Positive Psychology:
Strengths-Based Approach Overview

In this guide you will find an extensive list of benefits of why one should focus on their strengths. To give you the context of the strengths-based approach, it offers a holistic view of the strengths movement, its roots, historical development and future social implications.

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Why Strengths?

Can you name your top 5 strengths? Yes, those things that you are naturally really good at?

Scientific research shows that people who know and use their personal strengths:

 

They are more satisfied with life aka they feel happier

Studies show that people who have a chance to use their strengths at least once a day report lower levels of depression, higher levels of positivity and stronger mental health.

 

They experience less stress

Research shows that being able to leverage one’s strengths creates a buffer against the negative effects of stress or trauma.

 

They feel healthier and have more energy

Putting at use one’s core strengths is associated with healthy behaviors – such as pursuing an active lifestyle and following healthy eating habits.

 

They are more confident

Both strengths awareness and strengths use are positively linked with self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-confidence.

 

They experience faster growth and development

Contrary to popular beliefs, applied research shows that strength areas have by far larger growth potential than one’s weaknesses.

 

They are more creative and agile at work

The active use of one’s personal strengths creates feelings of authenticity, vitality, and concentration. This, in turn, leads to a more creative mindset and greater proactivity.

 

They feel more satisfied at work

People that actively use their strengths at work experience higher job satisfaction. Plus, it is easier to find true meaning and pleasure in their work.

 

They are more engaged at work

Employees who have a chance to apply their strengths at work on a daily basis report a much higher level of engagement in what they do.

 

Not convinced yet?

 

Focusing on strengths is not only good for you, but also for people around you.

 

Countless studies show that teams and organizations where people know and leverage their strengths experience higher performance, engagement and retention.

 

So once again – can you name your top 5 strengths?

 

Despite all the benefits we listed above, you are probably struggling to name your top 5 strengths. Don’t worry, you are not alone. In fact, not even 1 out of 3 individuals can confidently answer this question. Does that suggest that we as human beings are naturally modest and reserved? Is it the societal effect discouraging bragging? Or that we are raised since childhood to focus on our weaknesses and fix those, rather than focusing on something we are already good at?

 

Possibly. What is clear is that 1) the majority of us don’t really know what our strengths are, and 2) we do not fully value them.

 

So, let’s hop into your strengths journey together. And let’s start by looking at at the strengths-based approach in detail.

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Historical Context of the Strengths-Based Approach

Traditional Deficit-Focused Approach

Historically, the attention to “what is wrong” has been the center of attention of psychologists willing to help people get back to normal.

 

The typical model of personal development is indeed very simple. First, you identify your current state. Second, you compare with the benchmark, with what is normal for the average Joe. Third, you close the gap by fixing what’s not normal. Hence, throughout history, psychology was seen a problem-solving discipline that studied the average human behavior and helped abnormal become normal again.  

 

This is reflected in the – “deficit” or “medical” – perspective, which arose in the field of medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still dominates the practice of helping professions nowadays.

 

Despite the great advancement in the medical and psychological field, one key issue with this approach still remains. And it starts already with the terminology. “Having a problem” in its definition doesn’t suggest anything positive, does it?

 

Although it might seem like a play of words, admitting “to have a problem” implies a need for an external help – a professional who can analyze the problem and prescribe a cure for it. Often, focusing solely on the “problem areas” tend to diminish the role of the individual, disempowering people from taking action and creating dependency on the continuous help of external professionals.

Strengths-Based Approach

While traces of strengths-based approach appeared throughout the 20th century, it’s only in the 1980s that it was fully articulated as a standalone theory. Practitioners started searching for a deeper meaning of their work – were they there only to fix people? – and with that, a small movement was soon to become one of the most influential theories of our times.

 

In his famous speech, Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, summed up the new perspective:

 

“The most important thing we learned was that psychology was half-baked. We’ve baked the part about mental illness, about repair damage. The other side’s unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we’re good at.”

 

Contrary to the deficit perspective, the strengths approach shifts the transformational power from the external expert to the individual. Even more empowering: long gone the time in which you measure change potential with respect to average benchmarks. Focusing on the good side has no upward limitation on the development of the human potential.

 

And we know what you’re thinking now: that sounds great, but what about our weaknesses?

 

It is important to understand that the strengths-based approach is not about denying one’s weakness or hiding away from problems. Instead, it offers a different perspective on resources and strengths the person already has to tackle those problems. It is a different approach, a different mindset – a different way of looking at the world.

 

While it’s easy to contrast one perspective against the other, strengths should not be see as the direct opposite of weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham famously said – you can’t learn anything about success by studying failure.

 

The wave of “success studies” took off during the 1990s simultaneously in two different directions, which we will briefly cover below.

VIA Survey and Martin Seligman

Centuries of studies about mental disorders have made psychologists accurate at describing and rigorously classifying all shades of individual mental pathologies.

 

However, how do you plan to study what makes people thrive if you don’t even have a proper vocabulary to describe it?

 

It was the initiative of Martin Seligman to give the official start to the positive psychology movement in his 1998 APA Presidential Address, and to foster the development of a scientific classification of strengths. Such a new vocabulary was supposed to serve as the “un-DSM”, i.e. a positive alternative to the classification of mental disorders.

 

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, the original authors of the classification, in collaboration with 55 notable scientists and scholars spent 3 years in an attempt to understand what is best about human beings. Based on thorough qualitative research of historical, religious and philosophical material written by humankind, they developed 10 criteria to identify a character strength among 24 possible,

 

In 2004, the Values-in-Action (VIA) Survey was first published to identify character strengths of individuals. Consisting of 240 untimed questions, the survey – still available today – focuses on assessing 24 individual’s character strengths as foundational to the human experience and virtues. The creators of the survey insist that all 24 strengths matter equally as they all are scientifically linked with life satisfaction and are universal.

