Defining Strengths

So What Exactly Is A Strength?

If someone were to ask you, “What are your top five strengths?”, would you know exactly what they meant by a strength? As you explore our blog, it is important that we share a common understanding of the word. A simple way of thinking about it is that a strength is the overlap between what you enjoy and what you do best. To go more in depth, we can explore one of the broadest and most widely accepted definitions:

As defined by Linley and Harrington (2006), a strength is a “natural capacity for behaving, thinking or feeling in a way that allows optimal functioning and performance in the pursuit of valued outcomes” (p. 86).

Let’s take for example, the strength of creativity. And just for the purposes of this discussion, let’s think of creativity in the realm of painting. Someone may be a naturally creative artist. If you put me and my sister side by side, my sister would be likely to paint something meaningful and innovative from the depths of her imagination, while I would probably paint the first thing I saw in the room. My sister’s creativity could be further developed and enhanced if she were to enroll in an art school. My own creativity could be enhanced through art school as well, but never to the same level as hers. This is because her natural capacity for creativity is higher than my own.

Sticking with this example, optimal functioning means working to your fullest potential. If my sister were asked to work on a math project, rather than to paint, she would not be functioning at her best. Her time would be used less efficiently, as she would probably produce mediocre work and spend a long time doing it. One of the defining features of a strength is that it comes naturally to us. We want to use it, we enjoy using it, and when we are given an opportunity to use it we function at our best.

Valued outcomes are the most subjective component of the definition. The desired outcome varies depending on the situation and audience. My sister’s desired outcome may simply be to spend time relaxing by producing art. Or it may be to produce a masterpiece that will be sold for a good deal of money. Regardless, by using her strength she will be likely to reach that desired outcome more effectively and efficiently than would the average individual.

In summary, a strength is an area you enjoy in which you have higher than average potential. When utilized, it leads you to produce high quality work while appreciating the process of doing so.

Teams of researchers at the VIA Institute (Peterson & Seligmen, 2004; Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2006) and Gallup (2016) have identified their own definitions, frameworks, and lists of strengths, all of which have their own evidence-base and backing. What all these sources have in common is the understanding that strengths are trait-like. They are inherent to the individual and are relatively stable across time, but they can be developed as well as impacted by one’s experiences and environment.



Gallup. (2016). What is the difference between a talent and a strength? Retrieved from

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M.E.P., (2006). A primer in positive psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Linley, A. & Harrington, S. (2006). Playing to your strengths. The Psychologist, 19(2). 86-89.

Image by Swissmiss Studio.