How would you like to improve yourself? We’ve probably all paused to ask ourselves this question (perhaps around New Year’s). Maybe you aimed to start exercising or stop procrastinating. Or was it losing weight? Or working on a case of low self-esteem?
These are the goals people often list in online forums about self-improvement, and they share a common thread. When considering what they’d like to improve about themselves, people jump straight to weaknesses. If you ask people how they decide what to target, they say, “I look at what makes me unhappy or what I’m unsatisfied with,” or “I think about the areas of my life in which I’ve been struggling.” To improve, it’s said you should become aware of your bad habits and focus on recognizing your faults.
But why give so much attention to improving our weaknesses? Why not build on our strengths?
New research by psychologists Andreas Steimer and André Mata sheds light on these questions. The team found that people believe that they can change their weaknesses more than their strengths. In one study, people listed a personality trait that they saw as a central strength (something that they really liked about themselves). They also listed a personality trait that they saw as a central weakness (something that they really disliked about themselves). Then, these people answered questions about how changeable these traits are. For instance, they answered how much they agreed that this trait “is a part of me that I cannot change very much.” The results showed that people thought they would be able to work on their weaknesses more than their strengths.
Of course, a first step to self-improvement is often thinking about what you can control. Just think of how the Serenity Prayer (made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous) asks for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change. Believing that weaknesses are more changeable then strengths could lead us down this path of choosing to tackle our weaknesses when it comes to self-improvement. And there are obvious positives to believing that weaknesses can change, like inspiring a commitment to self-improvement.
This could have its downsides, though. We might end up wasting our time trying to get rid of a bad habit. Despite our best intentions, New Year’s resolutions often fail. These resolutions target weaknesses that are really hard to change. Psychologists who study “false hope syndrome” find that people are overconfident in their ability to change, and this leads people to set unrealistic goals for themselves. Someone might decide that they want to become more studious, and vow to spend every Friday night in the library. When they are tempted to go to a friend’s birthday party one Friday night instead, they may throw in the towel and give up on their goal entirely. If they’d set more reasonable goals (for example, to study one extra hour per week), they might have been able to stick with their plan for self-improvement. In fact, the researchers who conducted the study on beliefs about strengths and weaknesses found the further away someone were from who they wanted to be, the more they believed they could change themselves to become like this ideal person. Could the belief that weaknesses are changeable lead people to set unrealistic goals?
Even more interestingly: what opportunities might we miss out on if we simply accept the existence of our strengths? Neglecting the practice of strengths – failing to work on the good things that we already have – could overlook a source of happiness. In fact, programs designed to “train your strengths” can have benefits.
Some researchers have tested programs called “positive interventions” that give people the chance to uncover, explore, and practice their strengths. In one such program, people take a test to identify their top five character strengths, and then are tasked with using these strengths in a new and different way every day for a week. Researchers found that people who practiced their strengths in this way were happier and less depressed six months later.
Neglecting strengths might also have negative consequences. People may believe that their weaknesses will be lost over time, but that their strengths are there to stay. Because of this, we might not be very motivated to work on our strengths. Imagine a person who feels that they are a particularly kind person, and that this will never change. She or he might not take the time to cultivate kindness even further – for instance, to go out of her or his way to volunteer or help other people. Perhaps this person would instead let these habits slide, and – secure in her or his “kindness” – would actually become less kind over time. If we don’t actively engage with our strengths, we might see them fade.
So what can we do? Luckily, research shows that our beliefs about what we can and cannot change can themselves be changed. Changing these beliefs shapes how people deal with all sorts of setbacks in their lives, from low grades to breakups, and also shapes people’s goals. For example, if people believe that intelligence can be developed, they take on more challenging problems to improve their intelligence. If we choose to think about our ability to develop our strengths, we might seek out different opportunities for self-growth that capitalize on our strengths. One way to improve yourself is to sharpen a skill you already have.