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Counselling Psychology Quarterly
ISSN: 0951-5070 (Print) 1469-3674 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccpq20
Finding the golden mean: the overuse, underuse,
and optimal use of character strengths
Ryan M. Niemiec
To cite this article: Ryan M. Niemiec (2019): Finding the golden mean: the overuse,
underuse, and optimal use of character strengths, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2019.1617674
Published online: 20 May 2019.
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Finding the golden mean: the overuse, underuse, and
optimal use of character strengths
Ryan M. Niemiec
VIA Institute on Character, Cincinnati, OH, USA
The science of well-being has catalyzed a tremendous amount of
research with no area more robust in application and impact than
the science of character strengths. As the empirical links between
character strengths and positive outcomes rapidly grow, the research
around strength imbalances and the use of strengths with problems
and conﬂicts is nascent. The use of character strengths in understand-
ing and handling life suﬀering as well as emerging from it, is particularly
aligned within second wave positive psychology. Areas of particular
promise include strengths overuse and strengths underuse, alongside
its companion of strengths optimaluse.Thelatterisviewedasthe
golden mean of character strengths which refers to the expression of
the right combination of strengths, to the right degree, and in the right
situation. This paper discusses these constructs, maps out each across
24 universal character strengths, and deliberates on reasons for over-
use and underuse. Practical strategies for counselors to support clients
in the pursuit of optimal strengths use and the management of overuse
andunderuseareoutlined.Theseinclude thoughts on wise interven-
tions, the tempering eﬀect, the towing eﬀect, direct questioning, mind-
fulness, strengths-spotting, the use of a leading strengths model
(aware-explore-apply), and eliciting feedback from others.
Received 28 February 2019
Accepted 8 May 2019
strengths overuse; strengths
underuse; optimal use;
second wave positive
psychology; golden mean
The middle way.
The golden mean.
The doctrine of the mean.
The goldilocks principle.
Across time and cultures, the good life or the fulﬁlled life has rested in the balance
between the extremes of too much and too little, as captured in the principles noted
above from the wisdom of the Buddha, Aristotle, Confucius, and even popular fairytales,
respectively. The application of this idea with universal character strengths is a bullseye
for approaches to personal development and counseling and in modern day language is
referred to with terms such as the optimal use of strengths, the strengths zone, balanced
strengths use, the golden mean of character strengths, and the sweet spot of strengths
CONTACT Ryan M. Niemiec email@example.com
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Positive psychology, or the science of well-being, is “nothing more than the scientiﬁc
study of ordinary human strengths and virtues”(Sheldon & King, 2001, p. 216). It is an
umbrella term for those theories and research studies involving what makes life worth
living (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). One of the
foundations of this science is the VIA work –the VIA Classiﬁcation of Character Strengths
and the VIA Inventory of Strengths (known colloquially as the VIA Survey). VIA was
previously used as an acronym for “values in action,”however, now stands on its own.
The word, in Latin, means “the way”or “by means of,”and is apropos for the bridging
function of this character strengths work which is to bridge science and practice and to
provide a pathway to well-being and the various positive outcomes humans pursue.
Character strengths are positive traits existing in degrees that are reﬂected in our
thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and are predispositions toward moral excellence (Park
et al., 2004). Good character is not the absence of deﬁcits, rather is a family of positive
characteristics (Park & Peterson, 2009). The VIA Classiﬁcation of Character Strengths is
the result of a three-year process involving 55 scientists interested in exploring the
question: What’s best in human beings? (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The result was 24
character strengths, nesting under six larger categories of virtues, which were deﬁned by
these researchers as those core characteristics valued by philosophers and theologians
over the centuries. The VIA Inventory of Strengths is the free, scientiﬁcally valid mea-
surement tool that assesses the 24 strengths; it has been taken by approximately
8 million people, translated into 41 languages, and is taken by someone in the world
every 15 seconds. There are now 15 valid measures of character strengths and virtues
freely available to researchers (see McGrath, 2017, for the technical manual). The science
continues to mount on this grouping of positive traits and over the last several years,
well over 500 peer-reviewed articles have been published describing, exploring, or
applying these character strengths and consistently discovering a wide range of well-
being outcomes associated with them (Niemiec, 2018; VIA Institute, 2019).
Counseling psychologists and therapists who become aware of this work are scram-
bling to understand and apply this new science that now has a myriad of best practices
to help clients. While counselors are naturally curious about the transformative well-
being and depression ﬁndings around individuals’highest character strengths called
signature strengths (e.g., see meta-analysis by Schutte & Malouﬀ,2018) as well as the
value of understanding all the general categories of strengths a client has (i.e. referred to
as talents/intelligences, skills, resources/supports, values, and interests/passions;
Niemiec, 2018), there is a third area that captivates the attention of practitioners. It is
the concepts of strengths overuse, underuse, and optimal use. In other words, clients
(and practitioners) will often bring forth their best personality traits too strongly or too
weakly in a given situation and can be guided to discover the optimal use of these
character strengths. The optimal use of character strengths provides a pathway for
individual well-being and life satisfaction as well as management of problems
(Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, & Niemiec, 2017).
