinking methodology. Notably, behind each system of strength is a fascinating logic that provides the system builder with very rich insights into the dynamic interdependencies that shape the individuals world.

What is fascinating about my student’s system of strengths is that it is courage, or his sense of empowerment and his ability to overcome fear in the face of challenges, that is the fundamental driver of most of the strengths in his system. In his system, he recognizes that courage can facilitate many good outcomes, including increased humour, creativity, kindness, ability to love and be loved, appreciation of beauty and excellence, curiosity and interest in the world, and love of learning. I am fully aware that he possess all of these strengths and as we work together we know that we can catalyse upon these strengths and use of the logic of his system to facilitate his success in the face of diverse challenges.