I love my job. Love it. There are, of course, days like this one, when the 100-degree weather makes me want to bypass my office and head straight for the beach. For the most part, though, a day spent doing therapy is a day that fills me with deep satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
I haven’t always loved my job. In fact, for some time in college, I honestly hated it. A favorite professor recommended me for a coveted position as a psychological research assistant on a study being done at the world-renowned National Children’s Hospital. This particular study focused on how the quality of life for chronically medically ill adolescents may be improved by a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. The position was a huge deal for an undergrad, and I was thrilled just to land a gig in my field instead of toiling at a children’s boutique, where I had been (I didn’t much love working there, either.)
This was going to look fantastic on my résumé; it was the kind of thing that would provide relevant experience and help usher me into grad school. I should have been overjoyed, and started out that way. But that soon fizzled, and instead I found myself downright miserable. The “gig” was not at all what I thought or hoped it would be. I had little to no interaction with the research participants. Instead, I spent every day hunched at the computer, matching subjects to controls, inputting boring data, and counting the slow minutes until I could head home.
According to positive psychology, we are happiest when the work we do, whether at home or on the job, allows us to use our signature strengths. Martin Seligman, the psychologist at University of Pennsylvania who pioneered the positive psychology movement, defines signature strengths as “strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises.” These are the personal traits and skills that come naturally, and that give us a sense of fulfillment and purpose when we use them.
Seligman has identified 24 unique character strengths, including fairness, curiosity, creativity, and humor. My VIA Signature Strengths survey results—which identified my top five strengths—help explain why, between my two jobs in psychology, I was woefully unhappy as a research assistant but have been blissfully content as a clinician.
My top three signature strengths are curiosity, love of learning, and perspective. Seligman and Christopher Peterson define these traits this way:
- Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake, exploring and discovering.
- Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally.
- Perspective (wisdom): Being able to provide wise counsel to others, having ways of looking at the work that make sense to oneself and other people.
Doing therapy, I get to utilize all three of these strengths in my work. My sense of curiosity makes me truly interested in my clients and their personal stories. Because I love learning, I eat psych books like they are candy and very much enjoy attending conferences about new methods and ideas in my field, then immediately use what I learn in therapy sessions. Perspective (or wisdom) is a strength I try to employ daily by helping others look at themselves and their situations in healthy, encouraging ways.
A look at my relative weaknesses on the signature strengths survey also explains why my research assistant job didn’t work for me. The traits I seem to value least, and engage least frequently, are persistence, self-regulation, and prudence.
- Persistence: Finishing what one starts, persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.
- Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does, being disciplined, controlling one’s appetites and emotions.
- Prudence: Being careful about one’s choice, not taking undue risks, not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.
The research assistant job required hours of monotonous sifting through surveys and entering numbers into a statistical analysis program. This task required perseverance and discipline, two of my weaknesses. I was bored, edgy, and unfulfilled. I was impatient to learn the results of the findings, but it would be months until they were revealed. Day after day was the same—columns of numbers and the click-click-clack of computer keys. My curiosity was not satisfied, and my self-control was tested. I made regular trips to the vending machine, where in my careful scientific process I learned that I preferred Cheez-Its to Cheese Nips. I explored the wings of the hospital, discovering that the interns in the cardiology unit were better looking than those in rheumatology. I found myself daydreaming constantly.
Moreover, I became an unpopular, dissonant voice at the Adolescent Employment Readiness Center, as my unit was called. Since prudence was not one of my strengths, especially as a 20-year-old student, I made it all too clear that I did not believe that working at McDonald’s was the best use of time for a teen in remission who may not live to see his 20th birthday. As a passionate, wide-eyed kid myself, I thought our teenage subjects should be celebrating their periods of remission by sailing, surfing, seeing the world—anything but flipping burgers.
I am incredibly lucky. I was able to find a career that is in alignment with my signature strengths. Not all of us are as fortunate. Nonetheless, even in less-than-ideal situations, you can work toward finding opportunities to utilize your personal character strengths as often as possible. Research shows we are happiest when we are using our strengths regularly and in novel ways. By exploring the hospital and comparing the nuances of cheese-flavored snack foods, I engaged my curiosity and love of learning at my boring research job.
If your job or life circumstances don’t naturally engage your strengths, you can and should look for creative outlets for their expression. For example, if your strength happens to be my weakness of self-regulation, and you are in an unstructured environment, use your skills to bring order to the chaos. Help your coworkers organize their desk drawers or create a method for arranging their daily to-do list. If humor is one of your strengths, find ways to bring laughter to the board room or break room.
The most important point from the research on signature strengths is that we are happiest and most productive when we are living as an expression of our strengths rather than frantically trying to develop our weaknesses. I might look at my weaknesses and berate myself for being flighty, undisciplined, and impulsive. I could focus on these shortcomings and spend a bulk of time and energy making efforts to overcome them. To do so, according to positive psychology, is to expend precious energy swimming against the current of our most authentic selves.
It is worth investing a bit of effort to improve upon the weaknesses that handicap us and hold us back. Truth is, I do have a bit more stick-to-it-iveness and self-control now than I did in my college days. My mindfulness practice has helped me with that. Still, I am bored easily, relatively impatient, and I tend to speak my mind, so it doesn’t surprise me that persistence, self-discipline, and prudence remain my weaknesses.
Three times today I’ve abandoned writing this article to do something else. Because I’m curious and love to learn, I went to find the reference for another article, and found myself distracted by another couple of pages that popped up in my Google search. When I set out to write, I know that this will be the way things go, so I give myself the time for what will inevitably be my process. I allow and engage my strengths, and don’t beat myself up for my weaknesses. By permitting myself to work at a comfortable pace, I am able to eventually accomplish what I set out to do in a way that feels genuine to me.
Finally, I return to my signature strength of perspective/wisdom. I always enjoy sharing what I know with others, and helping them potentially gain insight, which happily propelled me to continue writing and to finish this article. I close by encouraging you to discover your own signature strengths and align your life with their expression. Become aware of your weaknesses, too, if only to learn forgiveness and a better understanding of where you may be challenged. By using your strengths creatively and consistently, you will create for yourself what positive psychologists call “the good life,” and be happier for doing so.
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