Signature Strengths and Happiness at Work (including MY Situation)

In the Science of Well-being course on Coursera, Professor Laurie Santos referenced a small study in 2012 called When the Job is a Calling, by Harzer & Ruch, that suggested those happiest at their jobs (in the sense of considering it a calling) were those who used 4 (up to 7) of their Signature Strengths (Top 5 or 7 Character Strengths). There were only 111 participants in that survey, which is hardly enough to be convincing for most people, even if the statistical derivations show there is “statistically significant” difference (i.e. on the graph, the thin vertical lines on the dot relating to 4 on the horizontal axis does not overlap those of dots for 3 or smaller). The mind just doesn’t buy into the math at some point, and just 111 participants is way below that point for me. Why they only had 111 participants is not known but I’d never publish anything with just that few numbers if it were only a matter of taking a survey rather than having to do heart surgeries!

What was concluded by Harzer & Ruch, though, had appeal and plausibility, and fits in the theories of positive psychology that generally considers that if we get to use our Signature Strengths in a lot of what we do, we would be happy. I especially like the optimal value of 4 Signature Strengths shown because I think beyond that, things get a little diluted for how often you can use each Signature Strength, and below that, it’d be too narrow a focus. I’d err with 5 rather than 3 as the second optimal choice, though. Regardless, Harzer’s & Ruch’s conclusion had enough of those elements that I am willing to believe it to be true enough to use in a general sense, if only needing a much larger survey to confirm. That is, it may not be the formula for everybody, hardly anything is for humans, but it’d be a good formula for most people not psychologically held back by conditions like depression that keeps them from experiencing happiness like most people do. In that sense, the conclusions were worth considering for me, and to test out. You can test for yourself if you go:

  • Do the free VIA Character Strengths assessment;
  • Get your Top 5 or 7 Character Strengths from your results that are your Signature Strengths;
  • Familiarize yourself with what those Signature Strengths are about as their names might not be what you think it is;
  • Identify what you do most at work in some general sense (e.g. time spent, frequency of general groupings of similar tasks);
  • See what Signature Strengths each grouping of work you do utilizes and write them out;
  • Count the number of unique Signature Strengths you identified above (i.e. something used more than once is only counted once);
  • Compare the number of unique Signature Strengths you use most at work to how happy you are about your job.

Does it fit in with Harzer and Ruch’s theory that if 4 or above, you are “quite happy” about it, and 3 or below, you are less than “quite happy”? If it doesn’t, perhaps ask yourself if it were something other than the work, like a bad boss, poor pay or work environment, etc. Maybe another way to look at it is if your job were the same job in better conditions (but realistic so not $1M per year for delivering pizza), would you be quite happy?

That’s the analysis I’m going to do now with my job.


MY Signature Strengths and MY Job

When I consider Signature Strengths, I consider the Top 7 of the 24 Character Strengths in positive psychology. That’s because for some exercises required to upkeep the Character Strengths and to use them frequently enough to be happy, I could focus on a different one a day. Also, with the 6 categories of Character Strengths, it’s not hard to get more than one Character Strength from a common category in a small grouping like of 5. Using 7 gives more options to minimize the number of Character Strengths from any common category, making use of one of my life philosophies about strength generally being found in diversity rather than in uniformity. That said, my Signature Strengths are:

  1. Creativity – A good part of what I do involves innovation, from looking for examples to share and coming up with some. I even get to put some visual and/or graphic design into things. There is no doubt I get to use my Creativity Signature Strength at work!
  2. Curiosity – Defined as, both, exploring new topics and expanding personal knowledge, the research I have to do at work fits both. Even the new things given to me to learn fits the latter because I am generally interesting in doing more than just learning what’s given, but more beyond that, sometimes on my own time. I definitely get to use my Curiosity Signature Strength at work!
  3. Honesty – This is about speaking the truth and being accountable. I am required to speak the truth at work, in general, even if not always in the moment. I am also required to be accountable, and sometimes wouldn’t have a choice if I didn’t want to be since it’d be hard to hide. However, this is about me being accountable, and I am very good at that to own up to my mistakes, my work’s quality, etc. when it is right for me to do so. I enjoy both uses of my Honesty Signature Strength at work!
  4. Hope – Hope is expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it. In my work situation, I feel I can expect this to be true of most things I work on after it leaves my hands due to high competency of the people above me who are the decision-makers. Because I don’t spend a lot of time hoping at work, nor creating hope, rather than doing the work, I will be harsh and say that I do not use my Hope Signature Strength at work.
  5. Humour My job is definitely not to make people laugh, though I get enough chances throughout the day to do so, whether at lunch or meetings or general conversation. Humour is also always in my suite of antidotes to every adversity, even if it’s often not the piece that resolves my adversities. That said, I don’t have a lot of adversities at work. Challenges, sure, which I love and thrive on, but not anything so troublesome to be called adversity. So like Hope above, I’ll be harsh and not count my Humour Signature Strength as one I use a lot of at work.
  6. Zest – This is about approaching life, and what you do in it, with excitement and enthusiasm, and not doing things half way or half-heartedly. This is a difficult one for me to call because I definitely go to work each day with excitement and enthusiasm, and definitely give it my all for what is asked. However, what is asked for isn’t always to the extent I’d like to take it, mostly for practicality of time and/or diminishing returns that is basically little benefit for the extra effort. I work for government, and government isn’t about extremes, in general. If you want to split hairs, then I’d say it’d be fair to give this a half point, if yes to using a Signature Strength was a point and no was zero points. However, seeing what else I have left on my Signature Strength list that I use a lot of, I’ll pass on this.
  7. Judgment – The way Judgment is described as a Character Strength can be better summed up as analysis, in my opinion: thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly. I have to do this in a lot of what I do at work given Strategist is in my job title. Some my work may be planning for the future, it is heavily dependent on what I know of the past and present first to draw conclusions or make “judgment” on things. My Signature Strength of Judgment is almost a signature task at work for me!

