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Signature Strengths: Translating Research into Practice

written by Ryan Niemiec 30 April 2015

Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of many books including Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of The Power of Character Strengths and Positive Psychology at the Movies. Longer bio. Articles by Ryan are here.

Editor’s note: This article and the one Ryan wrote about signature strengths research will form the final chapter in the book, Character Strengths Matter: Living a Full Life, that will be published at the International Positive Psychology Conference on June 25. Watch for more about this book, which will be the third in the Positive Psychology News series, along with Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves and Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts. It is being published in loving memory of Christopher Peterson, and proceeds will go to the Christopher Peterson Memorial Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

One woman, a longtime sufferer of depression, was delving into a program on mindfulness and character strengths and was particularly affected by the character strengths components. Over the decades, she had been a regular customer of psychotherapy and medication to treat her depression. She and I interacted around her several-week practice of “using signature strengths in new ways” with the following exchange:

“I discovered I have to take my signature strength pill every day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When I use my curiosity or kindness or gratitude in a novel way, I feel better that day. When I forget to mindfully use a signature strength, I feel worse. It acts like a pill for me.”

“Tell me more about that,” I commented with curiosity.

“It’s like this. When I take a fresh approach with a signature strength, my ceiling opens up, and I see the world more clearly. I see the blueness of the sky and the greenness of the trees. I want to connect with people. I feel better. I’m taking action, and I’m taking action with my core parts.”

“Sounds a bit like psychological exercise,” I observed.

“Exactly, just like running on a treadmill. It keeps me in a healthy place of taking action.”

In practice, however, people sometimes find it surprisingly challenging to come up with new ways to use one of their signature strengths. This is because we are not well-practiced at using our strengths, and when we do use them, we do it without much awareness. For example, have you paid much attention to your use of self-regulation as you brush your teeth? Your level of prudence or kindness while driving? Your humility while at a team meeting?

Here are three tips for using your signature strengths in mindful ways.

Practical Tip #1: Anchor signature strengths in new ways with a daily activity.

Choose a regular activity you engage in such as leading a team meeting, handling telephone calls, working one-on-one with clients, walking your dog, talking with your spouse or significant other. Each time you start this activity, say to yourself – “I’d like to bring forth one of my signature strengths in a new way while I’m doing this activity.” This will anchor your strengths use into something that is already habitual and new ideas around enhancing strengths will then emerge.

Practical Tip #2: Map one of your signature strengths across the following 4 facets. This will allow you to widen the depth of your view of each strength. Thus a strength can be expressed:

  • Through the Mind, in terms of logic, analysis, reasoning
  • Through the Heart, in terms of feeling, body, emotion, intuition
  • Interpersonally, in terms of behaviors that involve others
  • Intrapersonally, in terms of behaviors when alone

Each of the 24 character strengths can be mapped out according these dimensions. Take gratitude as an example. Here’s how one client mapped out her gratitude along these facets. This is just one person’s map. Maps will vary from person to person.


  • I can express thanks to my body for its healing capacities.
  • I am grateful for my connectedness with the universe and want to give back to the environment.
Heart (feelings, body)

  • Warmth in the chest
  • Relaxing heaviness in the shoulders
  • Tingling in the fingers and hands.
  • Sense of opening up to others and the world.

  • Verbally expressing thanks to a friend.
  • Showing appreciation by offering kindness in return.
Mind (thoughts and beliefs)

  • My family means the world to me.
  • I am appreciative of this person’s gift.
  • I am connected to this person.

Practical Tip #3: Be mindful of the following common errors people make around character strengths.

So far, I have emphasized ways researchers and practitioners have done well when it comes to signature strengths work. Now, let’s look at where they haven’t done as well. I’ve seen the very best practitioners, researchers, educators, and positive psychology leaders make some or all of these missteps when it comes to strengths work and strengths teaching.

  • Targeting strengths instead of exploring strengths: using an authoritarian approach of telling a person what is most important for them to build up, rather than co-exploring strengths. This approach is rampant in schools in the United States of America.
  • Prematurely focusing on lower strengths: lower strengths are important and should be focused on, BUT the core of who a person is should usually be given first priority.
  • Displaying too much concern for character strengths overuse instead of appreciating/celebrating strengths. Again, overuse is a very important and deep topic BUT first things first. Help clients endorse, understand, appreciate, and even celebrate their best qualities first. Practitioners who do this in a substantial way are the ones that understand their clients better. They see a world of insight that opens up for client exploration and use.
  • Limiting the focus to top 5 only: All 24 strengths matter. While the top 5-7 might matter the most for most people, we all have all 24 and becoming more conscious of how these emerge from moment to moment during a typical day is important.
  • Jumping to action before understanding: Many practitioners skip the explore phase of the aware-explore-apply model of character strengths work. Exploring helps the client draw connections to who they are and why this work matters.
  • Strength mindlessness and acting on autopilot: Every person, no matter how self-evolved, has MANY strengths blind spots.

Reflecting and working on character strengths is a life-long process. This is why I view mindfulness as the missing ingredient in character strengths work.



Niemiec, R. (2013). Mindfulness and Character Strengths. Hogrefe.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.

VIA Institute (2010-2015). Unpublished research.

Image credits
The treadmill is one of the illustrations of Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves drawn by Kevin Gillespie. Kevin has also drawn the illustrations for Character Strengths Matter.

Anchor courtesy of Leo Reynolds

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Seph Fontane Pennock 1 May 2015 - 6:39 am

Well Ryan, you are well on your way to universally integrating mindfulness into strength finding practice. For me, it’s hard to think of these two concepts apart from each other. I’m sure your new book will bring you even closer to this goal.

The first practical tip is extremely useful. We might add it as a positive psycholgy exercise to the toolkit that we are currently developing.

Cheers from the Netherlands,


Judy Krings 1 May 2015 - 9:45 am

Hi, Ryan, I rarely got really angry at myself, as I know better, but the last 2 days I have been sicker than a dog. Stress-induced I believe and rare. Not doing enough self-care. I even missed an appt this a.m. First time ever. I can feel a migraine coming on to boot.

Then I read the graph on gratitude. It hit me. I am grateful…I almost never get sick. Aches and pains, yes, but downright sick in bed, virtually never. I paused to thank my body and spirit for almost always being well, happy and zestful. This really turned me around. I have enough kleenex and meds. Life will get better.

Thanks so much for the wake-up call.


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