At the beginning of this century, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) described Positive Psychology as the “science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits and positive institutions.” Since then a vast quantity of research has been carried out on the nature of well-being and the many and various psychological traits such as optimism and resilience exhibited by happy people.
More recently the deployment of signature strengths has become the byword for the practical application of Positive Psychology, whether at home, in coaching or in the workplace. I’m sure there isn’t a single Positive Psychologist reading this who doesn’t know their Top 5 VIA strengths, or who would be prepared to admit it in public.
People are rightly interested in what the research can tell them about living a more fulfilling life, and the study of character strengths and virtues has neatly met that need. Put simply, it advocates identifying one’s signature strengths, then playing to them every day in order to enhance well-being and life satisfaction. Ignoring for the moment the fact that almost all the VIA scores are negatively skewed (mean scores typically range 3.5 – 4 on a potential 1-5 scale), this seems a relatively straightforward (and compelling) argument.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
But is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004) argue that we need not be concerned about overdoing our strengths. According to their research, “..the more the better..we suggest that if there is a concern about those who score extremely on our character strengths measures, it should be reserved for those with ‘too little’ of a strength. They are patently dissatisfied with life”.
Hmmm. I thought the point was to focus on our top strengths?
Top Five, Bottom Five
In 2002, research by Haidt concluded that focusing on one’s top five strengths was more fun but not necessarily more beneficial (measured on ten different scales including SWB and self-esteem) than focussing on the bottom five.
So, might we actually have more to gain from working on the bottom five, providing we’re not overly concerned about having fun while we’re doing it? If this is the case, how little of a strength is “too little”? Might we be better off knowing how all 24 score on the 1-5 scale?
Strengths Measured Together
So it seems that the focus on applying strengths as a route to individual happiness and life satisfaction is not as simple as it first appears. Indeed Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004) suggest that that as long as one is being true to oneself it doesn’t matter that applying ones strengths occasionally leads to trouble.
Advocating practical wisdom as an executive decision maker illuminates the key issue, but I don’t think it answers it entirely. For me what’s missing in the discussion about which strengths to apply and how best to do so is consideration for their impact on those around us, whether in our immediate circle of family, friends and colleagues, or in the wider society. No man (or woman) is an island, yet we tend to think of happiness in terms of the individual’s satisfaction with life. Perhaps the time is right for the science of Positive Psychology to move on from focusing on individual happiness to researching what makes communities and societies thrive.
Haidt, J. (2002). It’s more fun to work on strengths than weaknesses (but it may not be better for you).
Park, N., Peterson, C. & Seligman M.E.P., (2004). Strengths of character strengths and well-being, The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23 (5), 603-619
Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2006). Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology, Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 377-395.
Schwartz, B. and Sharpe, K. (2010). Practical Wisdom. New York: Penguin Group. (Added later)
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
Solfar Suncraft Sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason (used as a symbol of strengths working together) courtesy of david.nikonvscanon
Interesting! You bring up several knotty questions about strengths — including the interaction among VIA strengths (about which research says little so far), whether it is best to put focus on one’s top or bottom strengths, whether one can have too much as well as too little of a given strength (in my mind, obviously, as per Aristotle’s expert mean), and of course, that no man is an island – so our strengths interact with the strengths of the people around us. So the complexity is multiplied many times by adding in the strengths of the people around us. It makes a difference to my life that I married a person with self-regulation among his top five — a rather uncommon strength, at least in my culture.
Chris Peterson used to tell us that having a small score difference between top and bottom VIA strength correlated strongly with well-being. So there are good reasons to work on the bottom strengths as well as use the top. I’ve wanted to know that piece of information ever since — as well as a table that shows the range of differences. Unfortunately the VIA Web site doesn’t give us that information.
I think we all need a huge grain of salt when we use the VIA and other instruments like StrengthsFinder and MBTI. VIA is just an instrument created by humans. The results weren’t carved in stone. If we look hard, we might not agree with the way all the constructs are defined. It sometimes seems to me that the 24 strengths selected are somewhat slanted towards the way men look at the world. Strengths like patience and endurance don’t show up, although I suspect they are just as universal.
We should use tools like this as starting points for our own independent thinking about what we bring to the world. In Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Buckingham reminds us that the top five talent themes from StrengthsFinder are just meant to give people a language to talk to others about strengths, but internally people need to observe what makes them feel energized and engaged. (See my post earlier this month – https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kathryn-britton/20070807363) With the best fit process, the MBTI recognizes that the individual has the final say-so about his/her type.
Whew, it must be Sunday morning! Time to come off my pulpit.
I really like your final point as well. It reminds me of Professor Prilleltensky at Vanderbilt who argued that we should stop focusing our social services energy on fixing the problems of the individual and shift toward using the strengths of the community. It can really work.
Fantastic article Bridget – the strengths concept is very attractive, but as you argue convincingly, more research is needed. I also think research on the relation between VIA strengths and other psychological constructs would be useful – e.g. Curiosity and the ‘Big Five’ Openness to Experience trait look similar to me.