 

Promoted by a non-profit organization, the VIA Survey is one of the most well-researched personality assessments holding validity over time, cultures and scientific peer reviews.

 

It is important to note that Peterson & Seligman have presented their original list of 24 character strengths as neither exclusive nor exhaustive. This, in combination with the development of the VIA Survey, has both laid the foundation and encouraged a new wave of research around positive psychology and the effect of strengths on the individual.

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StrengthsFinder and Donald Clifton

If Martin Seligman followed a scientific approach to the strengths psychology, Don Clifton at the Gallup Organization explored the subject with a clear empirical focus.

 

Unlike Seligman, who focused on literature and deep research to understand strengths, Donald Clifton and his team of researchers conducted millions of interviews with top professionals across industries in the United States to discover the excellence in ourselves. Two core principles served as the base of this research:

 

1. To produce excellence, you must study excellence.

2. Strengths are talents that are developed through the application of knowledge and skill.

 

As a result, Don Clifton and his colleague Marcus Buckingham have identified hundreds of talent themes and condensed them to 34 most prevalent ones. Based on their findings, StrengthsFinder was developed and launched with the goal to help individuals identify their top talents. Such talents, with enough care and persistence, could be subsequently developed into strengths. Consisting of 177 statement pairs, the test focuses on determining 5 top talents out of a list of 34.

 

Thanks also to its empirical origin, StrengthsFinder is widely considered to be focused and centered on the workplace environment, particularly in the Western world. Despite not being peer-reviewed in famous psychological research journals, the Clifton StrengthsFinder has been enjoying a blockbuster popularity across the world, with close to 20 million people completing it to date.

 

It’s the StrengthsFinder assessment that has brought the strengths-based approach to mainstream and yielded Donald Clifton the title of “the grandfather of the strengths-based psychology”.

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Applying Strengths in Practice

Whichever approach of identifying strengths you prefer, today researchers unanimously agree on the benefits of putting them at use. If you forgot about all the benefits – simply go back to the beginning of this article and glimpse back at the comprehensive list we put together!

 

When our strengths are at use, we are in a “flow” state of mind. Think about the times you were looking forward to doing certain activities, or you felt absorbed while doing some tasks, and you felt fulfilled after you have done them. Those are the times in which your strengths are in action – consciously or unconsciously.

 

Strengths are strengths because our brains are hardwired to use well-established neural pathways. The more you use them – the more natural, enjoyable, engaging and energizing it becomes. It’s like writing with your dominant & non-dominant hand. The former just feels right since you’re born, and the fact that you practiced every day makes it natural to you to use it.

 

But strengths should not be applied only unconsciously. A clear understanding of your strengths allows you to be more conscious and mindful in choosing activities in both your professional and personal life where your strengths can be in action.

 

If you are a frog, you can actively decide to climb a tree. But if you are aware of your frog-strengths, then maybe you can stop worrying about your poor climbing abilities and decide to try swimming instead. Weaknesses should not be avoided – but managed through self-awareness, mindful planning and complementary partnering.

 

Of course, if an individual is happier – relationships will thrive too. Applying strengths leads to stronger personal relationships, leveraging the best qualities of each party. Expand that to any organization, and you will have a positive direct impact on the quality of any teamwork.

 

From a team-building perspective, strengths give team members a framework to better understand each other’s decisions and actions. Higher awareness about personal strengths provides new insights and rules on how to work more effectively together.

 

If you are a manager, strengths benefit you too. Strengths give managers a language to identify which tasks, roles and activities an individual is great at. Not only you can optimally allocate your resources, but you can also highlight positive behaviors, reinforce them and cultivate them further, fostering development of excellence in your employees. Further, strengths help you as a leader to understand better the development needs of your employees and to provide corresponding support – on the basis of their unique combination of strengths.

 

Finally, at an organizational and corporate level, an applied strengths approach provides a consistent framework to manage the most important asset any organization has – its human capital. It ensures that the organization creates an environment for every employee to maximize their individual strengths, in line with what is needed for the organization to meet its business goals.

 

A strengths-based culture is cultivable and applicable at every step of the employee lifecycle – from recruitment and selection of the right candidate for the right position to career development, from succession planning to leadership development and team building.

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Future of Strengths-Based Approach

The strengths-based philosophy has represented a significant shift in thinking compared to the past. While the area is far from being fully researched, it has created a fertile ground for new practices based on the strengths psychology.

 

There are today countless, proven applications of the strengths-based approach. Career selection, relationship building, parenting, personal and business coaching, resilience-focused therapies, community development, self-esteem building practices, traumatic stress recovery, new skill development – all these areas have started to benefit from a strengths approach.

 

What’s more, the application of the strengths philosophy has wider social implications. Think about it – a society that encourages the individual to excel in their strengths, rather than avoiding distortions or hammering down problems. The optimization for strengths and management of weaknesses through complementary partnerships leads to:

 

1. The promotion of cooperation instead of competition;

2. The celebration of diversity in all its forms.

 

A strengths perspective transcends traditional barriers and empowers all people, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual preferences. The strengths language can become the universal tool through which people recognize, develop and celebrate their natural talents and abilities.

 

We at HIGH5 believe that a wider adoption of the strengths-based approach will cultivate what’s strong, not what’s wrong, in our society – a society where individuals will be empowered to do more of what they enjoy and are good at.

 

And now, back to you: So, can you name your top 5 strengths?  

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