In my previous article, I introduced the still-new field of Positive Psychology, providing a brief history of this field and a description of its philosophy. Instead of practicing inner healing only from a standpoint of coping and brokenness, Positive Psychology looks for the strengths in people and aims for their thriving. In this article, I present the first of nine key concepts in the field of Positive Psychology by describing the concept of human strengths. In essence, this means identifying the innate pieces of our personality that are useful or can be leveraged toward productivity in a wide range of human functioning.
A Paradigm Shift in Psychology
This seems an important place to begin as it introduces the paradigm-shifting nature of Positive Psychology. In previous decades, the psychology of personality was a significant field of study, but the idea of personality traits was most often seen in a neutral or even negative light (e.g. you were a melancholic person). By asserting that each individual has resources that will contribute to success, Positive Psychology challenges the deficit-driven model of helping people.
Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton and Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath are two highly popular books that have contested the idea of helping people to overcome their weakness. Instead, they focus on improving and working with a person’s natural strengths as the primary vehicle for success. “Fixing” flaws is difficult and may be a misleading notion, but working from and developing a person’s area of competency and passion can help them to feel energized and enable them to achieve at a higher level.
Focusing on Strengths as a Lifestyle
I often meet clients who have an overly-developed sense of what is wrong with them, but are surprised when I ask them what strengths and gifts they bring to the room. Similarly, parents of teens infamously overlook a teen’s As on a report card and focus on critiquing the Cs. Ideally, choosing to point out strengths should become a lifestyle and a way of both experiencing oneself and seeing others.
What Does the Bible Say about Strengths?
The discussion of strengths in the Bible usually comes under the title of “gifts.” The New Testament constantly emphasizes focusing on strengths rather than becoming fixated on correcting weaknesses. The twelfth chapters of both Romans and 1 Corinthians describe how the body of Christ is made up of many parts (each one of us). Our differences are actually gifts (or strengths) that are meant to edify and complement one another. For example, while we may be suspicious of the prophet, or undervalue those with the gift of works, each is a strength and a gifting that is to be honored and leveraged to further the Kingdom. Consider Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 1:17-19:
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
To be a part of the body of Christ is to be a unique individual with special senses and gifts that are different from those of others. These unique gifts are intended to bless the rest of the body. In drawing out a client’s individual gifts and talents rather than focusing on the things they are not, my aim is to partner with the client in order to not only solidify their personal sense of identity and self, but also to enable them to discover how those strengths can enhance and bless their relationships, family, and community.
Growing into Righteousness
While the bible regularly addresses sin and brokenness, there is a practical action-oriented focus throughout scripture. It is concerned with how we can grow into righteousness as a means of moving away from sin. The Word regularly lists what should be done and instructs us in what strengths to look for and aspire to. For example, 1 Corinthians 13 describes what love is (and some of what it is not) and what love does. Ephesians 5 provides intentional instructions for husbands and wives to follow and accomplish as marital partners, and 1 Timothy 3 describes the strengths needed in a church elder. Paul gives an interesting commentary on focusing on the positive rather than the negative in Philippians 3 when he says: “But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind me, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize…” Just as Positive Psychology does not seek to replace or invalidate the study and treatment of pathology, so there are many human pitfalls and sins discussed in the Bible. But there is also a clear emphasis on how to live and what to strive for, as well as clear descriptions of blessing and pleasure.
Exercises to Discover Your Strengths
It will be helpful to get a professional and objective assessment of your gifts and strengths, especially of the strengths of which you may not be aware or value yet. I recommend two widely-used strengths assessments:
- Clifton Strengths Finder – This is a popular and powerful assessment that has been taken by 11 million people worldwide (and contains 177 items/questions). For $10, the test presents a person’s top five strengths, but for a heftier fee one can see where one ranks on all 34 strengths. The test is based on a Gallop poll of over two million highly-successful persons. https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/
- The Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths – This is another creditable assessment (containing 120 items), is free online, and takes 10-20 minutes. It assesses for strength in six core categories (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence), with 24 total strengths given in their relative order. http://www.viacharacter.org/
Learning to Appreciate Your Strengths
Here are some other activities (developed by Tayyab Rashid Ph.D and me) that you can do to exercise your appreciation of your strengths:
- Positive Introduction Story – Tell a story about yourself to a small audience, who will also do the exercise, describing yourself at your best (i.e. on a day of great accomplishment). The story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and you may not downplay any part. Ask the audience members to identify the strengths in the story. When did you first recognize these strengths in yourself, and do you feel that you integrate them in your life?
- Strengths Legacy – Consider your top five strengths in the context of your family. Can you see a pattern of these strengths in your family? Can you identify people in your family who helped to cultivate your strengths? Do you see areas in which you have unique strengths that are different from everyone else? Does this shed a new light on some of the behaviors in your family?
- Strengths Date – Take your partner on a date that intentionally caters to both of your strength sets. For example, you might go see an old classic film on the big screen to highlight your appreciation of history and learning and your partner’s excellence in the performing arts.
- Do-Right Journal (my own design) – Without considering how the day went or what you did wrong or failed to accomplish (especially if you are trying to change something specific in your life), briefly journal only about what you did right that day. Irrespective of how many items you have or how small or easy each thing was, only include what you did right. You may be surprised at how satisfying the exercise is, and how hard it is to give yourself credit at first.
Christian Counseling to Discover Your Strengths
As a Christian counselor, it is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways in which they have already overcome in life, as well as to see how God has uniquely shaped them – both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.
“Barbell Training,” courtesy of james84, Absolutely Free Photo, ABSFreePic.com. (CC0 Public Domain); “StrengthsFinder,” courtesy of Ian Hughes, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Strength,” courtesy of Colleen McMahon, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)