We don’t often appreciate what we have until it’s gone. This applies to people, like when a college student feels the absence of his parents after going off to school the first time. It applies to things, like when that old broken-down car finally gives out and you’re left without transportation. It applies to character strengths. Have you ever stopped to think: What would you be like without your top strengths?
Recently, I was asked to teach character strengths to participants in a 10-month positive psychology certificate program. We were at a week-long immersion taking place towards the beginning of the course. At this first immersion, deep personal connections are forged, and small learning pods are formed in preparation for the virtual portion of the program. I know because I graduated from this certificate program in 2014, assisted the faculty for 4 cohorts after that, and then became a faculty member.
When teaching strengths, I like to start with the scientific evidence behind character strengths then move quickly into giving participants the experience of what they are and why they matter. Consistently, there is one activity that can significantly influence whether we appreciate our top strengths. I featured this activity in my book 30 Days of Character Strengths: A Guided Practice to Ignite Your Best. Readers consistently share that it’s among the most memorable.
Strengths Activity With a Lasting Impact
The activity is simply to imagine your life without a top strength. In research, taking away something important and positive is called mental subtraction (Koo, Algoe, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). Participants in this study felt better having thought of themselves without something positive. When you think about it, this is counter-intuitive. Instead, we might think more easily about something we want but don’t have – better health, a nicer home – rather than starting with something we already do have.
Interestingly, when we think about boosting happiness and success, the pathways forward typically involve adding something like mindfulness or positive emotions. This evidence-based activity is different. It’s about subtraction. Without fail, after imagining a life without a top strength, each group I’ve worked with describes what their lives would be like in undeniably negative terms. Boring. Suffocating. Purposeless. Useless.
I’m careful not to leave anyone hanging out in a difficult space like that, so I always end with a reflection about why the chosen signature strength is important in participants’ lives. The descriptors become energizing again. Inspired. Authentic. Enlivened. Motivated.
Now It’s Your Turn
I encourage you to see for yourself. Below are the steps you can take. Be sure to find a quiet space and a 15- or 20-minute block of time.
- Choose one of your signature strengths. If you haven’t taken the character strengths assessment yet, or if you haven’t updated your results within the past year, take the free survey. Then review your results and choose a strength from among the top 5 that captures your attention.
- Close your eyes or fix your gaze softly on the floor or wall in front of you. Allow yourself to begin tuning into this strength. Notice how you use it each day in different parts of your life – with family, friends, or colleagues. Picture how it helps you connect with someone, achieve something, or simply feel happy. Focus on how you think, act, and feel when engaging this strength.
- Next, imagine that you’re unable to use this strength for 1 month. If you chose Perseverance, you’re unable to finish anything or pursue a goal. If you chose Love of Learning, you’re unable to read a book or develop greater mastery of a skill. If you chose Kindness, there’s no caring for or helping others. If you chose Curiosity, there’s no internet surfing, new restaurants, or asking questions. Imagine in great detail what life is like without this strength. Imagine what you are like.
- Write down a word or phrase that describes what you pictured. If you prefer, journal for a few minutes.
See The Bigger Picture
Now step back and look at the big picture. Living without our core valued strengths isn’t how we wish to live our lives. Sometimes in a workshop setting, tears begin to flow. This activity can strike an inner chord about who we are and what we value most in life, like the capacity to:
- Persevere despite hardship,
- Grow by mastering important skills and topics,
- Help and care for others,
- Explore new territory.
Imagining oneself and life without these capacities can feel painful. This is not an image of a flourishing life. Unfortunately, sometimes life does feel this difficult. Or worse.
The Good News: Your Strengths Are Always Accessible
We don’t always appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Now that you’ve imagined life without a signature strength, are you beginning to appreciate it in a new way?
The good news is you don’t have to live without this strength. In order to finish on a positive note, please repeat step 2. Do not end this intervention without repeating the second step:
Notice how you use it each day in different parts of your life – with family, friends, or colleagues. Picture how it helps you connect with someone, achieve something, or simply feel happy. Focus on how you think, act, and feel when engaging this strength.
Trust me, I skipped this step once myself to save time. It led me down a pathway of negativity that was hard to shake off the rest of the day.
Take a Next Step
If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into your character strengths profile, consider working with me for 1.5 hours in my Power Up: Strengthening Your Strengths debrief session. I’m scheduling now for November, and there are a few slots remaining so grab your spot now, while you’re thinking about it!
Enjoy this newfound appreciation of you and a key trait that helps you function at your most authentic and best. Cherish this part of you. Bring it forth with abandon. There is only one of you, and there is only one life for you to lead. Make it count by living into your strengths.
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(5), 1217–1224. doi:10.1037/a0013316