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Strengths – for what Purpose?

written by Denise Quinlan 7 February 2010

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Strengths Stocktake

Strengths Stocktake

When people take stock of their character strengths, there is usually an initial pleasure. Character strengths, after all, are 24 things that go right with people and that communities have valued over time. Soon, many people move on to “How can I be better?” People choose strengths to develop, for example, to be kinder, have more self-regulation, or have more courage.

This can become a pursuit of better, faster, stronger – unless we stop and really consider what we are doing this for.

What do you use your strengths in service of?

Linking strengths to purpose may be helpful for several reasons;

  • The process of linking strengths to purpose may help you refine and clarify your own sense of purpose in life.
  • It may expand your sense of what strengths can be used for. Using strengths does not have to be ‘all about me.’ Strengths can be used to enhance relationships, help friends, contribute to causes, and so on.
  • Linking strengths to purpose may increase the priority you place on strengths development and strength-related goals and so may increase goal-striving and achievement.

Using strengths to discover purpose

Fabulous use of a strength

Fabulous use of a strength

Kashdan and McKnight (2009a) in a new theory on the nature and role of purpose, predict that people with a sense of life purpose will enjoy greater life satisfaction, longer life and better health. They define purpose as a central, self-organizing life aim, and propose that it can be arrived at in three ways.

  1. By gradual refinement and effort over time. For example, two horrible jobs clarified for me very clearly how I didn’t want to spend my life and focused my attention on new career areas.
  2. Through a major life event which has a transformative effect. This could be a positive epiphany or a negative/tragic life event.
  3. By social learning through modeling and imitation. For example, generations of pastor’s sons learned their vocations by observing their fathers.

By linking strengths to purpose we make it easier for children (and adults) to clarify and refine their sense of purpose. Two questions I use in workshops are:

  • “What’s the most fabulous thing you can imagine doing with one of your strengths? The thing that would give you the greatest joy and satisfaction?”
  • “What’s the smallest thing you can do – today or tomorrow – that will help put you on that path?”

These questions help people stretch their strength imaginations and get them started on small goals. But I could also add,

Downhill bravery

Downhill bravery

  • “What does that fabulous use of a strength tell you about what’s important to you?”
  • or “What does it tell you about your sense of purpose?”

Your fabulous use of a strength may involve helping others, indicating a purpose that is a noble cause like curing illness or ending famine. For some, like my ten year old daughter, it may involve riding a mountain bike very fast down steep, scary hills. I think my daughter’s purpose may involve courage and being a model for bravery in the world. (Could she please just do it on her father’s watch, not on her terrified mother’s?)

Expanding strengths use: inwards and outwards

A teacher working with teenagers on strength development told me that one of his students was concerned that if he really developed his strengths, he would become different from his friends and would no longer fit in with them.

Building friendship

Building friendship

This student could be encouraged to use his strengths to help his friends or to bring him and his friends closer together. People often think about using strengths to increase their own well-being, but strengths development doesn’t have to be inwardly focused on the individual. Much development happens when we shift our focus outwards to others. (Thanks to Jenny Fox-Eades for the labels of Inwards and Outwards use of strengths). Developing strengths for our environment, our family, our friends, people in our communities… there is endless possibility.

What’s gets in the way of you using your strengths?

The student’s concern about losing his friends was getting in the way. Very often, people won’t voice their concerns if there is something in the way. They just don’t use or develop their strengths. Little research has been done yet on what inhibits use of strengths.

So start asking, especially when you work with children on strengths. We can’t always assume that a student (or adult) will learn about strengths and then Bingo! leap up and begin using them all the time. We need to learn more about the strengths that people already use, the strengths they feel eager to practice (and for what purpose), and the ones where there is fear or reluctance.

Linking strengths to purpose – a more compelling goal
Kashdan and McKnight (2009b) argue that purpose in life “organizes and stimulates goals, manages behavior, and provides a sense of meaning.” They expect that people may have greater persistence with life goals that are linked to purpose than with ones that are not. While this theory has not yet been tested, it seems plausible that the stronger we can make our rationale/purpose for pursuing a goal, then the more likely we are to stick to it.

If goals related to strengths can be linked to purpose, then we may be more likely to develop those strengths. A step in this direction is choosing self-concordant goals, i.e. goals that you are intrinsically motivated to achieve, that feel valuable to you, or that increase your feelings of autonomy, relatedness or competence.

Find Purpose in your Strengths

Best use of a strength for me...

Best use of a strength for me...

Karen Reivich encourages children to think of themselves as strengths detectives, noticing strengths in themselves and others. Just as you can discover strengths in stories of yourself at your best, so also you can uncover motivation and purpose in stories about fabulous uses of strengths.

So this month, ask yourself the question: What would be a fabulous use of your strengths? What does that tell you about your motivation and purpose?


Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.

Kashdan, T., and McKnight, P. (2009a). Origins of Purpose in Life: Refining our Understanding
of a Life Well Lived. Psychological Topics, 18(2), 303-316.

Kashdan, T., and McKnight, P. (2009b). Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory. Review of General Psychology, 13(3),, 242–251. Quotation is on page 242.


Strengths courtesy of Editor BTrust courtesy of notsogoodphotography
Intergenerational Scaffolding (Fantastic Use of strengths) courtesy of Jurvetson
(Downhill bravery) courtesy of roy.susan
Child Walking on White Balls (Best use of strengths for me) courtesy of Pink Sherbet

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Fawn 5 March 2010 - 7:14 pm

You make some excellent points here, Denise … assuming your readers are all aware of their strengths. I recently learned which of the 24 commonly accepted character strengths were my top five; maybe I’m just behind the rest of the world. I found a Web site, today, in fact, that offers free engagement questionnaires–one specifically for determining character strengths. Those interested can check out http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.

Thanks for the ideas in implementing them!

Steve Borgman 18 March 2010 - 3:10 pm

What a wonderful article. I am always delighted and pleased when I read how positive psychology can be used to help clients better manage their problem situations in life. You did a fantastic job with this student, and you demonstrated how beautifully positive psychology can make a difference in our clients’ lives.

ivor groves 16 September 2010 - 12:06 pm

Great discussion Denise! Putting strengths to work for a meaningful external purpose provides context focus, and likely, positive feedback from the community. I think when one is working to achieve a goal we are much more likely to tap into our strengths and find meaning in using them effectively.
I am working with a group of young supervisors of behavioral health case managers and clinicians next week. I have ask them to take the VIA and Strength finders 2.0 prior to our two day retreat in order to discuss both how to use their own strengths in supervision and how to recognize and encourage the use of strengths in their staff and ultimately with their clients. I also think it will stimulate discussion about which strengths might be most useful in the supervisory context and how to use other strengths creatively in the supervision process.



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