The overuse, underuse, and optimal use of strengths are closely aligned with second
wave positive psychology (Ivtzan, Lomas, Heﬀeron, & Worth, 2016; Wong, 2011) which
focuses on the science and practice around confronting, navigating, and transcending
suﬀering and life problems as well as learning how positive character, resilience, mind-
fulness, and meaning can bring illumination to such problems. In the ﬁeld of character
2R. M. NIEMIEC
strengths, there is the dialectic of learning and growing from the positives of these
qualities as well as from the imbalances of these qualities (when strengths are brought
forth too strongly or too weakly). It is in this dialectic in the pursuit of balance in
strengths expressions (Wong, 2016) that second wave positive psychology and character
strengths synergize and oﬀer new wisdom of exploration and application reﬂecting both
ancient philosophies and contemporary research. According to a recent theory of
character strengths, in order to discover thriving, a person must both make the most
of and create opportunities in life as well as handle and overcome life adversities; the
person’s character strengths are an immediate mechanism for doing so through
a variety of functions including priming, buﬀering, reappraisal, mindfulness, apprecia-
tion, and resilience (Niemiec, 2019a). For this paper, I’ll expand upon these theories of
thriving and second wave positive psychology through the exploration of the latest
concepts, research, and practices around the imbalance (overuse and underuse) and
balance (optimal use) of our character strengths. These ideas and ﬁndings oﬀer a new
perspective on suﬀering and point toward a path of growth therein (e.g., Freidlin et al.,
2017; Littman-Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019).
Underuse of character strengths
As character strengths are positive traits that bring beneﬁt to ourselves and others, if we
do not bring forth a particular character strength in a situation, we are not bringing
enough of ourselves, central parts of our personality, to the situation. This common
phenomenon in which we are not bringing forth one of our strength capacities in
a particular situation and there is a resulting negative impact on ourselves or others is
referred to as the underuse of character strengths (Niemiec, 2018). The well-being
beneﬁts of enhancing character strengths use, as shown in multiple interventions
studies, are clear (e.g., Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2013; Proyer, Gander,
Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2015; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In addition, there
are numerous studies showing distinct beneﬁts across life domains, such as work
productivity (Harzer & Ruch, 2014), improved coping and less stress at work (Harzer &
Ruch, 2015), multiple positive classroom behaviors (Weber, Wagner, & Ruch, 2016),
improved relationships (Lavy, Littman-Ovadia, & Bareli, 2014), and positive physical
health outcomes (Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2013).
A person can underuse any of the 24 character strengths, not only the strengths
lowest in their strengths proﬁle. Examples of underuse of character strengths include the
person who does not bring forth much bravery to stand up for someone being teased,
not enough perseverance and quickly gives up on a work project, no forgiveness to
someone who wronged them that is asking for a release from their burden, or only
minimal curiosity in not asking many questions to support someone who is struggling.
The reasons for such underuse are myriad and based on individual personality and
contextual factors. One person might not have the skill to bring forth a given
strength to match it well for the situation at hand (see Stichter, 2015, for the virtue
as a skill model). Another person might not have the mindful awareness that they
could or should act. For still others, it might be simple oversight that they forgot to
use their strengths, that they perceive their strengths are undervalued by others, or
that they are afraid they will be judged or not accepted if they use their strengths
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 3
(e.g., if they bring forth honesty or bravery to confront someone they will be met
with anger). In many cases, individuals experience strength erosion where the char-
acter strength has faded over time from a lack of attention or use which may be
related to situational factors (e.g., having a job that does not allow for curious
questioning or creative expression) or personal factors (e.g. giving priority to other
strengths, inattention to one’s strengths, or a traitlike preoccupation with the nega-
tive). The underuse of character strengths often comes down to an issue of capacity –
the person, for one reason or another, has not fully developed their capacity for use
of one or more of their strengths.
The issue of capacity is one of mindset and behavior. A mindset capacity for character
strengths is one in which the individual is aware of their strengths, is informed by their
own skills and knowledge to bring them forth, is proactive in looking for opportunities
to use them at diﬃcult times, mundane times, and positive times, and pursues a mindset
around a balanced approach between too much and too little. The behavioral capacity
refers to the individual readily taking action in using their character strengths in a range
of settings, with people, and when alone. This means the person is practiced in using
strengths in the past and their mindset of looking for ways to use character strengths at
times of opportunity and adversity is brought into actionable behaviors in their life.
These two capacities interrelate and mutually enhance one another; as the individual
builds a mindset capacity for strengths, the capacity for strengths-based behaviors
widens, and as the person puts a strength into behavioral action the mindset potential
Table 1 oﬀers several lenses of the diﬀerent dimensions of underuse and overuse for
each of the 24 character strengths.
Overuse of character strengths
Scientists have found that a wide range of variables that we typically view as “positive”
can go too far (Le et al., 2011). Despite the positive valence of all 24 character strengths,
this applies to each of the character strengths which appear to have an upper limit
(Grant & Schwartz, 2011). Described as the “too-much-of-a-good-thing-eﬀect,”empirical
evidence shows there is this upper limit to individual creativity, task performance, job
performance, satisfaction, team innovation, and leadership eﬀectiveness, to name a few
(Busse, Mahlendorf, & Bode, 2016). In addition, this has been applied to virtuous goals
(i.e., positive-oriented goals such as eating healthy, getting organized, sharing a personal
issue); in one study, the researchers found that people who set and planned around one
virtuous goal in their life did better than those who set and planned around six virtuous
goals (Dalton & Spiller, 2012).
The overuse of some of the 24 character strengths has been given more attention
than others as reﬂected in studies on leadership (Antonakis, House, & Simonton, 2017),
humor (Bitterly, Brooks, & Schweitzer, 2017), and creativity (Clark & James, 1999), in
particular. Research on couples who perceive their partner is overusing their character
strengths is associated with negative variables such as relationship dissatisfaction
(Kashdan et al., 2018).
