Playing to your strengths leads to better performance and more positive emotions, says Lucy Bailey

Do you sometimes find yourself feeling stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts? Do you

  • Remember criticism more than compliments?
  • Recall unpleasant events more easily than pleasurable ones?
  • Jump to the negative reason why something has happened rather than the positive?

As human beings, we are more alert to negative events than positive ones. It is, after all, what helped us survive back when we were fighting sabre-tooth tigers! So, what is the role of positive emotion, and why does it matter?

The last couple of years have given us all reason to feel negative. The pandemic has disrupted our routines, changed how we work and reminded us how fragile life can be. In the chaos we forgot to look after ourselves, we became over-absorbed by what we couldn’t do, and we lost sight of what was important. In other words, we strengthened our human bias to the negative.

But while accentuating the negative can certainly help us stay safe and notice risks, taking note of the good stuff is just as useful.

The Role of Positive Emotions

People that experience more positive emotions not only live longer, but also have better physical health and stronger relationships, are better at problem solving and are much more likely to identify goals and see them through.[i] Positive emotions are a tool that can help us make it through the difficult moments, now and in the longer term.

It is important to know the things that make you experience positive emotions. If you have that awareness, you can start to build those activities in ahead of the times when you need your brain at its optimum, whether you are prepping for a board meeting, going into an exam, learning the latest IT system, organising the awayday or trying to keep everyone happy all at the same time.

One of my personal lifelines during lockdown was knowing my ‘feel good’ things and having a range of them, from short 1- to 2-minute things to longer activities that I knew would help me experience positive emotions. These acted as my recovery tool to help me through the times when I was anxious about my disabled parents and not able to help them as I normally would and when dealing with the different views in our house on the COVID-19 rules – my 25-year-old son had a different take on things!

In those days when I could feel things building up, when I started to feel the pressure – that’s when I did something that I knew would make me feel good. I didn’t wait until I was burnt out; I acted early and used positive emotions to help me through.

Something to Try

Make a list of all the things you already do that you know make you experience positive emotions: activities that make you feel cheerful, delighted, calm, hopeful, peaceful, enthusiastic, serene, proud, upbeat.

Note how long these things take to do. Do you have activities that take 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes and longer?

Look at the variety. Are they all outside, or do they cost money, or involve other people?

Think about the things you’ve heard about but have never tried, and ask yourself: What is stopping me from trying that?

Now make a pledge to build these activities into your day, every day for a week. Make it an intentional action; put it on the ‘to do’ list, stick to it and pay attention to what works, whether it helps restore your energy, what difference it makes.


Playing to Your Strengths

“Each of us has much more hidden inside us than we have had a chance to explore.” ~

Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor: The Story of Grammen Bank

Now isn’t that true! There are times in life when we are forced to think about our unique strengths and qualities – for example, when applying for college or university, interviewing for a new job or creating profiles for dating sites! Research has shown that understanding and using our strengths helps us to improve performance, strengthen relationships, reduce stress, increase happiness and deal with problems.

The thing is, we don’t always feel comfortable with what could be perceived as ‘boasting’ about ourselves. It’s almost like we need permission, a reason to do so and a trusted way of classifying what we are good at and where our strengths lie. The ground-breaking book Character Strengths and Virtues[ii] does just that.

The book offers a significant and deep dive into the psychological ingredients of the good in human beings. The work cuts across cultures, gender and geography to single out the positive traits in people. The result is a list of 24 character strengths that fall under six broad headings: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.

Each of us has a unique blend of the 24 strengths, which highlights how unique and individual we are, as “the number of potential character strengths profiles is greater than the number of people living on our planet.”[iii]

Identifying your strengths

A scientific tool has been developed to help individuals identify their unique strengths through a self-report survey. It’s freely available and has been used by over 21 million people across the globe.

The opportunity to explore my strengths using a validated tool that has been used by so many different people – now that is something I believe we should all do.

Imagine a scenario where a whole team have taken the survey, and then they come together to share their top five or six strengths, and each person is given a few minutes to share them and say something about

  • what their strengths mean to them
  • how they use their strengths
  • when their strengths might get in the way

Imagine the insight potential! Imagine how much better the team would get to know each other and what managers would learn about where and how to allocate work, and where staff felt motivated because they were able to play to their strengths.

Human beings remember criticism but respond to praise.

I don’t know about you, but I can remember a piece of criticism from years back; it’s there in the background, ready to pounce into the forefront of my mind in just the most unhelpful moments.

Something to Try

  • Take the FREE character strengths survey:
  • Identify your top 5 strengths
  • Over the next few weeks, make a note of when they are in play, when they are helpful and when they get in the way
  • Share your strengths with at least one other person and ask them to tell you about a time when they noticed them in you

I believe that if we focus on strengths, it not only feels nicer to give and receive the information, but it also means we are more likely to feel motivated and to work harder and smarter.

Most people want other people to think they are doing a good job; most people are doing a good job!

So why would we not start there – what are you good at, where do your strengths lie, what has gone well, what are the best bits of the situation?

This information will help us recognise our areas for development, but through the lens of our strengths, and will lead to better performance, more positive emotions and a greater sense of self.

[i] Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.

[ii] Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[iii] Quote from (Retrieved May 26, 2022).

Lucy Bailey is CEO and founder of Bounce Forward. She is proud of her beginnings as a youth worker and her 17 years of experience in developing, reforming and managing children’s services. Over the last 12 years, Lucy has focused on education. Her passion ... (Read More)

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