Key to happiness: Finding your personal strengths

Sep 9, 2010 at 3:01 p.m. ET

Turn to the person next to you and tell them a story about when you were at your absolute best. Not a humble story, in which you downplay your strengths or try to share credit with others, but a true story about a time when you shined and were absolutely amazing. Even though talking about our strengths violates many of our cultural taboos, research shows that identifying and using your strengths actually leads to more happiness, less depression and greater feelings of connection. As if that weren’t enough, strengths are also associated with persevering longer on difficult activities and with a greater chance of achieving your goals. Here’s how to find your strengths and use them to live to your fullest potential.

Women talking on park bench

Ways to find your personal strengths

We all have strengths, and there are a number of ways you can come to learn about your own strengths.

1Pay attention to what others say

A good way to discover your strengths is by paying attention to the compliments you receive from others. Chances are, you have a lifetime of experience of people labeling your strengths for you. Perhaps they say "I could never be as brave as you" or "I admire how forgiving you are." In each case these compliments likely represent your true personal strengths.

2Look for what energizes you in the present

What activities really excite your enthusiasm? What tasks do you find yourself gravitating towards? Which activities do you seem to learn very easily? The answers will point you directly at a whole set of strengths. Once you have identified a few core strengths — those that really describe you well — you can work on developing them and begin to live to your potential.

3Take a strengths survey

There are a number of widely used assessments that can help you identify strengths and weaknesses. The Realise 2 ( helps you to understand 60 different attributes as strengths you use, strengths you don't use, behaviors you learn or weaknesses. It also comes with a personal development plan ($25). Assessing and finding your strengths and weaknesses is an important first step.

4Use your strengths in the right amount

I once coached a woman who was extraordinarily creative. The problem was that she was sometimes too creative -- always spinning new ideas without evaluating and following through on the old ideas. Although it was a counterintuitive solution, her best course of development was to "dial down" her strength of creativity. Sometimes using a strength less can be as powerful in living to your potential as using that strength without control or direction. A key to happiness is embracing moderation and balance.

5Use the right strength

Although you might have a personal strength in humor, forgiveness or attention to detail, these strengths can be misused. Typically, when people confront a problem they look to their own strengths as potential solutions and try to "force" these on the situation. Unfortunately, this can lead to the wrong strengths being put into play. When confronted with a problem ask yourself which specific strengths the situation calls for. Let the situation determine which of your strengths you put on the table. In some cases, the most appropriate strengths may not be the strengths you have. In these instances, try enlisting the help of others or collaborating to get the job done. Knowing which strengths to use, and asking others for help, can be a real key to happiness.

6Put weaknesses in their proper place

It is normal to think we can improve ourselves the most by tackling our deficits, but consider this metaphor: Sometimes a sailboat has a little leak, and this is the weakness. It is important to pay attention to these weaknesses because you do not want your boat to sink. But even if you bail out the water or patch the hole, your actions will not propel your boat forward. For that, you need the sails. Focusing on weaknesses helps prevent you from failing, but success is found in the energy and forward momentum of strengths.

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