When a strength is overused, it is having a negative impact on oneself or others so
can no longer be considered a positive strength –it has become something else –such
4R. M. NIEMIEC
as a negative habit or trait (Niemiec, 2018). For example, the overuse of curiosity in
asking a fearful new client far too many questions about a sensitive area is no longer the
positive trait called curiosity, it has entered into intrusiveness or being nosey. Often,
when a person is overusing their character strengths they have brought the strength to
the wrong situation (Peterson, 2006) and have lost the bigger picture reality of the
situation, misinterpreting the people around them or the surrounding context. The
person high in perseverance may become stuck in the modus operandi of their deter-
mined nature to ﬁnish a project while each of their teammates conclude the project
cannot be completed and the team must simply give it up and face the sunk costs; but,
the persevering person (no longer using the positive trait of perseverance and instead
Table 1. A language for understanding the overuse and underuse of character strengths.
Character strength Underuse Overuse
Creativity Conforming; plain/dull; unimaginative Eccentric; odd; scattered
Curiosity Bored; uninterested; apathetic; self-involved Nosy; intrusive, self-serving
Illogical; naïve; unreﬂective; closed-minded Narrow-minded; cynical; rigid; indecisive;
lost in one’s head
Love of Learning Smug; complacent with knowledge or growth;
Know-it-all; elitist; overwhelming
Perspective Shallow; superﬁcial; lacking conﬁdence Overbearing; arrogant; disconnected
Bravery Cowardly; unwilling to act; unwilling to be
Risk-taking; foolish; overconﬁdent;
unconcerned of others’reactions
Perseverance Lazy; helpless; giving up Stubborn; struggles to let go; ﬁxated
Honesty Phony; dishonest; inauthentic; lacking integrity Self-righteous; rude; inconsiderate
Zest Sloth-like; passive; sedentary; tired Hyper; overactive; annoying
Love Isolating; cut-oﬀfrom others; afraid to care; not
Emotional overkill; misaligned with
others’needs; sugary sweet/touchy-
Kindness Indiﬀerent; selﬁsh; uncaring to yourself; mean-
Compassion-fatigue; intrusive; overly
focused on others
Social Intelligence Clueless; disconnected; socially naïve; emotionally
Over-analytical; self-deception; overly
Teamwork Self-serving; individualistic; going it alone Dependent; lost in groupthink; blind
obedience; loss of individuality
Fairness Prejudice; partisanship; complacency Detached; indecisive on justice issues;
Leadership Follower; compliant and mousy; passive Bossy; controlling; authoritarian
Forgiveness Vengeful; merciless; easily triggered by others Permissive; doormat; too lenient or soft
Humility Arrogant; braggadocio; self-focused; heavy ego
Self-deprecation; limited self-image;
subservient; withholding about
Prudence Reckless; thrill-seeking; acting before thinking Stuﬀy; prudish; rigid; passive
Self-Regulation Self-indulgent; emotional dysregulation; impulsive;
Constricted; inhibited; tightly wound;
Oblivious; stuck in autopilot; mindlessness Snobbery; perfectionistic; intolerant;
Gratitude Entitled; unappreciative; self-absorbed Ingratiation; contrived; profuse;
Hope Negative; pessimistic; past-oriented; despair Unrealistic; Pollyanna-ish; head in the
clouds, blind optimism
Humor Overly serious; stilted/stiﬀ;ﬂat aﬀect Tasteless/oﬀensive; giddy; socially
Spirituality Lack of purpose or meaning in life; disconnected
from what is sacred; unaware of core values
Preachy/proselytizing; fanatical; rigid
values; holier than thou
Adapted from Niemiec (2014,2018). The VIA Classiﬁcation of 24 strengths is copyright VIA Institute on Character and
used with permission.
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 5
using stubbornness or a negative ﬁxation) keeps going despite a negative impact on
their health and the team.
Individuals are naturally interested in expressing themselves and desire to express
their most central qualities to others (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002; Kim & Ko,
2007; Rogers, 1951). When this is done without mindful attention of themselves or the
situation, the result can be a mindless overplay of their best qualities which has
a negative impact on others. A variety of factors might partially explain why someone
may be overusing their character strengths. Virtues scholar, Nancy Snow (2016)oﬀers
the concepts of forcing, impulsivity, overthinking, and perfectionistic standards as ways
virtues can become overplayed or unbalanced. These can be explained and applied to
character strengths in the following ways. Forcing: An individual might pressure oneself
to forgive someone else when it doesn’t feel right, or force in humor when it’s socially
inappropriate. Impulsivity: Someone may impulsively use their zest without thinking of
the impact on others ﬁrst thing in the morning before others have had their coﬀee.
Overthinking: An individual might become riddled with indecisiveness by overthinking
the multitude of scenarios by means of their strength of judgment/critical thinking.
Perfectionistic standards: The person high in appreciation of beauty and excellence may
ﬁnd themselves constantly upholding unrealistic or imbalanced standards with their
work projects or in their relationships. As with underuse, the sometimes subtle phenom-
enon of overuse of character strengths can vary in many ways due to individual
diﬀerences and situational factors.
A model of optimal use of character strengths: emerging research
Thousands of years ago, Aristotle (4th BCE/2000), a practical philosopher, emphasized an
approach to living, working, playing, and relating that was characterized by a balance in
virtuous expression, a golden mean. The emphasis was placed on virtues being the
positive and desirable balance between two opposites, that of excess and deﬁciency.
Modern day researchers in strengths have reignited this work as an important compo-
nent of strengths-based approaches (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, & Minhas, 2011; Linley,
2008; Niemiec, 2014; Rashid & Seligman, 2018) and is aligned with the direction of what
other scholars in the ﬁeld have argued for (Fowers, 2008; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006). The
lead researcher of the development of the VIA Classiﬁcation and VIA Survey, Chris
Peterson (2006), oﬀered some thoughts on an alternative DSM (Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) by hypothesizing “disorders”of character
strengths with dimensions he named strength exaggeration, absence, and opposite.
