A primary focus of positive psychology is to help people identify and build on their unique strong points. Strengths are built-in capacities for certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Everyone possesses the full range of these assets, but the ability to draw upon one capacity over another varies among individuals. People tend to enjoy using their strengths and naturally call upon them when presented with a challenge. Your particular range of strengths are a blend of your natural propensities, your growth as a result of personal experiences, and your deliberate effort to develop a certain areas of your personality. Your particular array of strengths is part of what makes you unique.
When you use your strengths, there is a tendency to feel energized. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi describes a state of mind known as flow, wherein the difficulty of a task and the skill level are matched and at a high level. When we are in flow or the zone, we are rewarded for using our strengths by a feeling of concentration and absorption that has been described as blissful engagement. However to tap into the benefits of your personal strengths, it’s key to know what they are. A 2001 study presented at the British Psychological society in 2001 found that only 1/3 of the people have a deep enough understanding of their strengths to be able to consciously use them. It may be that your particular strengths were not honored or valued or it may be that since they feel so natural to you that you don’t even recognize them as a strengths. Whatever the reason, there are many people who are not acquainted with their powerful and unique special qualities.
The work of Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Briggs pre-dates the current positive psychology movement but is seldom included in the supporting works that are cited in the positive psychology literature. Gifts Differing, written in 1980, describes the strengths of each personality type as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Moreover, this book only scratches the surface of the contributions made by Myers and Briggs toward advancing the need to honor individual differences and strengths, a body of work that stretches over a period of decades.
One of the foundations of the MBTI sytem is that all psychological types are fundamentally valuable and that each type has particular situations in which they tend to shine more brightly than other types. Psychological preferences form the foundation of strengths because as noted in the positive psychology literature, one is drawn to or prefers activities that tap into strengths. Many tools have been developed since the venerable MBTI to mine for these strengths such as Strength Finders and the new questionnaire from the VIA Institute on Character called the Inventory of Signature Strengths Survey. Many groups are interested in tapping into this phenomenon of using strengths to bring about happiness and satisfaction in everyday life.
It must be noted that the positive psychology movement isn’t just about finding strengths. There are elements of developing mindful behavior through meditation and awareness, cultivating a grateful mindset, compassionate behavior, and savoring one’s blessings. However a cornerstone of this movement is to focus on one’s special gifts first and foremost rather than looking at problems and shortcomings. In this key area, the MBTI assessment tools were not only pioneering but continue to have relevance today.
***This article was recently featured in Bulletin of Psychological Type, September 2011.