Written by Madison Jaffe.
It feels like just yesterday that I was a high school freshman – unsure of where I belonged, who my true friends were, if I was enough, or what my life would be like at the end of my high school career. It wasn’t until I discovered positive psychology – the science of happiness – that I began answering these questions and accepting myself amidst the overwhelming pressures that society places on women. Now, as a senior in college, I hope to show you the power that positive psychology has to transform young women’s lives by focusing on their strengths.
As young women, society holds us to an unattainably high standard, trapping us in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. We are expected to excel academically while being social butterflies, homecoming queens, and Instagram aficionados. We should be easy-going and comforting, but we shouldn’t let ourselves be viewed as weak or passive. We should establish our maturity by getting plenty of sexual experience, but never let ourselves be viewed as “easy.” Speaking of sexy, it’s essential that we have perfect skin, a flat stomach, and voluptuous curves. But those curves should be perfectly aligned with what we see on TV and influencers’ profiles. In other words, from a very young age we have been taught that society expects us to be everything to everyone, no matter what toll this takes on our self-esteem and individuality. The rules prescribed by society present contradictory and insurmountable expectations that leave us chasing perfection and neglecting self-compassion. However, there is hope to break free from this toxic narrative, and it lies in positive psychology.
Positive psychology seeks to understand what makes people feel happy, be productive, and find meaning in life. Rather than focusing on repairing the negative in our lives, positive psychology amplifies the good. It also provides concrete “happiness strategies” to foster long-term well-being and reframe how we have been trained to view ourselves. In this article, I will explain how the positive psychological strategy of focusing on our strengths (or developing a strength mindset) helps us foster long-term fulfillment despite the immense pressures we face as women.
Operating with a strength mindset means habitually focusing on our strengths rather than weaknesses. Research shows that when people are aware of their strengths, they are 9 times more likely to achieve greater well-being. Moreover, people are 18 times more likely to boost their well-being if they actively use their strengths, such as when a highly creative person volunteers to teach young kids art. In another study, psychologists provided people with a single 90-minute session during which they self-identified their strengths, asked family, friends, or mentors to help them do the same, pinpointed specific examples of how they use their strengths in life, and made concrete plans to use them in the future. The researchers found that this exercise helped people feel happier and experience fewer negative emotions, with effects lasting three months after the initial intervention.
We all have aspects of our personalities, bodies, or past that we would like to change. While wanting to alter certain parts of ourselves isn’t inherently harmful, allowing these desires to dictate our happiness and the way we treat ourselves is extremely hurtful. In high school, I fell into this cycle. I was perfectionistic and incredibly hard on myself. When I made a mistake on an assignment, said the wrong thing, or didn’t get a date to the homecoming dance, I saw those mistakes as reflections of my self-worth. I felt exasperated by the common belief that as young women, we must excel in every aspect of life. Instead of focusing on the good parts of myself like my reputation for being kind and hardworking, I was preoccupied with fixing my self-perceived flaws. This left me with little self-confidence and an abundance of stress. However, adopting a strength mindset helped me replace my self-critical headspace with gratitude for my strengths and self-compassion towards my flaws. While I still struggle with putting pressure on myself sometimes, thanks to my strength mindset, I am much more effective at viewing my failures and insecurities as sources of growth.
Do you want to give strength mindset a try? Here are scientifically proven steps that you can take today to begin your journey towards developing a strength mindset:
1. Write down your 3 favorite parts about yourself, or take the official (and free) strengths Values in Action (VIA) Character Strength Survey here: https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register.
2. Ask your family, friends, and mentors to share what they like and admire most about you. Encourage them to tell you why.
3. Think about how you have used your signature strengths in the past and how you continue to use them today.
4. Use at least one of your signature strengths in a new way daily. Make a plan for how you will do this by writing down which strength you will use the following day and how. You can set a reminder on your phone or a note on your desk to prevent you from forgetting. For example, if kindness is your greatest strength, you could help a friend with an assignment one day and do the dishes at home without receiving anything in exchange the next day.
Notice how you feel when you are thinking about or using your strengths. Over time, you may find yourself being less self-critical and more skilled at identifying your positive traits. Give yourself grace when you revert to habits of being hard on yourself because everyone struggles with their self-confidence sometimes. When you have slip-ups, replace your negative thoughts by noting three ways that you used your strengths that day. Don’t give up if they don’t come into your mind right away. Consistently shifting your focus back onto what you love about yourself will build a habit of searching for the good in yourself and, ultimately, diminish the frequency of your self-degrading thoughts.
The next time you feel like you’re unworthy of love because you don’t have slimmer thighs or are overcome with shame because you disappointed your family, hone in on and practice what you admire about yourself. With your unique talents and characteristics, you are worthy of love from yourself and others, even if society tells you otherwise. You have permission to be who you are, and the critics telling you that you’ll never be enough don’t deserve another second of your attention.
- Bu, H., & Duan, W. (2019). A single-session positive cognitive intervention on first-year students’ mental health: Short-term effectiveness and the mediating role of strengths knowledge. Journal of American College Health, 67(6), 515-522.
- Hone, L. C., Jarden, A., Duncan, S., & Schofield, G. M. (2015). Flourishing in New Zealand workers: Associations with lifestyle behaviors, physical health, psychosocial, and work-related indicators. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(9), 973-983.
- Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Positive psychology: An introduction. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 279-298). Springer, Dordrecht.
- VIA Institute on Character. (n.d.). VIA Character Strengths Survey. VIA Institute on Character. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register