For example, for the strength of bravery, he named its exaggeration as foolhardiness, its
absence as fright, and its opposite as cowardice. In testing this hypothetical approach
with practitioners, educators, and scholars across the globe, this model fell ﬂat, repeat-
edly, from a practical perspective, often leading practitioners feeling the approach was
too erudite, complex, and confusing. Yet, it provided a good foundation for important
In echoing Aristotle’s golden mean and continuum concepts, Niemiec (2014) revised
the framework by simplifying it to overuse, underuse, and optimal use for the 24
character strengths, while expanding its application not solely to psychopathology but
as applicable to all human beings. Figure 1 shows this model as a continuum for
6R. M. NIEMIEC
strengths use where the further one goes oﬀ-center in either direction there is more
steep and serious overuse and underuse. As this is a shift in degree in each direction,
there are degrees of optimal use for a given situation and subtle shifts to where the
strengths use begins to slowly impact oneself or others in a negative way to where the
use becomes overuse or underuse. This model has consistently shown to be a strong ﬁt
for strengths-based practitioners across the globe for a number of reasons, including 1)
Clarity and accessibility of the constructs and language, i.e., the words for overuse and
underuse are readily understandable and diverse thereby aﬀording easy accessibility for
client’s understanding and insights; 2) The precision of the model; i.e. a continuum of
strengths use with overuse and underuse on either end of a spectrum and optimal-use
in the center is easy to explain and digest. This contrasts with the previously mentioned
model in which constructs around “absence”and “opposite”sometimes overlapped and
confused practitioners and clients; 3) The ease of informal assessment for clients; e.g.
a practitioner might quickly ask a client, How are you overusing your strengths with that
stressor? Were you underusing your bravery in that situation?; and 4) The ease of
application for clients; e.g. Let’s explore what optimal use of curiosity might look like
with your distressed colleague or How might you use your social intelligence to boost
your gratitude in your next conversation with your mother? 5) Other developments
include a formal measurement tool to assess these constructs and subsequent research
support for this model of overuse, underuse, and optimal-use, to be shared later in this
In order to qualify as overuse or underuse, the character strength must be causing
sub-optimal or a negative impact of some kind upon oneself or others. As this is
a continuum of use, the degree of the impact will vary based on the severity of the
strengths overuse or underuse. An important distinction to note is these concepts are
distinct from what is termed the “misuse of character strengths”or the “dark side”which
refers to the malevolent use of character –the use of a strength with the intention of
manipulating or harming another person (Niemiec, 2018). While the person who
overuses or underuses their character strengths has been mindless in the moment or
has miscalibrated their strengths, this is not a deliberate intention to harm; in contrast,
the person who misuses strengths is using their capacities in a devious or manipulative
way to harm others. For example, an individual may use their social intelligence to tune
in to another person’s vulnerability areas of need and take advantage of them. Another
person might use their creativity in an e-mail scam intending to steal money from
a bank account while another individual might use their curiosity or humor with the
intention of charming and disarming someone and then abducting them. Research has
also supported this notion of misuse or the dark side and examined certain character
strengths from this perspective. For example, several studies have examined “malevolent
Underuse Optimal Use Overuse
Figure 1. Continuum of character strengths underuse and overuse, along with optimal use (Niemiec,
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 7
creativity,”deﬁned as the deliberate intention to harm, such as an employee stealing
company secrets to bring down a company that is doing good (Cropley, Kaufman, White,
& Chiera, 2014). The misuse of courage/bravery has also been explored and explained as
“bad courage”as when an individual sees a particular goal as good, whereas society
views that particular goal as harmful (Pury, Starkey, Kulik, Skjerning, & Sullivan, 2015).
A terrorist expressing bravery as a suicide bomber with a clear intention to harm would
be one example of this character strength being misused.
As mentioned, there have been a number of scholars theorizing about overuse and
underuse, however, until recently no empirical studies had been conducted. Following the
creation of a measurement tool, Overuse, Underuse, Optimal Use of Character Strengths
(OUOU) survey (Freidlin et al., 2017), a number of researchers have begun experimental
studies. The ﬁrst empirical study to examine such character strengths imbalances found that
the overuse and underuse of character strengths were signiﬁcantly associated with less
ﬂourishing, less life satisfaction, and greater depression while the optimal use of character
strengths was associated with greater ﬂourishing and life satisfaction, and less depression
(Freidlin et al., 2017). This study also found that the underuse of strengths was far more of
a problem across each variable than the overuse of character strengths; however, both overuse
and underuse were independently substantial. A second study replicated each of these
previous ﬁndings (Littman-Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019). In addition, these two studies examined
combinations of overuse and underuse with diﬀerent psychological disorders. The ﬁrst study
took a fresh look at social anxiety disorder, through these lenses. A particular combination of
six overuse/underuse phenomena correctly sorted 87.3% of people as either having or not
having social anxiety disorder. This combination was the overuse of social intelligence and
humility, and the underuse of humor, social intelligence, self-regulation, and zest (Freidlin et al.,
2017). The second study brought a new lens to obsessive-compulsive disorder and found the
combination of the overuse of judgment, social intelligence, appreciation of beauty and
excellence, fairness, and prudence, as well as the underuse of forgiveness and self-
regulation, to correctly sort 89.3% of people into those that have or do not have clinical levels
of OCD (Littman-Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019). These studies underlie what might be termed
strengths overuse and underuse clusters as these particular clusters of imbalance revealed
new insights into these well-studied, established disorders. While these results need to be
replicated before further conclusions are drawn about these disorders or treatment protocols
developed, they point to unique pathways to advance, complement and support existing
research and practice in diagnosing and treating people with psychopathology and other
Optimal strengths use, therefore, reﬂects the balance among minor or major
extremes. It assumes that in each situation of any context, a strengths sweet spot or
strengths zone, no matter how narrow for the circumstance, can be pursued by coun-
selors and clients for beneﬁts relating to well-being and problem management.
