Shining a Spotlight on Your Awesome Character Strengths

“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.

My five 'core' character strengths.

My five ‘core’ character strengths.

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.

Strength Cards - Creativity

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.

Strength Cards - Spirituality

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

quote-Marcus-Tullius-Cicero-glory-follows-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
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

The perception and interpretation of these ubiquitous virtues varied between traditions, furthermore there were virtues found unique to each tradition.

Strength Cards - Appreciation of beauty

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.

Strength Cards - Vitality

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:

  • Creativity
  • 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.

Strength Cards - Wisdom

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.”

Flow

One of Sylvia’s tips is to spend more time in ‘Flow’.

Sylvia Baldock - 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

An Epiphany in Gratitude

“When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of wellbeing.” ~ Martin E. P. Seligman ph.D. (Authentic Happiness)

This isn’t particularly easy for me to share, but I feel the lessons I learnt from my recent ‘mensis horribilis’ may be useful to some who are having a nasty time of things. The week leading up to Friday 13th was truly awful and stressful, I really had the kitchen sink thrown at me.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but suffice to say, pretty much every day I had a major challenge to deal with. On top of that I was tired, my kids were at each other’s throats and I had a constant ear ache that thankfully hasn’t developed any further. I felt like I had the world on my shoulders. I’d deal with one problem and then another arose more or less straight away, so I began reacting badly to my worsening circumstances.

Martin Seligman - positive psychology

I wasn’t flowing in and out of my emotions, I had become entrenched in my negative energy field. I certainly didn’t take my own advice from a previous post: Positive Psychology, the Science of Happiness.

Maybe if I’d been more positive I would have coped better with the events that presented themselves to me. I’m usually quite a positive and happy person, but somehow everything got on top of me and I was drowning in a sea of negativity. I was expecting the s**t to hit the fan, and it dutifully did! My pity party rapidly upgraded into a full-on woe-is-me rave…

However, after hearing about the barbaric and tragic murders in Paris something shifted in me. The terror of those affected must have been unimaginable. It has been incredibly distressing to watch the news over the last few days, but it helped put my life into perspective for me. There were many people suffering in much worse circumstances than me.

I said my prayers for the poor souls who were in pain, and thanked God for all that I had. Which, when I tallied it all up was quite considerable, despite the many setbacks of the preceding week. I had allowed myself to become pessimistic and because I was mired in that negative energy it magnified everything.

In a beautiful light bulb moment I started to feel grateful for all the good in my life, in light of the fact that so many just across the channel had needlessly lost their lives in a cowardly, heinous attack. Here one minute, gone the next.

My challenges haven’t disappeared, but the black cloud I borrowed from Eeyore has now left its temporary home above my head!

Everyone has bad events to deal with; it can’t all be plain sailing. It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s what you do about it that does. It’s how you react to it.

happiness - steve maraboli

I admit, it’s harder to stay positive when you’re under an onslaught, but thankfully weeks like that are relatively rare.

Mum and I went to Oxford on Friday, I needed to do a bit of research for my next novel, plus it meant we could have some precious mother/daughter time, as mum now lives near the ‘city of dreaming spires’.

We spent a good hour and a half in Oxford Crown Court, mainly in courtroom two. After seeing a complainant be cross-examined in the witness box by a seemingly kind and softly spoken barrister who mercilessly went in for the kill at the end of her questions, I was grateful not to be in her shoes. I’m not permitted by law to reveal any details about what I heard.

Oxford Crown Court

Oxford Crown Court

Whilst I had sympathy for the person in the witness box, I was learning about the workings of a case. That defence barrister certainly operated like an iron fist cloaked in a velvet glove.

After hearing charges against another man for unmentionable crimes, I began to see that there is so much evil and drama going on in other people’s lives, that mine seemed relatively happy in comparison.

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

I almost decided not to go as we had a deluge of torrential rain that morning, but by the time we exited the court house at the lower end of St. Aldates the sun had come out and blue sky illuminated the city.  The heavy grey clouds that blanketed the sky earlier had completely evaporated. Mum and I had a short stroll around Christ Church before we had to get the bus back to the park and ride. It was a happy and productive day and I felt myself brightening up.

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

I stopped listening to the chimp on my shoulder and started making the case for all the success and good things I’ve done. This what Martin Seligman refers to as disputation. What I had perceived as a permanent failure was just a temporary setback. Having the setbacks all at once was probably a consequence of a deeper, more pervasive dissatisfaction with myself.

A cherished friend introduced me to Martin Seligman’s ground break book, Authentic Happiness, which is an invaluable companion right now! I took Martin Seligman’s Gratitude Test, and whilst the results weren’t bad, they weren’t particularly great. It’s obviously something I need to work on.

Gratitude - Steve Maraboli

Here’s the link to the Gratitude Survey, I recommend you give it a try!

The Authentic Happiness website has some great resources and further tests that you can complete anonymously to help further research into positive psychology.

Looking back, I can see that even in the midst of challenges there were some beneficial events unfolding and people helping me. I won’t mention them by name, but in my heart I am truly grateful to them!

forgiveness - steve maraboli

This is an easy to follow presentation about optimism and gratitude based on the positive psychology work of Martin Seligman:

I’ve seen the video before of Joshua Bell playing his Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius in the Washington Subway experiment and feel it’s very relevant to show, (as it’s mentioned in the video above), to demonstrate how sometimes people don’t appreciate the beauty all around them in their lives:

Since my recent epiphany my energy levels are on their way back up, and I feel grateful for so many things: family and friends (both in my physical space and online), having a roof over my head, transport, food in the cupboards, healthy, happy children, a new book to write, my violin and music, a new direction with my health and an opportunity to top up flagging finances, plus many more blessings that I have taken for granted.

