Like An Old Friend, Phasic Strengths Are There When You Need Them
When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
These famous lyrics from the song “You’ve Got a Friend”, written by Carole King and made popular by James Taylor, remind me of a certain category of strengths that rise up for us when we need them.
In the early days of positive psychology, a distinction was made between character strengths that are tonic and those that are phasic. Tonic strengths are those that we use consistently across contexts and situations. These have come to be better known as signature strengths – those strengths highest in our profile, most energizing to us, and most central to who we are.
Phasic strengths, on the other hand, have gotten lost in the shuffle. By definition, a phasic strength is a strength that rises and falls based on the situation we’re in. Said another way, a phasic strength is not your signature strength (therefore it appears in the middle or lower end of your strengths profile), but when the situation calls for it you bring it forth very strongly. You rise up, rising to the occasion, much like a friend that is always there for you when you need them.
In fact, in validating the VIA Classification and VIA Survey, in the early 2000s a questionnaire was devised called the “VIA Rising to the Occasion Inventory,” in order to better understand phasic strengths. We might think of these strengths as “our situational strengths.”
The quintessential example of a phasic strength is someone displaying bravery at a time of crises or challenge – saving a child from drowning, speaking an unfavorable opinion in a group, defending someone who is being teased by one’s peers. In such situations, you rise up, and exert your bravery.
Humor is a phasic strength for me, even though it is last (#24) in my character profile. I am very playful with my young children. I relish in making them laugh, acting silly, and being “the fun dad.” I rise up with this strength in those situations with them. But, humor is not a core, signature strength for me. I do not use it strongly across settings or situations. I do not start new conversations with a joke or a captivating story (but my brother, who is high in this strength, does). I don’t turn to humor as a top-line strategy at difficult times or as a central pathway to help others who are taking themselves too seriously.
I recall working with a client who had prudence as a phasic strength. Prudence was #18 in his character profile so it was not a strength he expressed clearly and widely in most settings. But, when it came to organizing and planning the weekly team meeting, he was a superstar with his prudence. He thought through the agenda, mapped the times for old and new topics down to the minute, kept the meeting moving and productive, and was always prompt about the end-time. He rose to the occasion with his prudence strength in managing these meetings.
When I give presentations, participants quickly spot the strength of zest in me and conclude that this must be one of my signature strengths. Yet, repeatedly, when I take the VIA Survey or a Character Strengths 360 measure or self-reflect, zest does not emerge as a top strength (it usually it hovers around #10 for me). But, in the situation of giving presentations – perhaps certain types of presentation on strengths, mindfulness, or well-being topics – I express zest, enthusiasm, and energy strongly.
Some character strengths might lend themselves to being “more phasic” than others. Early research indicated this for nine strengths – bravery, fairness, forgiveness, hope, honesty, leadership, prudence, self-regulation, and teamwork. These strengths have a strong situational “pull.” That said, any of the 24 can operate as a signature strength or as a phasic strength.
I turn the question to you: What are your phasic strengths? Which strengths surprise you in how strong you can bring them forth in certain situations? When have you risen to the occasion at work or in your close relationships?
And in the future, what strengths will you use to RISE UP when you need to?
Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
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.
VIA Institute on Character