Ultimately, the movement toward such a “golden mean”means to apply the right
combination of character strengths to the right degree and in the right situation
(Niemiec, 2014). Table 2 oﬀers some language for each strength that describes optimal
strengths use and the essence of each strength. In addition, the three most highly
correlated character strengths are oﬀered for each strength to provide additional insight
around the potential of optimal strengths use, as the reality is character strengths are
expressed in combinations rather than in isolation of one strength at a time. These
8R. M. NIEMIEC
correlations come from a dataset of more than 458,000 subjects from the VIA Institute
database and analyzed by McGrath (2013).
Discovering optimal use: practical approaches for counselors
Initial points of reﬂection
While the area of character strengths interventionsisevolvingandrapidlyexpandinginterms
of practical applications for practitioners to use (see Niemiec, 2018), evidence-based
Table 2. The optimal use of character strengths.
Character strength Optimal use Top character strength correlates
Creativity Uniqueness that is practical; original, clever, imaginative Curiosity; bravery; perspective
Curiosity “Explorer,”intrigued, open, novelty-seeker Zest; love of learning; creativity
Seeing 360 degrees of details; analytical, detail oriented,
open-minded, rational, logical
Perspective; prudence; honesty
Love of Learning Going deep with knowledge; information-seeking;
Curiosity; appreciation of beauty &
Perspective Sees and oﬀers the wider review; wise; integrating
viewpoints beyond one’s own
Social intelligence; judgment/critical
Bravery Facing fears; confronting adversity; valor Perspective; social intelligence;
Perseverance Task completer; persistent and gritty; overcoming all
Self-regulation; honesty; hope
Honesty True to oneself, authentic to others; truth-sharer and
seeker; sincere; without pretense
Perseverance; perspective; kindness
Zest Enthusiasm for life; happy; active; energized Hope; curiosity; gratitude
Love Genuine, reciprocal warmth; connected; relational
Gratitude; kindness; zest
Kindness Doing for others; caring; compassionate; generous; nice
Gratitude; teamwork; leadership
Social Intelligence Tuned in, then savvy; knowing what makes others tick;
empathic; emotionally intelligent
Perspective; leadership; bravery
Teamwork Participative; contributing to group eﬀorts; loyal; socially
Leadership; kindness; fairness
Fairness Champions equal opportunity for all; care- and justice-
based; moral concern
Leadership; teamwork; forgiveness
Leadership Positively inﬂuencing others; organizing groups; leading
around a vision
Fairness; teamwork; kindness
Forgiveness Letting go of hurt when wronged; giver of second
changes; accepting shortcomings
Fairness; leadership; teamwork
Humility Clear view of oneself; focuses attention on others; sees
own limitations; modest
Prudence; fairness; honesty
Prudence Wisely cautious; thinks before speaks; planful; goal-
Judgment/critical thinking; humility;
Self-Regulation Self-manager of vices; mindful; disciplined Perseverance; zest; hope
Seeing the life behind things; awe/wonder in the
presence of beauty; admiration for excellence;
elevation for the goodness of others
Gratitude; curiosity; love of learning
Gratitude Attitude of thankfulness; connected; appreciating
Kindness; love; hope
Hope Positive expectations; optimistic; conﬁdence in goals and
Zest; gratitude; perspective
Humor Laughter/joy with others; seeing the lighter side; playful Social intelligence; zest; kindness
Spirituality Connecting with the sacred; pursuing life meaning;
ﬁnding purpose; expressing virtues
Gratitude; hope; zest
Content gathered from Niemiec (2018).
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 9
interventions focusing on the constructs of strengths overuse, underuse, and optimal use are
embryonic. The intention here is to oﬀer new perspectives and strategies in these areas for
purposes of boosting well-being and bringing balance and reappraisal to problems. The
approaches oﬀered here are based on the emerging research as well as feedback from large
numbers of workshop participants across the globe and from pioneering practitioners using
A few considerations of note prior to deploying these interventions: overuse and underuse
are neither purely deﬁcit-based, in the same way as labeling a psychological or medical
disorder, nor are they purely strength-based, in the same way as labeling a character strength.
They sit in a grey area between these approaches as they reinterpret or reframe problems,
labels, and challenges while simultaneously focusing on something that is positive yet
imbalanced or problematic in a situation. Overuse and underuse of character strengths
provide a radical yet practical reframe for diagnoses, problems, and other forms of suﬀering –
they are not a replacement to these approaches but are complementary.
A practical consideration for counselors is to be attuned to client biases and tenden-
cies toward the negativity mindset, self-criticism, and perfectionism. The topics of over-
use and underuse are important for such clients on the impossible pursuit of perfection
as the framing of such issues with strengths language can be positively impactful (e.g.,
a perfectionistic manager may come to see her behavioral patterns as the overuse of
appreciation of beauty and excellence while the highly self-judging teacher might learn
to view his patterns as the underuse of self-forgiveness and the underuse of self-
kindness). That said, if such clients instead turn the overuse and underuse of character
strengths into another pathway for self-deprecation or failed perfectionistic pursuits as
they explore with futility every nuance of their life from the perspective of strengths
overuse/underuse, the counselor may need to weave in additional approaches. In such
cases, training in self-compassion can be a good complement to working on overuse
and underuse and is an area with mounting scientiﬁc support (Neﬀ& Vonk, 2009).