My wish for the future (stealing a phrase spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address), is that you, me and humanity can be happy, grateful and content despite the everyday threats and challenges we face, by being true to the better angels of our nature.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

“Happiness is an intentional creation of the Self universe: I am happy. Of course, the self can believe in all sorts of appropriate reasons for making itself happy or unhappy, but the bottom line is that the Self decided.” ~ Harry Palmer

Close your eyes. Imagine, for a moment, what your ideal life would look like. You are living that life. How does that make you feel? What sensations does your body experience?

beautiful Pacific-beach,-sunset

We all have dreams that we want to manifest in our lives, otherwise breathing would feel like a rather pointless activity. Our innate creativity and thirst for adventure makes life interesting and fun.

You may have everything you want and desire and are now seeking to help others. Either way, those plans bring us happiness. The fact that we might not have those desired outcomes in our lives as yet can be uncomfortable, and that in itself can drive us on. We discover why we are here, what our talents are, and where we can use them, in other words: finding our place in the world.

I love the Vedanta wisdom on the science of happiness. Swami Sarvapriyananda talks about pleasure, engagement, meaning and the Atman (sat-chit-ananda):

No doubt you have heard the saying, “It’s not the destination that matters but the journey.” It’s who we become as the result of our travels that’s the real reward. Sure, we have successes along the way, as well as setbacks and challenges; nothing is ever handed to us on a plate. Problems, failure and suffering are all the training ground of the soul.

That elusive quality called ‘happiness’ is simply a state of being, a choice to think and act a certain way. We don’t get pulled down into our story, we somehow transcend it and use the hidden treasures from our life experience and transpose that into wisdom, love and compassion.

A fascinating talk by Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert about stumbling upon happiness:

Many people believe that when they are ‘successful’ then they will be happy. Sadly, many find they climb the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. Happiness in who you are and what you do in the present moment is vital to achieve whatever success means to you. Be it financial, good health, a happy family, giving back to society, peace of mind.

Quotes-On-Happiness

Acceptance of what is, whilst doing your best to steer your life where you want it to go seems to me to be the only way to live. Otherwise you are delaying life. If you are not happy with less, you certainly won’t be happy with more – not in the long run.

Delayed gratification isn’t a philosophy to aspire to when it applies to your happiness.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahr is teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard University. There has been much research conducted into the physiological effects of living a happy life, concluding you are more likely to live longer and have better health, therefore leading a better quality of life.

Five ways to become happier today, by author and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar:

I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness is an inner decision we make on a daily basis, regardless of outer circumstances. In fact, if anything, outer circumstances tend to reflect what’s going on in our internal representations and how we manifest our attitudes and beliefs.

Happiness-Quotes-32

When the going gets tough it’s hard not to slip into the ‘saboteur’ or ‘victim’ archetypes and therefore compound our misery. But once we have been there and got that T-Shirt, we develop an emotional awareness and tend not to fall into the same trap once a life lesson has been truly learnt.

“Each moment you are happy is a gift to the rest of the world.”  ~ Harry Palmer

I love that quote. Because when you are happy you are like a pebble breaking the surface of a limpid lake: your happiness causes waves to ripple outward in the form of a kind word or deed, thus your positive energy is transferred incrementally to your fellow human beings and the world.

There are days we choose not to be happy, after all, we are human. That’s okay; just don’t stay in that energy field very long. If your happiness always depends on outer circumstances then there will always be something to protect or lose, events that will happen that are out of your control.

happiness-quote

The only true thing we have control over is our mental outlook – our thoughts. And when life throws you a curve ball the challenge is not to get pulled down into the curve and out of our essential nature into judgement, hate, depression, blame and guilt.

“To a far great extent than common knowledge would lead anyone to believe, people’s happiness, health and success are not determined by the thoughts, ideas, and imaginings they have of themselves, but are determined by the ability to change these things. “ ~ Harry Palmer

Working on ourselves is probably the most important task we can ever undertake. This is not a selfish activity, because as we become happier and more fulfilled so we can help others to do the same.

Quotes-On-Happiness-And-Love

Our deepest fears are invisibility, being worthless, lack of importance, not being good enough, and annihilation. It helps to remember that the definition of fear is: False Evidence Appearing Real.

YOU MATTER.

This universal truth is demonstrated so artfully in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart playing the despairing small-town businessman George Bailey, (in my humble opinion, the role he was born to play).

It’s Christmas Eve and George is on the brink of suicide, when he is visited by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, who shows him what the world would have been like if he had never been born.  This film is one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, and was voted the most inspiring film of all time by the American Film Institute in 2006. This scene says it all. I’d like to be your Clarence, just for today!

One life touches many:

Just by being yourself, doing what makes you happy (as long as it’s not hurting others) and following your heart you can make a difference in the world.

“There was a time, a certain number of years ago, when a tiny blob of gelatin began to pulse with hidden potential. It was barely more than a speck of matter, about the thickness of a dollar bill, at the very threshold of human sight: any smaller and it would have been invisible to the naked eye.

Tough tiny, this insignificant little dot of matter (you could have fit about twenty of them on the head of a pin) contained chemical instructions that, if printed out, would have filled more than 500,000 pages; in fact, it was among the most organized, complex structures in the universe. Over the next nine months of slight edge compounding, this little blob of gelatin would blossom into about thirty trillion cells before being born into the open air…and letting out a wail as it took its first breath.

It would become you.”

~ Jeff Olson (The Slight Edge).

Until the next time, I wish you happiness and joy!