When we’re able to tap into our personal strengths the experience is energizing. We feel happier, more confident and productive, and our anxieties get pushed to one side. In pointing out these positives it perhaps becomes clear that optimal performance is somewhat different to those tasks we might perform perfectly well but then feel absolutely nothing inside as a result of doing them.
Many people feel the ‘real me’ comes from a hobby or activity they do outside work. Perhaps they get the same buzz from an aspect of their day job, ‘I could do this all day’. Many volunteers feel a greater balance in their lives because of what they are doing. It’s because the feelings they get are all positive. Whether it’s a hobby, a task or a voluntary activity the fact is you are drawing on personal strengths that provide some sense of purpose and direction. You feel good because there’s a confidence that comes with following a direction that feels entirely comfortable to you.
When I was involved in the preparation of teachers one of the areas I focused on was getting students to identify and articulate their personal strengths. Most found it a really challenging task and tended to fall back on a couple of platitudes about the skills they’d developed over time. We’re so used to trying to avoid mistakes or improve on perceived weaknesses that we struggle to turn things around. This is not the same as showing off but because we’re so attuned to concerns about shortcomings it actually becomes necessary to provide a simple structure to work from. For example, could you list those aspects of your personality you view as strengths? Maybe you’re kind, considerate and fair, that sort of thing. Now, list the things you enjoy doing as activities (music, cooking, gardening, etc.) Finally, would you be brave enough to ask close friends or relatives to tell you what they think your strengths are. Do these square with what you thought or are there revelations?
The release of such positive energy results in a host of benefits for mental health. Optimal performance generates optimism and helps build resilience. In effect we protect ourselves against all manner of mental health problems as we achieve and set new goals. The better we perform, the better we feel and the more positive the effect. Doing things simply because you love it and losing all sense of time while you’re about it are signs you’ve tapped into your strengths and are operating at an optimal level. If this means very little to you perhaps it’s time to sit back and reflect on whether things can change in order to allow you these experiences.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.