Contributed by a GoStrengths Community Member…
When I was little, my parents used to read me a story called “Fenton and the Magic Bag.” The story was about a frog named Fenton who is an incredibly fearful little guy. He will not go anywhere without his bag, which is filled to the brim with supplies he might need. What if the lights go out? Fenton carries a flashlight with him at all times. What if it starts to rain? Fenton has an umbrella stuffed into his bag. When Fenton and his friends go to the local Fall Fun Festival, Fenton has a hard time getting on any of the rides. He simply cannot let go of his “magic” bag—everything is just too scary without it. Fenton’s friends take him to a tent at the festival with a special magician. The magician gives Fenton some powerful magic, and asks Fenton to leave his bag in the tent while he rides the festival rides. He tells Fenton that the powerful magic will protect him.
Fenton has a blast at the fair. He is finally able to enjoy himself, knowing that he has powerful magic spells watching over him. He even rides the roller coaster! When Fenton returns to pick up his bag, he gets a huge surprise. The magician tells Fenton that there was no magic at all—the magic that protected Fenton all day long was inside Fenton himself! Fenton made it the entire day without his bag, drawing on his own bravery, confidence, and strength. His strengths were the powerful magic.
Fenton was so used to spending all of his time thinking about what he didn’t have, and how he wouldn’t be able to handle the situations that came his way. But what if instead of spending all that time thinking about what was wrong with him, Fenton spent time thinking about what was right?
Imagine that there was a magical mirror that could point out all of the things that are great about you—all of your greatest strengths. You would look into the mirror and see kindness, courage, and humor, for example. Maybe the mirror would show you what a good sibling you are to your brothers and sisters. And anytime you were feeling down about yourself, you could simply glance into this magic mirror and be reminded of all of your personal strengths. I would feel a lot better, wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, this kind of mirror doesn’t exist! We have to rely on ourselves to figure out what we are good at, and this can be a difficult task. Because there are always going to be those louder, critical and fearful voices in our heads telling us what we think we are bad at. When we look into our non-magical, regular mirrors, it becomes all too easy to fall into a pattern of putting ourselves down. My nose is too long. My shape is too round. I will never be tall enough to be a good basketball player. Why can’t I get anything right? We have to learn to block out those negative thoughts and focus on our personal strengths. The good news is that every single one of us has strengths—we just have to discover what they are!
There are Many Ways to Be Intelligent
One of the easiest places to lose sight of our personal strengths is the classroom. Learning can be fun, but it can also be really frustrating! Sometimes it seems like certain kids know all the answers, like they have learned all of this stuff before. A lot of times we are graded on how well we perform on tests—and some of us aren’t the best test takers! When we don’t do as well as we’d like, it can send us into a spiral of sadness, anger, and self-doubt. School assignments can leave lots of kids thinking—well, I guess I’m just not that intelligent. And that is a thought that really hurts.
But did you know that there isn’t just one type of intelligence, but multiple types? That’s right. Psychology researchers like Howard Gardner have come up with the idea that our definition of “intelligence” is just too narrow for all of the different types of people that make up this world. He proposed the idea of multiple intelligences. Some people are strong with numbers or languages—the types of skills that we traditionally test in the classroom. But there are so many other types of intelligence: musical intelligence, social intelligence, naturalistic intelligence (having a passion for nature), and body movement intelligence (being able to move in a coordinated manner, like a dancer or athlete). Having one kind of intelligence doesn’t make you smarter than those who have another kind of intelligence. They are simply different ways of expressing the mental and physical strengths that we each possess.
The goal is to figure out which types of intelligence you have—whether it’s the strength of being a great cook, a computer whiz, or an artist—and figuring out how to use those strengths to your advantage. For example, if you are great at drawing, you might study by drawing detailed diagrams instead of copying pages of notes. Or, if you are musically talented, you might try making a song out of vocabulary words to practice for your English quiz. Once you have identified your strengths, you can be creative in the ways that you use them to your advantage. Most importantly, research shows that people who use their personal strengths in new and unique ways are much happier, and less likely to be depressed!
Everyone has Strengths of Character
We have talked a lot about strengths that are directly observable, like being a great artist or a skilled musician. But what about strengths that you can’t see, like strengths of character? Tons of research points to the importance of understanding and building your character strengths. And researchers have found that most children naturally have a very specific set of core strengths all to themselves. Yes, you have strengths! Look at the image below and see if you can pick out one of your strengths!
Getting to know your character strengths can increase not only your happiness, but even your physical health! In one study, a group of people who were asked to make a list of their character strengths and then put them into action had a more positive outcome than a group who was not asked to identify character strengths. So it’s time to get to know in which ways you are already awesome!
How to Identify your Character Strengths!
- “But I’m not good at anything.” I have probably heard this more times than I can count. Finding your personal strengths takes work. And the most important part of this work is trying everything and anything you can get your hands on. You don’t know if you are good at something until you try! Fill your life with as many different experiences as possible, and you will soon find something you excel at! OR, try taking this survey at http://www.viacharacter.org. The survey uses psychological research to determine your character strengths!
- Write a strength story. Think about a time when you have used one of your strengths. Putting that memory into words can help remind you of your best self—and will motivate you to keep putting that best self forward.
- Increase your strength vocabulary . We have a listed a few “intelligence” strengths, like an appreciation for nature, as well as some character strengths, like courage and transcendence. How many strengths can you think of?
- Think outside the box. Strengths don’t always have to come in the form of an amazing painting or beautiful violin concerto. Are you the friend that everyone counts on for advice? Are you a deep thinker with a strong sense of yourself? Can you name songs on the radio after just a few bars? These strengths are just as important as becoming the next Picasso or Mozart.
- Brainstorm with a friend. Sometimes, it’s easier to see the strengths in other people, but we have blinders on when it comes to ourselves. Make a list of your friend’s strengths and have her do the same. You may be surprised at what your friends see in you that you haven’t yet seen in yourself!
Now get out there and test yourself! Try to spend one whole day telling yourself what you do well. When you get dressed for school, look in the mirror and list five things you like about your appearance. After class, think about something positive you did in the classroom. Your thoughts will probably wander over to your weaknesses—in fact, we expect them to! If you catch your thoughts bringing you back down to your weaknesses, guide them toward your strengths. It will take practice, but soon you will be able to use that powerful magical inside of you, just like Fenton.
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Park, Nansook, & Peterson, Christopher (2009). Strengths of character in schools. Handbook of positive psychology in schools, 65-76.
Shoshani, A., & Ilanit Aviv, I. (2012). The pillars of strength for first-grade adjustment – Parental and children’s character strengths and the transition to elementary school. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(4), 315-326.
Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2012). Middle school transition from the strengths perspective: Young adolescents’ character strengths, subjective well-being, and school adjustment. Journal of Happiness Studies.