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Strengths Psychology: Boring or Exciting?

A conversation examining strengths of character and strengths of skill.

Source: Photosebia/Shutterstock

I was talking with a neighbor the other day, and I shared with him that the focus of my work is on people’s strengths.

His eyes glazed over.

I knew the rest of what I was about to say was going to drift away to the sky. After I would say a few things about my research and about strengths practices, he would respond according to his automatic habits, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

He would then change the subject.

That is exactly what happened. I had seen this before. Clearly, what I shared was the opposite of “interesting.”

I decided to change the outcome of the situation. As we were talking about the next topic, I interrupted and said, “Just a moment ago, I saw your eyes seemed to glaze over a bit when I mentioned strengths. I’m not judging that at all. You are not the first person I have noticed that with. But I would like to better understand why that is. Is there something with the word 'strengths' or something else that was a turn-off?”

“Yeah, you’re right. My mind wandered away. I could still sort of hear you talking, but I wasn’t really paying close attention. Sorry about that.”

“No problem at all. No judgment here. But I am truly interested in what seemed to trigger that for you—again, this has happened many other times and I’ve never asked the person about it.”

“Sure, well, when I hear someone works with strengths, I just think—‘OK, they look for the positive in people or they are helping someone build up their skills.”

“Like what?”

“Well, our company talks a lot about being ‘strengths-based.’ It also means we teach our employees a lot of things like communication skills, network analysis, computer programming, and some social media skills. We see what the employee is good at in those areas and see if we can fit their job role into that more. And, we see what they are bad at and give them training to improve.”

“That’s great! So your company’s strengths-based approach is to focus on the employee’s competencies or skills, and maybe also see if there’s a hidden talent or ability in an employee and pull that out?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“On one hand, I’m sure that’s really helpful because it’s helping people grow and develop their skills for their job. But, that’s what I would consider a halfway approach with strengths. If I was to be a little critical, I might even call it a half-assed approach to strengths.”

My neighbor laughed.

“It is a necessary strengths approach, but not sufficient,” I continued.

“What do you mean?” He was finally curious!

“Well, that approach is not getting at ‘who the employee is,’ their identity, what really makes them tick. It’s not reaching what gets them excited to get up in the morning or feeling happy and productive at work. For that, you would need to turn to a different kind of strength—character strengths.”

“OK, I think I’ve heard of that.”

“Character strengths are the most scientific approach to strengths yet. They are also highly practical and usable in any situation at work, home, and community. Many of us think of character strengths as both ‘well-being boosters’ and ‘resilience masters.’ When we deliberately use a strength like creativity or fairness or gratitude, we get a shot of well-being and it helps us connect with others. Case in point—I used some bravery earlier to ask you about your mind wandering. I also turned to my love of learning to hear your perspective.”

“Good point. I see that.”

“I really like how character strengths are these resilience masters. Think of any problem you have overcome in your life. You had to turn to your character strengths to deal with it. Probably your perseverance to overcome the issues, maybe your strength of hope to expect something better, and your strength of bravery to face the difficulty head-on.”

“That is true—especially with that issue I was telling you about the other day.”


To learn more, see the VIA Survey, a free, scientifically valid test of character strengths.


Niemiec, R. M. (2013). You have many different kinds of strengths. Psychology Today.

Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions. A field-guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.

Niemiec, R. M. (2019). Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and opportunity: A theoretical perspective. Applied Research in Quality of Life. DOI: 10.1007/s11482-018-9692-2

Niemiec, R. M., & Pearce, R. (2021). The practice of character strengths: Unifying definitions, principles, and exploration of what’s soaring, emerging, and ripe with potential in science and in practice. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 590220. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.590220

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