“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” ~ Marilyn Vos Savant
Apart from the curriculum subjects that children are taught in school, not enough help is given to them to find and focus on their character strengths. Those all important innate traits that they can use to their advantage in every area of their life ahead: work, relationships and hobbies/passions. As a mother this is something I feel passionately about.
I’m only just becoming conscious of my signature strengths at an age when possibly half my life is behind me. Still, better late than never!
We are all unique, and if you can celebrate your special gifts you will know how you can make the best of your life and contribute to those around you and the wider world.
So, just as Jesus commanded us to love thy neighbour, (and I’m not remotely putting myself in his saintly category), I would suggest that the commandment of Positive Psychology could be know thy strengths. After all, the ancient Greeks were onto something with the aphorism ‘Know Thyself’.
The difference between pleasure and gratification
I want to expand further from a previous post – Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness by exploring how being aware of our strengths and working on them can propel us forward to greater satisfaction and happiness.
Physical and emotional pleasures are fleeting, and although enjoyable in the moment they tend to fade rapidly after the stimulus has ended. Pleasures also lose their impact if experienced too often, as we inevitably become accustomed to them and habituation ensures that in the future we crave even bigger doses to get the same kick out of them. This is known as ‘The Hedonic Treadmill’.
I think my tendency to eat the whole bar of chocolate may be where the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ comes from!
The evanescent and ecstatic nature of the bodily and emotional pleasures is wonderful while it lasts but we can’t build a life around them.
In past times of depression I resorted to ‘retail therapy’ more than I should have, and whilst that new top looked great and gave me a momentary uplift, the negative effects on my bank balance and the prompt return of emptiness and despair left me feeling even worse in the long run.
To help us step off the treadmill it helps to separate the pleasures from the gratifications.
Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy narrated by Sean Connery sums up the pleasures:
I can appreciate the sensation of curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine, a bar of Galaxy chocolate and a good book, or watching a romantic period drama in HD, having a massage, enjoying a tasty meal, having a relaxing soak, listening to music, wearing perfume etc.
But it’s a different, deeper kind of satisfaction I feel when I can entertain someone with my writing; or transform someone’s health with my nutraceutical business, go on a trek, dance a Zumba class, help my kids with their activities or play my violin.
Martin Seligman says of the distinction between the pleasures and gratifications:
“It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities-not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.
For Aristotle, distinct from the bodily pleasures, happiness (eudaimonia) is akin to grace in dancing. Grace is not an entity that accompanies the dance or that comes at the end of a dance; it is part and parcel of a dance well done. To talk about the “pleasure” of contemplation is only to say that contemplation is done for its own sake; it is not to refer to any emotion that accompanies contemplation. Eudaimonia, what I call gratification is part and parcel of right action. It cannot be derived from bodily pleasure, nor is it a state that can be chemically induced or attained by any shortcuts. It can only be had by activity consonant with noble purpose.”
Seligman’s formula for enduring happiness (not temporary bursts) is:
H = S + C + V
- H – Happiness
- S – Your set range (your genetic steersman & hedonic treadmill)
- C – Circumstances of your life
- V – Factors under your voluntary control (the most important aspect of the equation)
Strength and Virtue
A major study was undertaken by leaders in the field of Positive Psychology of a large range and number of religious and philosophic traditions to ascertain if there were any correlations and consensus of virtues between them. The results of the study were startling and illuminating. Six virtues emerged as being common to every major religion and tradition around the globe:
- Wisdom and knowledge
- Love and humanity
- Spirituality and transcendence
The perception and interpretation of these ubiquitous virtues varied between traditions, furthermore there were virtues found unique to each tradition.
Knowing our personal strengths is the route to attaining these universal virtues. There is more than one way to reach these states and we are unique in our thoughts and character and the way we will attain them.
“Seek virtue rather than riches. You may be sure to acquire the first; but cannot promise for the latter. No one can rob you of the first without your consent; you may be deprived of the latter a hundred ways.” ~James Burgh, The Dignity of Human Nature: Book III. Of Virtue, 1754
For example one can embody the virtue of justice by acts of good citizenship, fairness, loyalty, teamwork and humane leadership. Each of these strengths is measurable and can be developed.
Strengths are not the same as talents. Valour, kindness and integrity cannot be compared to perfect pitch, facial beauty or being able to run at lightning speed.
The important thing to note is that a strength is valued in its own right.
My good friend Anke Exner who is a coach and mentor, helped me to ascertain my five character strengths that apply to me at the moment:
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Vitality (zest, passion & energy)
- Spirituality (sense of purpose)
- Perspective (wisdom)
The pictures I took detail the key elements of each strength. It’s not something you should have to think about too hard, it should feel authentic to you.
I also took the comprehensive test on the Positive Psychology website to ascertain my 24 strengths. I strongly recommend you take half an hour out of your schedule to answer the questions in the VIA Strengths Survey and afterwards you will get detailed feedback based on your answers.
As a parent you naturally wish certain strengths for your new born offspring. I want my kids to be loving, brave, creative, integrous, kind, have a love of learning and be great leaders. You just wouldn’t say, ‘I want my child to have a job in middle management!’
As Public speaker and Personal Presence coach Sylvia Baldock states in her highly useful book – From Now to Wow in 30 Days:
“One of the keys to develop your ‘Personal Presence’ is to be really clear and assured in your own natural talents and abilities, knowing exactly where you add value and what is unique and special about you.”
One of Sylvia’s tips is to spend more time in ‘Flow’.
The concept of flow as it’s now understood and integrated into Psychology was first discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who travelled from Europe to America after the Second World War to study Psychology and Carl Jung’s writings. He wanted to discover scientifically the key to human beings at their best.
He explains it beautifully in this TED talk:
When does time stop for you? When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing and never wanting it to end?
It could be painting, sculpting, playing sports, making love, public speaking, playing an instrument, listening to a friend in need and so on.
I’m certainly in flow writing this post…
Cultivating our talents, strengths and virtues isn’t always an easy task, unlike experiencing the pleasures, but it’s essential to live a life of meaning.
“Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.” ~ Baruch Spinoza
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