Another area of psychological science that can inform these approaches is known as
wise interventions. The new science of wise interventions refers to the creation of simple
activities that target an underlying psychological issue and act like a change lever in
a speciﬁc context (Walton, 2014). Practitioners can look to apply questioning, activities,
and homework around strengths overuse and underuse tailored to the right situation
and time for their clients’unique needs and areas of development.
Aﬁnal point of reﬂection is not only are strengths overuse and underuse subjective
by nature and subject to our own and others’interpretations (although science attempts
to be objective), strengths overuse and underuse are not always a bad thing. In some
situations, we might intentionally overuse or underuse a character strength because it
supports a longer-term goal, it preserves another person’s feelings, is our preference for
a particular situation, or it is simply the best we can do and we fall short. For example,
a person might feign their strength of humor to ﬁt into an uncomfortable social
situation or bring forth an uncharacteristic level of kindness (but less honesty) in order
to help a struggling friend. Recent research has found that we can successfully make
such changes to our personality by “acting as if”(i.e., faking it) with the trait we are
desiring to express (Blackie, Roepke, Forgeard, Jayawickreme, & Fleeson, 2014; Fleeson,
2001; Fleeson, Malanos, & Achille, 2002). Paradoxically, the individual is intentionally
trying to play up (or in their mind overplay or underplay) their typical level of humor or
10 R. M. NIEMIEC
another strength to beneﬁt themselves or others. In some cases, as long as it does not
have the intention to do harm, it may be the optimal strengths use for that situation.
Practitioners can systematically and strategically integrate questions on character strengths,
and strengths overuse, underuse, and optimal use into their initial interviews, assessments, and
discussions with clients. This gives the practitioner a more complete view of their clients as well
as an immediate understanding of the client’s potential inner resources to draw out to help
them reach the goals of their counseling and to manage the obstacles and problems along the
way. Many practitioners begin by having clients complete the free VIA Inventory of Strengths
(www.viacharacter.org) before, during, or after a session and then review the client’sresults.
This serves as the catalyst for strengths exploration. It is generally recommended to ﬁrst spend
time understanding the client’s reactions to the results of this assessment as well as exploring
the use of strengths. After the client has come to endorse and appreciate their various
character strengths, then it might be useful to explore overuse and underuse of strengths.
Here are some lines of questioning to elicit insights for clients, speciﬁctostrengthsoveruseand
●What does it look like when you bring forth one of your top strengths –your
signature strengths –too strongly? How does that overuse impact others? Yourself?
●What does it look like when you forget to use one of your character strengths or
you bring it forth too weakly? How does that underuse impact others? Yourself?
●Share a recent problem or stressor. Which of your character strengths were you
overusing that may have contributed to the issue? Which of your character
strengths were you underusing?
●When was a recent situation in which you feel as if you did not bring your best self
forward? (likely taps into underuse).
●Has the use of your character strengths ever gotten you in trouble? How so? (likely
taps into overuse).
●Consider a time when someone at home or work said they were upset or frustrated
with you. If you look at the situation honestly, what character strengths do you
think you were underusing there? Overusing?
●When do you ﬁnd that you get irritated or upset by others? Are you overplaying or
underplaying any of your character strengths in these situations?
Implement the strengths model of AEA
The Aware-Explore-Apply model (AEA) is the typical process by which practitioners and
clients work with character strengths (Niemiec, 2014,2018). The actions of these three
steps were shown in a controlled intervention study to boost strengths use and well-
being among workers (Dubreuil et al., 2016). The ﬁrst phase is the cultivation of
awareness to break strengths blindness patterns and support the client in coming to
see they have a variety of positive qualities. Next is the exploration of these strengths as
past use, future use, current use, use with problems, and use at good times are explored.
The third phase involves gathering one’s learnings and insights from the earlier phases
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 11
and making a plan by setting goals and taking action. This model can be applied to not
only strengths use but to overuse and underuse. Within this model, an exploration of
strengths overuse and underuse can naturally be woven in. By use of questions and
points of dialogue similar to those mentioned in the previous section, the practitioner
supports the client in newfound points of awareness and exploration around their
strengths overuse and underuse. The apply phase then takes a number of forms from
using a strategy mentioned in this section to keeping a self-monitoring log or journal on
overuse/underuse to discussions with others exploring situation in which strength
When it comes to strengths overuse and underuse, everything starts with awareness. The
practice of mindfulness is that ﬁrst step that brings clients to understand themselves from
a new lens. Mindfulness practice catalyzes what’sreferredtoas“beginner’s mind”which
means to see oneself, others, tasks, and routines as if for the ﬁrst time, which in turn, helps
to catalyze learning and growth (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013). Mindful strengths use is
the type of integration in which the lens of mindfulness helps individuals to see the
context, notice the dynamics of the people in it, and not only be aware of character
strengths but to bring them forth strongly and in an optimal way (Niemiec, 2014).
Aristotelian philosophers have explained that Aristotle’s(2000) concept of phronesis,
or practical wisdom, involves managing the imbalance of virtues and strengths so that
they do not turn into vices and negative habits. Some have said phronesis can be best
interpreted and understood as mindfulness (McEvilley, 2002). One evidence-based,
8-week program that systematically integrates mindfulness and character strengths
and involves a focus on optimal strengths use amidst overuse and underuse is called
mindfulness-based strengths practice (Niemiec, 2014; Pang & Ruch, 2019). In this way,
phronesis might be viewed as the balance of strengths through mindfulness.
