Strengths Spotlight: Joy & Playfulness

Dear Dartmouth,

At the Student Wellness Center, we are guided by a strengths-based perspective, framing all of our work from a positive, inclusive, and empowering stance. Explicitly focusing on strengths themselves as resources for supporting the wellbeing of individuals, organizations, and communities can be an empowering way for us to thrive. Therefore, we’ll be incorporating Strengths Spotlight posts as a regular feature on this blog.

In this first strengths-based post, we’ll introduce the concept of strengths and share ways that you can learn more about your particular strengths constellation. From there, we’ll talk about how you can use your strengths to enhance your wellbeing, and explore ways that they connect to our monthly theme of Joy and Playfulness. Let’s dive in!

Take a moment to reflect on the way that you typically think about yourself. Are your thoughts primarily oriented toward the things you have going for you, or the things that seem lacking – that you wish were somehow different.

This distinction can start to illuminate whether your tendency is to view yourself from more of a strengths-based or deficit-based perspective. The deficit perspective suggests that there are things about you that should be different – that need to be fixed or hidden from view. By contrast, a strengths-based perspective is grounded in a fundamental belief that you are enough, right now, just as you are. It can help you to be more aware of the capacities and values that you carry with you through life.

The most common argument I’ve heard in support of the deficit lens is that focusing on the parts of yourself that are not to your satisfaction or liking is a way to promote positive change. However, in practice, it seems like the opposite tends to be far more likely. People who beat themselves up over their own perceived shortcomings can find it much harder to notice and build upon what they’ve accomplished thus far. This often results in a challenging process that at best produces incremental change, and at worst can leave people feeling stuck.

Generally speaking, the adoption of a growth-oriented approach to the cultivation of human potential is a much more effective springboard to realizing desired outcomes. Employing your strengths is one way to catalyze this approach. The first step is to become aware of your particular strengths and explore how these strengths play out in our life. You can then begin to apply your strengths more strategically to help you accomplish your goals and otherwise produce good things for your life.

One useful tool for identifying your strengths is a free, online instrument called the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. The 24 strengths that make up this framework are considered universal, positive human capacities. In other words, they represent qualities that are valued in every culture (e.g. honesty, kindness, judgment) and exist in every person. The VIA is only designed to illustrate your strengths – NOT your weaknesses. In other words, you have all 24 strengths, so your results are more about the degree to which you connect with or value each of the strengths rather than a measure of whether you possess these strengths in the first place.

As a result of this approach, your results from the VIA Survey are presented as a subjective ranking of your strengths from 1-24 relative to your scores for each strength. In other words, your results compare your scores with one another (i.e. within yourself), they do NOT represent an objective ranking that compares your results to others who have taken the survey. If you’d like to try the VIA, you can use this link to take you to their site, where you’ll be asked to register so that you can continue to access your results at any point in time.

Once you have your results, it can be very helpful to reflect on your ranking. Typically, the strengths at the top of your list tend to be qualities that you embody without even thinking about it. They frequently feel natural or effortless to engage and require little intention. By contrast, strengths that are lower on the list might feel like they take a bit more effort and willpower to enact, but they are still very much strengths that you possess.

Some questions that might help you consider your ranking:

  • When you look at the top strengths on your list, does it seem like this section is a good representation of who you are in the world?
  • How do each of these strengths tend to show up in your life?
  • How would you describe each of your top strengths in one sentence?
  • Which strengths are most energizing to you? Which seem like they might be more draining than energizing?

There is much more to say about and do with strengths, but we’ll save those explorations for future blog posts. For now, let’s enhance your awareness of how to work with your strengths by making some connections between your results and our monthly theme of Joy and Playfulness!

To do this, we’re going to use a technique called a mindful pause. This is a simple practice that you can engage at any time which can help you develop greater awareness of your strengths.

In brief, the practice consists checking in with yourself by stopping whatever you’re doing, paying attention to your breath for 10-15 seconds, observing whatever may be happening for you in the moment, and then asking yourself the question:

“What strength(s) do I want or need to call forth right now?”

While this is a useful practice to engage at any point in time (much like the STOP Practice that my colleague LB frequently teaches), it is also something that can be targeted toward a particular desired experience. In this case, with joy and playfulness as our focus, it only takes a brief modification of the guiding question to something like:

“What strength(s) would help me be more open to joy and playfulness right now?”

If you’re new to strengths, you may want to try this while scanning the results of your strengths survey. Perhaps some of the strengths where there are obvious connections like humor or zest will stand out, but allowing yourself to be open to any of the strengths could result in some interesting surprises.

Maybe a strength like humility could contribute by helping you to let go of a desire to do something well, and free you up to enjoy an activity in the moment regardless of your “performance.” Perhaps you’ll find joy or playfulness in providing a random act of kindness for another person. Allowing yourself to feel a sense of wonder through the strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence can provide experiences of joy by helping you observe things that might otherwise pass you by. And perhaps the joy will come in the form of gratitude as you look back over your day and notice the small things that others did for you to make things slightly better.

Every strength has the capacity to support your wellbeing by bringing good things to your life. I hope that you give this approach a try and discover new opportunities for joy and playfulness through the cultivation of a strengths-based perspective.

Take care and be well,