And as for your last point, I couldn’t agree more!
Hi Kathryn, Rosie
Thanks for your comments.
As to the point about language, people in the business world in particular can get too hung up on what “profile” or “type” they are (or think they should be), when actually the usefulness of many psychometric tools is as a starting point for a development/coaching discussion. So I couldn’t agree with you more, Kathryn.
I am curious, have you ever ask your husband who is strong in self-regulation, just what goes through his mind when temptation threatens to derail some kind of goal pursuit? Just how does he do it?
Collecting Self-Regulation stories would help clients with low self-regulation, which is an extremely common and costly problem in modern society. Almost any addiction you can think of has self-regulation failure as a possible cause.
If learning self-control is a buildable skill, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that by hearing stories of successful self-disciplined individuals maybe there would be potential for transfer?
Goal setting defines quite clearly What you want. Self-efficacy tells you that you Can do it, Self-regulation Keeps you doing it. A stable of good self-regulation stories and metaphors would boost any effort to train others in self-regulation.
I like Park’s metaphor of Baking a Flow Cake. What does it take to Bake a Self-Regulating Pie?
Thanks Bridget, and also all the commenters! Tayyab Rashid indicates that his work with positive psychology exercises in psychotherapy suggests that engaging one’s lower-ranked VIA strengths boosts well-being and lowers depression just as much as working with the top five. (Very different from what Gallup says about Strenthsfinder talents in the world of work — different domains, different puposes.) Also, remember that one of the criteria of the VIA strengths is that their expression builds others up rather than diminishing them. Elevation results in a desire to be more of who we are at our best also. So, if I work on employing my strengths, I am likely also helping those around me experience more well-being. And, we can work on them together. I’ve made some suggestions about that in the context of resisiting the effects of law school: http://daveshearon.typepad.com/daveshearon/2007/08/six-positive-ps.html
Bridget, I really like your taking on strengths, and looking at the nuances of them. One big critique of positive psychology has been that it’s prescriptive (suggests actions) rather than descriptive (describes what works). And I really like it that you’re showing the nuances, such as evaluating the top 5, bottom 5 dynamic (and thanks Dave for that reference to Tayyab’s research). And I really like it that you’re analyzing that intriguing paper by Schwartz and Sharpe.
Jeff, I’m really big on good examples of self-regulation. Even more broadly than what you bring up, I’d say that good examples of anything that we are reaching for – are very helpful. For some people, that may be motivation. For others, goals. Yet others, spirituality. And others, self-regulation. According to Prochaska’s cahnge model, in the early stages of change, people may be more convinced by examples than by theory or philosophy or action steps.
Interesting question about what does self-regulation feel like inside. I know what it feels like at my distance — sticking to things no matter what can seem a bit inflexible. But that’s what he does. He has a list for the day of things to do that is always arranged according to priority and when it has to be done. Since he avoids carbs, he doesn’t even taste the cookies he bakes to send to our daughter – I guess the making is the pleasure, along with the vicarious pleasure from thinking about her enjoyment. Also he has found ways to substitute other pleasures for the ones he avoids. We’ve both found that avoiding sweets makes piquant and pungent foods more appealing. He exercises relentlessly, but has collected a certain set of books that will stay open for use on the Nordic track and a backlog of probably 15 years of travel, science, and art history videotapes from PBS that keep him interested while he rows. With respect to chores, I think we both tend to always be thinking “How could I do this better, more efficiently, with fewer steps, using fewer resources …” — which means there’s an element of invention that is always sparking the mind. He has a chant that he performs as he goes out the door .. Wallet, watch, keys, hat, change, list ….
I guess I should ask him! But replacing forbidden pleasures with others that are still acceptable, associating something pleasant with each must-do activity, and building habits must surely be some of the self-regulation pie ingredients.
I asked my husband yesterday. He sees self-regulation as having a clear sense of goals and then being able to work backwards to what has to be or be done or be not done in order to achieve them. I’m not sure everybody’s brain works that way.
I’ve heard of that idea being called Backward Design, Begin with the End in Mind, etc. It is very instructive that your husband mentioned clear goals. I think that is a prerequisite for any kind of achievement. Maybe to self-regulate better we should set very clear goals with a clear series of steps to attain them. Don’t ask me to define “clear” however, that’s another can of worms.
I’m just thinking aloud here, but possibly the clear goals limit the overwhelming task of trying to do everything at once. The paradox of choice is pretty much minimized. I’d love to hear more about his strategies for goal setting. I suspect it is an automatic process for him, a lifestyle more than some kind of formal operation that he has to consciously think about, a habit basically.
More why questions. Why don’t more people show up with self-regulation as a top 5 VIA strength? Why, when so obviously effective, didn’t evolution select more for the self-regulatory? Why, in short, is it easier for some to regulate themselves and for others a big task?