So pending how you want to count my Signature Strength as being well-used at work, Top 5 or Top 7 Character Strengths to count as Signature Strengths, your answer can vary between 3 to 5 Signature Strengths that I get to use at work. With 4 or 5 being both acceptable as a way to define one’s job to be meaningful, or provide happiness, possibly to the point of being considered a calling, I would definitely say the theory by Harzer & Ruch works very well for me in my current job. I am delighted to be there. I LOVE the work and the people around me. I know and feel like I have something valued to contribute. I’m in a policy shop with a say in some policy decisions, and hopefully more say as I grow in my career. In terms of purpose, that’s what I’m looking for. Decisions are ultimately made by the politicians so I can’t say I want that unless I run for political office, but that comes with a whole other set of Character Strengths I’m neither strong in, nor maybe want to use all that much as required for the politician job! 🙂

Of course, one example doesn’t satisfy me for being a good fit for anything. I don’t have the means to run my own, bigger survey in a reliable way at the moment, but wish someone would try. From my personal history, though, I can tell you the various jobs I’ve held in my life that I’ve liked or loved, have all fit the Harzer & Ruch model, generally at 4 Signature Strengths used of that Top 7. The various jobs I didn’t like so much, 3 or fewer Signature Strengths were used, often just 2 or 1. Among those jobs where the leadership was deemed incompetent by me (and many others around me), I did not use Hope. When it comes to leadership, as far as I am concerned, some people are beyond hope because of their selfish motivations. Recovery sorts of change, I am much more open to possibilities in humanity.


Career Advice?

Knowing what I know and now believe about Signature Strengths, has this changed my perspective on choosing careers? That is, career advice for myself and/or others? Yes, but only a little bit. I’ve never really subscribed to the “follow your passion” idea. Why can be found in this great and timely (recent) article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Passions are hard to confirm to oneself and aren’t often the most practical for a living, especially fresh out of the starting gates. I was prone to that mistake, though I didn’t consider it my passion as much as something I liked to do a lot.

I was formally trained as a chemist, but my field of work was too unhealthy despite all the care taken to limit exposure to chemicals. The labs I’d have spent my days in smelled. That’s all I needed to know. For a career change, I realized I really enjoyed doing graphic design in my volunteering at the time, so I pursued that with a diploma that was practical after 4 years of schooling just done. I taught myself the rest, and was very capable. However, the lack of proper credentials formally kept me from opportunities, despite doing some of the same work freelancing for less pay and having a great portfolio. I was going to be competing with new grads with more education but little experience almost forever. That’s when I did go back to school, but only for 2 years for a Masters rather 4 for a Bachelor Arts degree. I took a Masters that would allow me to do government policy work and help influence the immediate world around me in the smallest of ways, but which had some meaning for public impact that was more than just good looks for someone or some company. It was just a little public impact, but it was worthwhile to me. They don’t call government workers public servants for nothing, you know! I’ll make my greater impact that I want to ultimately have from my life through some means outside of the job. Like some people who wait tables to support themselves while waiting for their big break in acting or whatever it is they do, my public service job was going to be my table waiting job instead. Just a little scaled up, but so is my life goal of immortality (in the historical sense) compared to some people’s idea of their “big break”. 😉

So if not follow passions, how would someone know what’s the right job for them? I think testing out jobs following your passions is a good start, but in the Harzer & Ruch model. Identify your Signature Strengths (Top 7) after taking the VIA Character Strengths test. Then see what jobs you can think of that would use some combination of 4-7 of those Signature Strengths. Among them, throw in jobs that you think would allow you to follow your passions, and see how many Signature Strengths you’ll get to use.

Once you short list some jobs you think you might really enjoy using the Harzer & Ruch model (using 4-7 of your Signature Strengths), then comes real life considerations of practicality. Can you train (or afford to train) for them? Do they have good prospects where you live, or somewhere you are willing to live, and in the future to some extent? Do they pay enough for you to have the lifestyle you want? What sacrifices are you willing to make if some of the answers were less than ideal, for the sake of happiness? And whatever else you can think of in rating your short list, to shorten it further, and pick from that. It’s the balanced approached advised in that great CBC article. That’d be my advice, to young and old alike. The older people might have more means to fall back upon to sacrifice more in terms of money, and maybe fewer years to think about, but they may also have more constraint like kids to raise rather than being, generally, relatively free upon graduating with their first degree.


To see more posts related to the Science of Well-being course, please click here.

And click here if you want to register for the Science of Well-being course, by Professor Laurie Santos, free on Coursera!

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