Ultimately, mindfulness helps clients discover optimal strengths use. A practitioner might
describe stories or scenarios of optimal strengths use to support clients in understanding not
onlytheeaseofstrengthsusebutthefeasibilityof optimal use. This is also where a client might
be queried about their role models for certain strengths such as the paragon in their life for
humility, their role model for love, characters from movies or television shows that exemplify
creativity, and media personalities that show strong social intelligence or bravery. Such stories
oﬀer an additional lens for discovery of optimal strengths use. For examples of optimal
strengths use and stories of strengths use and overuse, across the 24 character strengths,
see Niemiec and McGrath (2019). For 1,500 examples from movies displaying the 24 character
strengths, see Niemiec and Wedding (2014).
A staple activity in the practice of character strengths is known as strengths-spotting.
This refers to the labeling of the character strengths that are observed in someone (or in
oneself) along with a rationale or description as to how the strength is being seen in
action. This is often one of the ﬁrst activities practitioners will deploy with clients (Linley,
2008). Research has pointed to the beneﬁts of strengths-spotting, for example in the
12 R. M. NIEMIEC
education setting, positive student outcomes that were explained by teachers’
strengths-spotting of students included classroom engagement, needs satisfaction,
and positive aﬀect (Quinlan, Vella-Brodrick, Gray, & Swain, 2018). In addition, couples
who spotted the strengths of their partner (and expressed appreciation for those
strengths) had greater relationship satisfaction, needs satisfaction, sexual satisfaction,
and relationship commitment (Kashdan et al., 2018). Indeed, placing attention on others
through strengths-spotting is not only a staple of balanced work in the practice of
character strengths, it is often the ﬁrst step in helping clients get comfortable with the
language of character strengths and learning strengths ﬂuency (Niemiec, 2018).
An extension of this activity is to engage in overuse-spotting, underuse-spotting, and
optimal use-spotting. When a practitioner notices a client is overplaying their kindness
to the point of being a doormat, this is pointed out. When a client is underplaying
forgiveness by not giving someone who committed a minor oﬀense a second change,
this is explained and explored. Likewise, when a client stands up for themselves to
a family member, it can be shared that this might be a marker for the optimal use of
bravery for the client’s future interactions with that particular family member.
As any situation presents the opportunity to examine the underuse and overuse of
character strengths, it is most likely that a combination of underuses and overuses are
dynamically occurring. For some clients, it might be useful to point out more than one
strength within such dynamics. For example, hypothetical underuse combinations were
oﬀered for the popular “7 deadly sins”framework such as gluttony involving the under-
use of self-regulation and prudence while sloth being captured by the underuse of zest
and perseverance, among other strength dynamics (Niemiec, 2019a). While such
approaches do not immediately transform or remedy every problem, they provide
a new lens for understanding the conﬂict or the stressor at hand.
Strengths-spotting sets the stage for a focus on the other person. The emphasis of
character strengths practice and second wave positive psychology is not a selﬁsh,
prideful approach, rather it is an approach that involves both an honest and humble
view of self but also a focus on the well-being of others (Wong, 2016). Character
strengths can be used as relational virtues to bring beneﬁt to others (Veldorale-
Brogan, Bradford, & Vail, 2010). For example, one of several character strengths inter-
ventions that’s used in this way is the following: choose a top, signature strength, think
about how it could be used to bring beneﬁt to one’s relationship partner (or colleague
or friend), and then take this other-oriented action accordingly (Niemiec, 2018).
Feedback from others
Humans have an uncanny ability to naturally display a number of biases which partly
involve assuming they understand themselves well, whereas in many cases involving
self-knowledge it is others that understand us more clearly; this is referred to as the
introspection illusion (Pronin, 2009). This makes it especially tricky for individuals to
identify their own strengths overuse (and underuse) patterns. Therefore, it is crucial for
individuals to receive feedback on their behavior. Feedback on strengths (and weak-
nesses) from a variety of sources has been shown to promote self-development through
resources relating to positive emotions, relationships, and agency (Spreitzer, Stephens, &
Sweetman, 2009). Clients can be encouraged to gather honest feedback about their
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 13
actions from trusted others. The feedback can then be examined in discussions looking
for patterns of strength imbalance. This feedback is then woven into the practitioner’s
behavioral observations which might further validate the feedback from others.
The Character Strengths-360 activity can also be conducted (see Niemiec, 2014,2018).
This involves the client systematically gathering character strengths feedback from
a variety of people in the client’s life about their character strengths and individuals
make note of the client’s top strengths and give examples of each. Practitioners could
invite the clients to add two additional questions to receive feedback from others:
●Which, if any, character strengths do you see me bring forth too strong where it
may sometimes have a negative impact on me or others?
●Which, if any, character strengths do you perceive that I don’t bring forth strong
enough where that underuse may sometimes have a negative impact on me or
The results on the original Character Strengths-360 are typically examined alongside the
client’s results on the VIA Inventory of Strengths. This combination can give insights into
potential areas of optimal use as well as overuse and underuse, however, the addition of
the two questions just mentioned would provide more direct insights for clients inter-
ested in exploring their potential patterns of strength overuse and underuse.
A corollary to this gathering of feedback on overuse and underuse from others
involves a willingness of the client to be vulnerable. Vulnerability involves the client
hearing honest feedback from others about the client’s shortcomings, imperfections,
and struggles –to hear about times when they have brought a strength too strongly
and it negatively impacted others at work or home (overuse) and to hear diﬀerent
perspectives where the character strengths seemed to be slacking (underuse). While
challenging for some clients to hear, it is in these human experiences where not only
optimal strengths use can be facilitated but also positive growth, new discoveries,
authenticity, and deeper life meaning are primed for development (Wong, 2017).
