Your Key to Happiness Lies in Your Strengths
Are you stuck in life, not knowing what to do next? Here is the secrets to discovering your untapped potentials and using them to empower your future.
You are your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Life is a sequence of choices we make.
What we hold on to and what we let go of make all the difference.
Before you know what you want, you must know who you are.
Yet knowing ourselves is among the hardest things to do these days. Our lives are packed with responsibilities and distractions, leaving little room to reflect on what is meaningful to us. We’re busy reacting rather than living, looking at but not seeing the truth in life. Until one day when our health breaks down and we finally stop to ponder what is important to us and how we should live the rest of our lives.
Most people know their weaknesses well; few know their strengths.
Some of you may say you know yourself well. You’ve done the Myers-Briggs personality test or the 16 Personalities questionnaire. Yes, these analyses provide insights into our temperament and behavioral characteristics. But we change in reaction to the changes in our environment. If you did your test back in those college years, I’m not sure how accurate it’ll be now. Think of these tests as photos taken at a particular moment of your life—a glimpse of your past.
Ever since we were old enough to tell right from wrong, we learned about our shortcomings, often from our parents. They wanted to protect us by informing us about what we lacked and the importance of amelioration. We were told to work on our weaknesses so we could increase our chances of success.
If we only focus on our weaknesses, that is all we see, so we feel insecure, and believe we’re not good enough.
If you remember one thing from this article, let it be this message: it’s much more satisfying and effective to enhance our strengths than to improve our weaknesses.
Nicole Kidman, a renowned actor and producer, describes herself as being exceptionally shy, a circumstance that was only worsened by her childhood stutter. “I just remember everyone always saying to me, ‘Calm down, think about what you’re gonna say.’” Even with her massive success in the entertainment business, “I don’t like walking into a crowded restaurant by myself.”
Our job is to figure out how to maximize the effect of our strengths while not letting our weaknesses stop us.
Our genetic makeup has created a blueprint for us, where our weaknesses and strengths are laid out already. No one is perfect, so we can shove off the burden of trying to be so.
What Are My Strengths?
Few of us know precisely in what areas we excel because we’ve been focusing on improving our weaknesses. Strengths lead us to new horizons; our flaws keep us on the treadmill of life, busy running but not getting anywhere.
To have an accurate grasp of your strengths requires work, but the result will be empowering. When you know the magic words that sum up the purpose of your life, you’ll know why you’ve failed in previous attempts trying to fit. Instead of muscling with your feebleness, you can now free yourself of that burden and discover where your strengths can lead you.
The four steps of self-discovery are:
1. Think deeply about yourself.
2. Reflect on your past interests that weren’t fueled by monetary benefits.
3. Think about what others say about you.
4. Use a well-tested character strengths assessment tool to verify your findings.
Think Deeply about Yourself
What activities energize you? What gives you joy just thinking about it? When are you at your best? Periodically take an inventory of your emotions, filter out the impurities, and look for the gold specs that highlight your life.
My husband had trouble deciding what career he should pursue when he finished high school. All his friends wanted the computer science major as it was all the rage in the ’90s. He took a week-long road trip to Yellowstone National Park. The open road and scenery helped him think deeply about what he cared about the most and what he was good at. When he returned, he chose to study civil engineering. While many of his friends switched career during the dot-com crash in the early 2000s, he’s still satisfied with his career path.
Reflect on Your Past Interests that Weren’t Fueled by Monetary Benefits
Think about what you wanted to be when you were in tenth grade. What activities consumed most of your time when you were a child?
I’ve loved reading from a very young age. By the time I was twelve, I had read all the classic literature on my father’s bookshelves, such as War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I was enthralled by the power of words. I had a big pile of notebooks collecting all the beautiful phrases I encountered. I wrote my first novel when I was ten.
My parents told me I needed to have a successful career to be financially stable. So I tried a business major, then engineering, and eventually pharmacy. Although I’ve published technical articles and research papers, creative writing was always a nostalgic thought for me.
A few years ago, a surgery kept me off work for weeks. During those long, idle days, I started writing a political thriller. I watched my characters react and then fight back as their lives turned upside down. I cried for their struggles and their courage to do the right thing. I haven’t stopped writing since.
Think about What Others Say about You
We’re not always the best judges of our characters. Others may have a more accurate view of our personality traits. Your close friends and family members will be among the first people you’ll want to consult. I asked my seven-year-old son what he thought of me. Amazingly, he identified three of my top five strengths.
If you have trusted colleagues at work, ask them what you have done well. These external inputs will converge on a few core characteristics that likely represent your inner wealth. You may receive a range of opinions about you from different sources, so the caveat is to find commonality in them.
Reflect on your past experience to verify the existence of such traits. Ignore those irrelevant statements about you. You don’t live according to people’s opinions. You live true to your values.
Use a Well-Tested Character Strengths Assessment Tool to Verify Your Findings
Drs. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, two well-known researchers in positive psychology, created the Values in Action Signature Strengths test to help people identify their own positive strengths and learn how to capitalize on them.
The questionnaire contains 240 questions that take about twenty-five minutes to complete. You can register and take the full test at www.authentichappiness.org for free and receive feedback on your top five strengths.
The survey examines an individual’s profile of character strengths in the following categories:
Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
Humanity: love, kindness, emotional intelligence
Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership
Temperance: forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality
My top three strengths are love of learning, fairness, and curiosity.
