Improve on your solutions, not your problems

by Noam Shpancer Ph.D.

Here’s a quick thought experiment: Consider your mood right now. Rate it on a scale of 1-bad to 100-good. Now, think about three good things that happened to you today: things you’ve enjoyed or achieved; things that worked well. These can be as small as getting coffee or as large as getting married. Then, for each one of these three positive events, think about what made it good, and why you liked, enjoyed, or succeeded at it. Once you’re done, reflect on your mood (using our scale of 1-100). Are you feeling a little bit better than before?

Image by GDJ on Pixabay

Source: Image by GDJ on Pixabay

For much of its history, psychology has focused on understanding the troubled side of human experience, looking to ameliorate emotional pain and disorder. This, of course, is a worthy undertaking. Yet the effort to repair what’s broken, while necessary, is insufficient for producing optimal health and wellbeing.

For one, this being human life, something is always broken. The supply of problems–past, present, and future–to occupy our attention is never-ending. Our quality of life depends heavily on where we direct our attention. If we’re focused solely on trouble, then trouble becomes all we have, and then it becomes all we are.

Moreover, a sole focus on fixing weaknesses can limit the pace and reach of our development. Our improvement ceiling for those aspects of life for which we lack aptitude or interest is often low. We tend to do better at things we like better, and we also feel better while we’re at it. As sports fans know well, a team wins more when it plays to its strengths.

Finally, we understand today that health and illness are not two sides of the same coin but rather two related yet distinct conditions. Health is not the absence of illness, just as wealth is not the absence of debt. Thus, treating or curing illness does not automatically translate into the creation of optimal, abundant health. The fact that you are no longer depressed doesn’t mean you’re happy. Plugging the hole in the boat solves the problem of buoyancy, but it does not address the issue of where and how to sail—the reasons for having a boat in the first place.

In recent years, accumulating evidence from the emerging field of positive psychology has suggested that when it comes to improving people’s overall happiness and wellbeing, focusing on strengths may be a better strategy than targeting weaknesses.

Much of the early work in this area was conducted by positive psychology pioneers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. They set out to find whether different cultures and religions may share a common view of the most important human virtues. The questions they asked were: Is a person of “good character” recognizable around the world? And if so, by which traits?

To be considered a “character strength” in Peterson and Seligman’s framework, a trait had to possess certain qualities, including:

a) contributing to one’s sense of fulfillment

b) being valued in its own right

c) not diminishing others

d) being universally valued.

Such traits should also be measurable and distinct from one another, and they should vary among people, with some scoring high and some low on each trait.article continues after advertisement

Using these criteria, the research yielded a list of 6 virtues that are universally valued, each consisting of several “character strengths,” representing the ingredients, expressions, and means for developing each virtue:

1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation

2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, zest,

3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self-control.

6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality,

In this model, character strengths are distinguished from talents (e.g., a musical ear) and abilities (e.g., academic success) in that they’re more malleable, demand more effort of will, and pertain to morality. Peterson and Seligman developed this framework further by proposing the concept of “signature strengths,” which are the individual’s strongest positive traits, those that matter most to them and form the core of their identity.

Signature strengths share three key features:

1. They feel essential to your identity as a person.

2. Enacting the strength feels natural and effortless.

3. Using the strength energizes and uplifts you, leaving you feeling happy.

The advantages of investing in strengths are manifold. For one, we are usually pulled more strongly in the direction of our strengths, since engaging them is more intrinsically rewarding. Moreover, learning comes easier in our areas of strength. Engaging our strengths is also more likely to produce excellence, which is rewarding in itself (and in the world), as well as the experience of “flow,” the state of complete, energized absorption that is associated with subjective wellbeing.article continues after advertisement

A focus on strengths may also benefit the work of therapy. For the past 50 years, a growing body of research from various helping disciplines such as positive psychologysolution-focused therapycounseling psychology, and social work has pointed to the benefits of capitalizing on clients’ strengths, as therapists may integrate strengths-focused approaches and techniques toward increasing clients’ hope, resilience, courage and other coping qualities.

A focus on client strengths may also help correct some of the limitations of the traditional deficit‐oriented approach to assessment and therapy, which often creates an incomplete (and biased) picture of the client, reduces clients to diagnostic categories, and facilitates a power differential that may hinder rapport and reduce therapy efficacy. 

Now, a focus on strengths (whether they are of character, talent, or ability) does not mean that we neglect our weaknesses. Rather, it means that we need not allow them to alone dictate our outlook, agenda, and resource allocation. The point is not to disown or deny those parts of our lives that are deficient, but rather to create a fairer and more productive balance between the effort we put toward addressing them and the effort we put toward celebrating and building on our strengths.article continues after advertisement

In addition, it is important to remember that one’s ability to focus on developing strengths is not independent of the conditions of one’s existence. The environments in which we find ourselves affect the extent to which we can identify, nurture, and invest in our strengths. A child who is suffering from chronic hunger and food insecurity will find it hard to focus on schoolwork, even if they have a high aptitude for it. A child with high scholastic interest and aptitude needs a good school with good teachers in order to develop their strength. The wellbeing of a morally kind and honest person will be undermined rather than enhanced by a corrupt social system. Individual strength and happiness, in other words, are never wholly about the individual. At the end of the day, we can breathe well only to the extent that there’s clean air around us.

If you find this strength-based approach appealing, this free online test may help you to identify and further develop your own signature strengths.

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