Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Are Your Signature Strengths?

September 30, 2002

How often are you immersed in what you are doing?

The distinction between pleasure and gratification. In his new book, "Authentic Happiness," psychologist Martin Seligman of University of Pennsylvania distinguishes between activities he calls gratifications and those which give momentary pleasure. The main distinction is that momentary delights - the smell of perfume, the taste of raspberries and the sensuality of a scalp rub - don’t build anything for the future.

On the other hand, gratifications are activities that cause people to be absorbed in what they are doing. These are activities that are an investment in the future. They promote personal development and rich associations. The components of a gratifying experience are: challenging tasks that require skill, concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, deep and effortless involvement, sense of control, loss of consciousness of self, and losing track of time.

Gratifications result from the exercise of personal strengths. Skill and effort is required. Gratifications produce change. They are challenging and offer the possibility of failure. In contrast, pleasures make us want to satisfy existing needs, achieve comfort and relaxation.

Pleasures are easy; gratifications are hard. Seligman believes that the culture of wealthy nations offers many pleasurable shortcuts to happiness such as television, drugs, shopping, loveless sex, spectator sports and chocolate to name a few.

Virtues and strengths. In developing a psychology of happiness and positive emotions, Selgiman and others identified six core virtues that exist in almost every culture and religious tradition. They are knowledge and wisdom, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence.

Seligman breaks down each virtue into several component strengths. Wisdom, for example, includes strengths of curiosity, love of learning, judgment, originality, social intelligence, and perspective. Love includes kindness, generosity, nurturance and the capacity to be loved as well as to love.

Signature strengths. Altogether Seligman identifies 24 strengths that support the six virtues. We possess these strengths in differing capacities. He believes that success in living while achieving deep emotional satisfaction comes from identifying strengths that are deeply characteristic of ourselves and building and using these "signature" strengths daily in our work, love relationships, play, and in raising children. Signature strengths produce authentic happiness when they are employed in the service of a life full of meaning and purpose.

Strengths and talents. Seligman also distinguishes between strengths and talents. Talents are relatively automatic while strengths are more voluntary. Strengths are moral traits while talents are non-moral. A trait means that the strength is exhibited across different situations and at different times.

People can build and improve their strengths while people with a talent can choose to polish it or deploy it. Strengths involve choices to acquire it, build it and when to use it. The exercise of choice in developing and using a strength gives deep satisfaction.

A strength isn’t a means to an end but is valued in its own right. Strengths elevate and inspire others - not diminish them. They are valued in every culture.

Find your strengths. For a complete list of the 24 strengths and to take a test to identify your top strengths, go to www.authentichappiness.org and take the VIA strengths survey. I did. It takes about 25 minutes to complete. The test is scored online and you can download your personalized results.

Seligman believes that people have several signature strengths. These are strengths that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates and exercises daily in their work and family life. He implores people to use their signature strengths in the main realms of their life to bring about abundant gratification and authentic happiness.

Using your signature strengths at work. By using signature strengths at work more often, people can recraft their job to bring more job satisfaction. Seligman distinguishes between a job (paycheck), career (advancement) and a calling (passionate commitment to work for its own sake). He believes any job can be a calling and any calling can be a job if your heart isn’t in it.

In his book, Seligman takes the example of demoralization within the profession of law. By using examples of identifying and deploying signature strengths, Seligman shows how applying particular signature strengths in recrafted jobs can produce energized, productive employees.

Employers create a better work environment when they identify signature strengths in employees and create the latitude where these strengths call be developed and used. Seligman offers the idea that five hours during the workweek can be set aside for non-routine assignments that use individual strengths in service of company goals.

People can also complete a work-life survey at the www.authentichappiness.org website.

Strengths and love. Seligman also shows how strengths and virtues apply in the area of love and close relationships. In a study of extremely happy people, Seligman and Ed Diener found every person in the top 10 percent of happiness was involved in a romantic relationship. Married adults are happier than anyone else. In one survey, 40 percent of the married adults called themselves "very happy" while only 23 percent of the never-married adults do.

Our partners fall in love with us because of our strengths and virtues. Part of what makes us irreplaceable in the eyes of those who love us is the profile of our strengths and the ways we express them. Additional questionnaires on close relationships and children’s strengths are available on Selgiman’s website.

One of my signature strengths is wisdom, which is the good sense to recognize things of value and pass them along. That’s why I wrote this column.