Once you have identified your strengths, view them as the clues to your struggles and untapped potentials.
How to improve the fit between your strengths and your life
Every one of us lives three lives simultaneously: public life, personal life, and private life. Your sense of happiness depends on the level of harmony among these lives.
Your private life is your thoughts and beliefs. It’s the smallest unit of all three lives, yet it determines the level of satisfaction you feel toward your other two lives.
Your personal life is your circle of family and close friends. They are the pillars of your universe. When your private life fails to align with your personal life, you may experience resentment, anger, and likely physical pain.
Your public life is where you interact with people outside of your personal life. It could be your job, social groups, religious organizations, and of course, social media.
Most of us try to be our best in the public eye, highlighting what we have and covering up what we lack in our personal and private lives.
When the gap between our public image and the truth enlarges, our happiness declines.
We feel awful for two reasons: the pressure to keep up with what people expect of us, and the inability to change our personal and private lives.
With the social media boom comes the great irony: we keep posting our polished happy photos and stories when, in fact, we can barely hold on. The images we project and the number of likes and shares we get become the indicator of our worth. We are tormented by our desire to look good and feel proud.
It’s a chain we put around our own necks. We no longer live free and true to ourselves.
We have to break that chain.
All positive changes must originate from your private life and then propagate your personal life, and eventually your public life.
If you have been unhappy for a while, you get stuck in a thought pattern that every trivial thing happening to you confirms your suffering. The self-fulfilling prophecy of failure makes it more taxing to complete your tasks at work and at home.
If you want to be happy, healthy, and confident, stop this negative belief.
Think about how your strengths can help you overcome challenges more effectively.
I’ll use my friend Helen as an example. To protect her and her family’s privacy, I changed their names and other specifics. Helen is a mother of eight-year-old twin girls. She works full time as a marketing associate at an advertising firm. Her husband, Jim, a construction contractor who works long hours, rarely offers help.
Most of the weekdays, Helen does house chores late into the night, exhausted and lonely. Because of her busy schedule, she doesn’t have time to play with her daughters, to cuddle, laugh, and be silly.
After putting on fifteen pounds since the twins were born, Helen only buys shapeless clothes and has stopped putting on makeup altogether. She no longer goes out with her unmarried, fashionable friends.
One day, she runs into an old college friend who doesn’t recognize her because of her drastic change. She wants to talk to Jim about her struggle, but he falls asleep while she’s still talking. She wonders what happened to the passionate Jim she married. She thought they were soulmates.
Helen loves her job, where she can express her creative talent. She dreams of running national campaigns for her firm’s top clients. She’s disciplined, organized , and efficient at work.
Recently her boss offered her a manager position in charge of two of their biggest clients. She likes the challenge of handling large accounts but worries the longer work hours will make her a bad mom. Jim tells her to turn down the offer because he just signed a new contract, and coming home early is out of the question.
Helen resents her lone sacrifice for the family. She yells at Jim and cries to sleep. The next morning, Helen wakes up with a stiff neck. She feels depressed and lacks energy. When she helps her daughters with their homework in the evening, she yells at them because they don’t get it after repeated explanations. The girls burst into tears. Helen hates herself.
She tells her boss she can’t take the promotion because of her domestic responsibilities. Her boss gives her two weeks to think it over because the promotion means she will be the first female manager ever at the firm.
Working moms pursuing a career goal often feel guilty for choosing their careers over their children. Lack of support from their partners often makes them feel selfish going after something that only benefits themselves.
In Helen’s case, her confidence and job satisfaction is an essential part of her private life. Her personal life demands her time as a caregiver, which means long hours of cleaning and preparing with little intellectual stimulation.
When these two lives pull her in different directions, she believes herself a failure, and her health deteriorates. The conflict between these two lives leads her to decline the promotion, a downturn in her public life.
How should Helen resolve the conflict between her private life and personal life, and subsequently achieve her career goal?
Let’s examine Helen’s strengths: creativity, self-regulation, and caring. She’s at the center of this tug-of-war: on one side lies her needs for a fulfilling career that highlights her creative talent; on the other side rests her need to love and be loved at home.
How can she satisfy both needs without being torn in the middle? After spending a week weighing her options, Helen goes back to her boss with a counteroffer. She’ll take the promotion but wants to work only three days in the office while working from home for the rest of the week.
Because of her organizational skills, she can collaborate with her colleagues on large projects efficiently while at home. Her boss hesitates, so she asks for a three-month tryout. If she doesn’t deliver what she promised, she’ll step down from her role. The boss accepts her proposal.
Helen talks with Jim about the possibility of hiring a part-time assistant to help him with time-consuming tasks so he can work less. Her increase in salary and bonuses with the manager position will more than offset the cost of such help.
On her working days, Jim agrees to come home early and take care of the twins, but says he won’t do housework. Helen learns to ignore the urge to clean up the moment she steps into the house. She hires a cleaning service to come in once a week to keep the house in order.
Helen proves herself at work and secures her promotion in three months. To celebrate, she buys a pair of major league baseball playoff tickets for Jim’s birthday, and they have a great time at the game. When Jim thanks her for the surprise gift, Helen asks if he still loves her because she no longer feels his love. Her statement shocks Jim. He thought she’d been doing fine.
Helen expresses her need to communicate with Jim just like before they had the twins. He promises to listen to her more and doesn’t object when she wants to work out. Although there are still many issues to resolve, Helen is happy that Jim wants to make their relationship work.