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Character Strengths and a meaningful life

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

I recently touched on the work of Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology as it pertains to goal setting. This time we are going to take a closer look at Seligman’s work, specifically on Character Strengths, and how that relates to our goals, and living a meaningful life.

Character Strengths. What are they, and why do they matter?

Strengths can be defined as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance”. They are distinguished from other kinds of strengths, such as skills or talents. Whereas strengths are assumed to come natural to a person, skills are learned through training or experience. Talents on the other hand are innate abilities which are characterised by a strong biological background. According to this definition, talents do somehow come natural to a person however they do not necessarily evoke feelings of energy, joy, or authenticity, as the use of character strengths does.

Research suggests that strengths use is linked to higher levels of well-being, strengths estrangement is accompanied by experiences of unhappiness. Strengths are suggested to reflect people’s individual and true core and allow them to be their best selves. A state of unhappiness appears to be the logical consequence when not living in accordance with one’s strengths.

Martin Seligman sees the healthy exercise and development of strengths and virtues as a key to the good life – a life in which one uses one’s “signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” The good life is a place of happiness, good relationships and work, and from this point, Seligman encourages people to go further to seek a meaningful life in the continual quest for happiness.

- “Use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” ~ Martin Seligman

Seligman defines levels of well-being accordingly:

· The pleasant life: a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past, and future.

· The good life: using your signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification (through activities we like doing) in the main realms of your life.

· The meaningful life: using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.

"Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, inauthenticity, depression and, as we age, to the gnawing realisation that we are fidgeting until we die..."

Here Seligman states, rather dismally, that there are no shortcuts to happiness. While the pleasant life might bring more positive emotion to one’s life, to foster a deeper more enduring happiness, we need to explore the realm of meaning. Without the application of one’s unique strengths and the development of one’s virtues towards an end bigger than one’s self, one’s potential tends to be whittled away by a mundane, inauthentic, empty pursuit of pleasure.

Seligman expands on the work of his contemporary and colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in the area of “flow” to explain, in part, what he means by the meaningful life. Investing oneself into creative work, and in the service of others creates a greater sense of meaning in life and accordingly, a greater sense of happiness.

Seligman has identified 24 strengths which can be seen as character traits. All of these strengths can be developed. A great deal of research has gone into looking at these strengths and how they can benefit happiness and wellbeing. Seligman suggests that we identify our signature strengths (our top strengths) and use these regularly in our lives. Using your signature strengths will feel effortless as they are part of who you are.

My top 3 signature strengths are:

1: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to science to everyday experience.

2: Leadership

Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same time maintain good relations within the group; organising group activities and seeing that they happen.

3: Love of learning

Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one's own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.

Gratitude is a close 4th, being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks. This is a daily practice for me.

Knowing these has been a game changer in my life, ensuring that my goals, hobbies, and life pursuits, all as much as possible are aligned to my innate strengths. This put simply, means I am being true to who I am at the core of my being. It feels effortless. And as I make my way through the world, living through my strengths in the service of others and the world, I am receiving a constant positive feedback loop about who I am as a person. This significantly improves my sense of self, and my overall wellbeing.

You too can find out what your innate Character Strengths are too, by heading to over the Values in Action (VIA) website and completing the quick survey.

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