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.
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