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Daniel J. Tomasulo

Strengths Atom

Daniel J. Tomasulo
Core Faculty, Spirituality Mind Body Institute,
Teachers College, Columbia University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Daniel J. Tomasulo Contact:tomasulo@tc.columbia.edu

Core faculty for the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University. Assistant Instructor, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania. Director New York Certification in Applied Positive Psychology. Honored by Sharecare* as top ten online influencers on the topic of depression.

The Technique

After taking the VIA-IS the client is asked to represent themselves on a blank sheet of paper with a circle, and then to place their top five strengths in relative size, distance, and direction from that symbol.  They then write the name or letter of each strength in each of the surrounding circles.

Below is an example. Each of the client’s strengths — Appreciation of beauty, Bravery, Creativity, Gratitude, and Honesty — have been represented in the figure below:

This graphic representation allows the client to see her strengths, discuss them, and explain what caused their placement on the strengths atom. As an example, the relative symmetry and proximity of the other strengths compared to the arrangement of “A” (Appreciation of beauty and excellence) is an opportunity for discussion. Although it was a top strength-it was placed furthest away. In discussing its use, she related stories of how others sometimes criticized her for her emphasis on things needing to be arranged just so—but felt this inner need to make her environment clean and beautiful. She placed it further away because it is a necessity, but also at times, a drawback. This reflection allowed us to talk over the “golden mean” use of strengths. This concept, originally descending from Aristotle, speaks to the optimal use of character strengths in the degree, combination, and use in a given situation (Niemiec, 2013).

In a group setting the strengths atom may be used in action. The protagonist chooses members of the group to role-play the various strengths. In the above example a member of the group would stand in the space facing the protagonist designated by the strengths atom on the paper. To illustrate, Honesty would be standing in front, Bravery to her left, Gratitude on her right, with Creativity, and Appreciation of beauty and excellence behind.

Placing the members of the group around the protagonist, the protagonist then reverses roles with the other members of the group representing her strengths and creates a one-line sentence related to her strengths. As an example, the protagonist reverses roles with the person representing Gratitude, each standing in the other’s spot. Once in the role of her Gratitude strength she would offer a statement such as: “I am your gratitude. I am closest to you because I help you appreciate the people in your life that mean so much to you.” The protagonist then returns to her role and the individual playing Gratitude would return to theirs and deliver the line back to the protagonist.

After each strength is given a line, the protagonist can then listen, accept, modify, or open a dialogue with the strengths.  Following the role-play these brief vignettes allow for members to discuss their relationship to their strengths and how these may have differed over time.

In summary, the recent publication of Ryan Niemiec’s Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners (2017) allows for the widespread availability of a rich cache of applied interventions, which help deepen understanding of the benefits of employing character strengths in one’s life. The Strengths Atom may serve as an additional technique available for helping clients self-disclose in a safe and yet engaging way; however, further investigation of its effectiveness is necessary. I am grateful this new column can offer yet another vehicle for practitioners to learn techniques from each other.


Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50-54.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11–30). New York, NY: Springer.
Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.