What are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? Which question is easier to answer?
For me at least, weaknesses are easy to identify – in-your-face failings that confront us every day. I am too anxious, perfectionistic, and rigid. I can be stubborn, cranky, and detached.
The whole field of positive psychology was created on the idea that this is a larger pattern: as a society, we knew how to make people less unhappy but not happier. As part of the solution, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson devised a complete categorization of the 24 character strengths. Together, they fall into six categories – six virtues – that are nearly universal across cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, and transcendence.
Assessing your strengths isn’t just a fun personality test – although it is absolutely a fun personality test. The whole focus on strengths comes from their connection to happiness: for Seligman, exercising your strengths makes you feel happy and authentic, closer to the “ideal you” you always imagined. A bar of 80% dark chocolate may be pleasurable, but strengths are the stuff of long-lasting gratification.
If you’re curious, you can take a test of your strengths here. But the machine doesn’t know you best: according to Seligman, your top strengths also have to feel authentic and powerful to you. You have to delight in exercising them, and feel energized afterward. Being prudent was one of my strengths, but exercising caution and carefulness usually makes me feel nervous.
My top strengths that felt most authentic were perseverance, honesty, and judgment. If I have a job to do, I’m going to do it well and on time – no question. I strive for honesty in my relationships and delight in one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversations about ideas and feelings. And I love to take in new information, weigh it and synthesize it, and come up with my own opinions.
What are your character strengths?
Curiosity: You are open to new experiences and thrive in situations of uncertainty. You aren’t easily bored.
Love of learning: You are the type of person who loves school, reading, and museums. You’re probably an expert in something, just because you love it.
Judgment: You think critically and are open-minded to different perspectives. You can weigh facts objectively, without your feelings getting in the way.
Ingenuity: You are creative and street smart. If you want something, you’ll find unique and original ways to get it.
Perspective: You are wise, and people come to you for advice.
Valor: Despite fear, you can face difficult physical and emotional challenges.
Perseverance: You’re industrious, finishing what you start. You meet or exceed expectations, but don’t give yourself unattainable goals.
Integrity: You are honest and transparent in word and in deed.
Zest: You feel passion, inspiration, and energy when embarking on a new day or new activity.
Humanity and Love
Kindness: You enjoy making others happy, even if you don’t know them well.
Loving and being loved: You have strong relationships, where you can accept and give love.
Social intelligence: You are aware of the feelings and motivations of others and of yourself, and you can use that information to handle social situations well.
Citizenship: You work well in a group and respect your team members and leaders.
Fairness: You have a strong sense of morality and believe in treating people the same, without regard for your feelings or prejudices.
Leadership: You successfully organize activities and treat group members equally.
Self-control: You can regulate not only your actions but also your emotions.
Prudence: You think long-term, weigh your options, and exercise caution.
Humility: You’re modest and don’t seek attention. You don’t see your accomplishments as special.
Forgiveness: You forgive and give people second chances. You aren’t vengeful and don’t hold a grudge.
Appreciation of beauty: You recognize beauty and excellence, and it awes you.
Gratitude: You’re thankful for other people and circumstances. You don’t take things for granted.
Optimism: You have hope and expect good things, so you plan for a happy future.
Spirituality: You have strong beliefs and a sense of purpose. You understand your place in something larger, whether it’s religious or not.
Humor: You’re funny, and you enjoy making others laugh.
Is the point of using your strengths just to achieve happiness? At the end of Authentic Happiness, Seligman makes a intriguing suggestion. He personally doesn’t believe in God the creator, but he can envision a world where we are (in essence) creating God. The march of society is a march toward perfect knowledge, perfect power, and perfect goodness. To find meaning, he believes, each of us can see ourselves as contributing to one of those three domains.
I feel strongly drawn toward the goal of wisdom, as I read, write blog posts, and get lost in conversations. Engineers or programmers, he says, may be drawn to create products and services that give us more control over our environment. Priests and nonprofits, I imagine, strive to make the world better. Once you know your strengths and your purpose, the next step is to take an honest look at your life to see if you’re living as powerfully, authentically, and meaningfully as possible.