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Building on strengths

As we have seen the focus of Positive Psychology is 'optimal human functioning' - it is about studying and understanding people at their best.

Multiple Intelligence 

As we have seen the focus of Positive Psychology is 'optimal human functioning'  - it is about studying and understanding people at their best. One of the early pioneers of this approach, and an academic who is keen to be acknowledged nowadays as a Positive Psychologist, is Professor Howard Gardner  - an education professor at Harvard University. Gardner's work on 'multiple intelligence', set out in his classic work Frames of Mind, attacked the idea that intelligence is a single entity which can be measured by standard IQ tests. Gardner argued that this approach was far too biased in favour of logic and language skills and did not recognise that there were in fact different types of intelligence. For Gardner the question was not how intelligent people are but in what way they are intelligent. As you will hear in one of the audio files in this section, Gardner now sets out eight different types of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. He also argues that these different types of intelligence are independent of one another. So rather than believing that it is possible to make a global judgement on someone's intelligence, ranking them very intelligent or unintelligent, Gardner argues that people can be intelligent in one type of intelligence but not in another. 


Much of traditional psychology's illness focus means that it has been much more concerned with people's weaknesses than with their strengths. In other words, how people give way to negative emotion such as depression or anger or how various problems manifest themselves in their lives. With such a focus the approach is then about how we get people to repair their weaknesses. 

Dr Alex Linley who is an expert on a strengths-based approach, argues that modern psychology turned its back on strengths partly as a result of the influence of Gordon Allport (1897-1967), one of the first psychologists to concern himself with 'personality'. Allport  defined personality as 'the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustments to his environment'. He expressly excluded the notion of 'character' from personality and saw the former as an unsuitable topic for psychologists since this was more the territory of philosophers. So psychology lost interest in studying 'virtues' or what in everyday language  we would call 'character strengths'. Linley also argues that in as much as strengths are recognised or studied by psychologists (hope, wisdom etc) they are looked at in isolation from one another and outwith a comprehensive intellectual framework. (For more on this listen to the appropriate audio clip from Alex Linley in this section.) 

Alex Linley and Claire Harrington define a strength as 'a natural capacity for behaving, thinking or feeling in a way that allows optimal functioning and performance in the pursuit of valued outcomes.' Strengths thus conceived can cover intellectual or cognitive strengths, social intelligence, virtues or strengths of character as well the myriad of other ways human beings can function at their best. 

Therapy v. coaching

Taking a strengths-based, as opposed to an illness-focus in psychology means moving away from therapy and the client-therapist relationship, towards coaching. In coaching there is no implied problem or malfunction, more the sense of enhancing performance and building capacity. 

Different approaches to strengths

Professor Seligman's preferred way of conceptualising strengths is Signature Strengths (the VIA or Values in Action). This is outlined in Authentic Happiness and further information can be found in the next section. Finding out your strengths is not only an important aspect of self-awareness and personal development but it is also useful for building teams and creating a positive environment at work.  However, there are other ways to conceptualise and measure individuals strengths apart from the VIA.  Examples of three instruments are as follows: 

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Copyright CPP, OPP) 
This is one of the first psychometric instruments. It was devised by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katherine Briggs. It is based on the classification scheme outlined by Carl Jung inPsychological Types. In this work Jung describes many of the neurotic, dysfunctional aspects of the types. Isabel Briggs Myers can be seen as an early positive psychologist in that she stood this approach on its head. She was not willing to see type mainly as a set of weaknesses but as a set of strengths. There is, therefore, inherent in the MBTI? the view that all of the 16 types have definite strengths which can be built on. The MBTI has been used internationally for decades and is supported by considerable research. People usually take to its values, approach and methodology and find that far from pigeon-holing them it is liberating. Many say that understanding the MBTI is good for building confidence. It has important applications in the workplace for team and management development and is an important tool for helping to create a positive atmosphere and encourage people to work better together.  Further information on the MBTI can be found easily on the web or from Oxford Psychologists Press, the license holders for the UK or Consulting Psychologists' Press in the USA.

Insights is a personality profiling system which is also based on Jung's Psychological Types. It has been devised by Andrew Lothian who works in Dundee and so is a Scottish product. Again this is a system of looking at people's strengths and is relevant to personal, team and organisational development. Further information can be found at www.insightsworld.com. 

Clifton Strengths Finder
This approach to strengths is promoted by the Gallup Organization and outlined in the book Now, Discover Your Strengths (by Marcus Buckinham and Donald O. Clifton.  Gallup also offer various programmes to help leaders and managers introduce a strengths-based approach into their organisations. Further information can be found by visiting www.strengthsfinder.com. 

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

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