The tempering eﬀect
The tempering eﬀect refers to the use of one character strength to temper or manage an
overused strength. The most common scenario is likely to be the use of a balance-
oriented strength to temper an overused signature strength. Balance-oriented strengths
are those that harmonize other strengths, weaknesses, and internal tensions (Bacon,
2005), such as perspective, self-regulation, prudence, fairness, or humility. For example, if
an individual realizes they are overusing their curiosity by posing too many questions to
each new person they meet, they can deliberately turn to a strength such as self-
regulation. Self-regulation helps the individual to press pause on the impulse to be
curious and simply start by listening and observing, hence gently tempering the
curiosity overplay. For another person, it’s the strength of humility that tempers the
curiosity by placing the emphasis on the other person and their needs, while another
individual might use social intelligence as the tempering strength to carefully read the
situation before oﬀering the curious questioning.
14 R. M. NIEMIEC
For decades, scholars in virtue and strengths have observed that these positive
qualities can be corrective to correct or balance a temptation or vice (Goleman, 1997;
Peterson & Seligman, 2004;Yearley,1990). Self-regulation can counterbalance too
much creativity in a situation while zest can counterbalance too little curiosity;
meanwhile, bravery can counterbalance prudence overuse while gratitude can coun-
terbalance too much judgment. Humility is a sureﬁre strength to balance the under-
use of honesty and social intelligence can balance humor overuse, to name a few
A practitioner might pose the following questions to clients to tap into the tempering
●Which of your character strengths might you use to balance out or to manage that
overused strength? How might you take action?
●Think of a situation in which you overused a strength in the past and you found
a way to bring it forth in a more balanced way or you brought forth other strengths
to replace it. What character strengths were involved in tempering or managing it?
Which strengths did you need to bring forth?
The towing eﬀect
The towing eﬀect refers to the boosting up of a strength with a higher strength –to tow
along the underused strength and bring it along for the ride. While not an empirical
ﬁnding, hypothetically, any strength could be used to boost up another strength that is
desired to be enhanced. The most common example is a client wanting to boost up one
of their lower strengths that they are underusing and they deliberately turn to one of
their most energizing signature strengths to give it that boost. A client might use their
signature strength of creativity to brainstorm new ways they might use more of their
lower strength of gratitude in their life. Another client might use their love of learning to
read books and study material online on how they can express their lowest strength of
humility more in their life. Another individual might use their signature strength of
curiosity to tow along their lower strength of bravery by asking themselves questions
about the potential positive outcomes of brave actions, curiously exploring what brave
actions might look like in a particular scenario, and curiously thinking of the person
being helped, the goodness of the action (Pury, 2008).
A practitioner can pose the following questions to clients to tap into the towing
●Which of your signature strengths might you use to boost one of your lower
strengths? How might you take action?
●Think of a situation in which you underused a strength in the past and you found
a way to bring it forth more strongly. What character strengths were involved in
giving it a boost?
Throughout the centuries and across cultures, there has been ancient wisdom reﬂecting
something akin to a golden mean –a balance among too much and too little –for not
only a variety of positive attributes and outcomes but our innermost characteristics such
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY QUARTERLY 15
as our character strengths and virtues. The ﬁeld of positive psychology has brought
theorizing to these issues of balance (Wong, 2011) and striving toward a middle way or
an alternative framing using character strengths to explain psychopathology and pro-
blems (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011; Niemiec, 2014; Peterson, 2006; Rashid & Seligman,
2018; Seligman, 2015). This was reinforced by researchers showing the existence of the
construct of the “too much of a good thing eﬀect”(Busse et al., 2016), and by other
researchers citing studies for the overuse of numerous character strengths (Grant &
Schwartz, 2011). It was only recently that the ﬁrst empirical studies examining overuse,
underuse, and optimal use of character strengths emerged (Freidlin et al., 2017; Littman-
Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019). Not only did these studies show the constructs were connected
with well-being and depression in the expected directions but preliminary patterns
aligned with psychopathology were found.
This synergy of deep historical roots alongside strong theorizing and new empirical
research, as well as the substantial enthusiasm of practitioners across the globe delving
into these nuances of our character, points to an important horizon for further empirical
and intervention studies. This horizon is also bright for applications by practitioners
interested in helping clients explore the dynamics of their character strengths and utilize
new pathways to make the most of these phenomena (e.g., the tempering eﬀect and the
towing eﬀect) to create greater balance, well-being, and problem management.
Ultimately, the overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths are theore-
tical constructs which can only go so far in addressing the nuances of what make us
human. Yet, these nuances hold important wisdom for growth. At the least, this work in
character science provides an immediate and comfortable reframing for clients’strug-
gles oﬀering clients new avenues of hope and empowerment; and at best, we are at the
onset of a transformative new framework that will help humanity solidly embrace long-
lasting harmony and ﬂourishing while transcending conﬂicts and suﬀering.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D. is a leading ﬁgure in the education, research, and practice of character
strengths that are found in all human beings. He’s education director of the VIA Institute on
Character, a global, non-proﬁt organization in Cincinnati that advances the latest science of
character strengths. Ryan is author of nine books including the practitioner-focused books,
Character Strengths Interventions, Mindfulness and Character Strengths, and Positive Psychology at
the Movies, as well as the consumer-oriented books The Power of Character Strengths and The
Strengths-Based Workbook for Stress Relief.He’s penned 80 scholarly or peer-reviewed articles and
given over 700 presentations on positive psychology topics across the globe. He’s an award-
winning psychologist, annual instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and adjunct professor at
Xavier University. Ryan received a “distinguished early career award”from the American
Psychological Association in 2011, and was granted Fellow status of the International Positive
Psychology Association in 2017.
16 R. M. NIEMIEC
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