In these extraordinary times, we’re encountering a dizzying array of unwanted challenges and disruptions in daily life. Many of us cannot connect in person with family, friends, and teammates. Others have lost work and opportunities. Sadly, there are even more tragic repercussions. It’s enough to create a sense of hopelessness in even the most positive people.
Fortunately, research around character strengths shows us how to shift into what’s strong to help us face virtually every situation with strength and resilience. Character strengths reflect who we are and how we contribute.Since COVID-19 entered our lives, I’ve noticed that my top strength, creativity, is calling my name to help navigate difficult situations. For instance, during a stressful text exchange with my sister, I offered a few novel ways to solve a family problem. I was tempted to avoid replying – it was late on a Sunday evening, and I was tired. Creativity gave me the capacity to engage. Channeling creativity didn’t change the stressor, but it shifted me toward my best, kept me grounded and allowed me to contribute from a position of strength.
Most likely, your signature strengths look different than mine. Your top strength might be hope, giving you the power to envision a positive, yet realistic, future. Or, your number one strength might be bravery, making you a force that gives a voice to the voiceless.
No matter your signature strengths, your unique contributions are sorely needed in your home life, work life and community. But, here’s the thing: although the idea of engaging strengths seems appealing to virtually everyone, not everyone practices living into them. The value comes from putting them into practice.
In my work with individuals and groups, I’ve noticed a variety of obstacles to living into one’s strengths. Below are two of the most common:
We don’t have the language to describe what’s good and strong within ourselves. Growing up, many of us learned to avoid speaking of ourselves in positive ways due to modesty concerns. We’re good at describing what’s wrong and what we can do better, but not who we are at our best.
The human brain is hardwired to attend to what’s wrong – problems, challenges and weaknesses. We’re often not aware this is happening. What doesn’t work attracts us like a magnet.
Luckily the fist item can be addressed by taking the free, scientific character strengths assessment taken by more than 10 million people globally. In about 15 minutes, you can discover your unique strengths profile.
The second is more complex. Humans have a natural instinct dating back to ancient times to scan the environment for threats. This instinct remains active in us today. Although helpful in some circumstances, it’s also a reason we can over-invest time and resources dwelling on what’s wrong at the expense of what’s strong.
There’s so much that feels wrong about life during this pandemic, but you can shift into what’s strong to feel a greater sense of ease, energy and flow. Research shows that building strengths is where our greatest contributions lie.
I invite you to experience for yourself how shifting from wrong to strong can create positive results. The following practice is inspired by the work of Michelle McQuaid, an expert in positive organizational leadership.
For this practice, you’ll need a pen and some paper.
Place a pen in your dominant hand, then write your full name.
Switch the pen to your non-dominant hand. Again, write your full name.
Describe the differences between your two experiences
Many people describe writing with the non-dominant hand as more effortful, difficult, and time-consuming. They aren’t as pleased with the outcome.
Often, this is what it feels like to improve a weakness. If you practiced writing with your non-dominant hand, you could probably improve over time. However, it would likely take many hours to progress, let alone achieve the same results.
Conversely, writing with the dominant hand typically has an ease and flow. It’s faster and requires less effort. The results are pleasing. Often, this is what it feels like to build, and live into, our strengths.
Begin by bringing one of your signature strengths to mind. If you don’t know your top strengths, you can discover them now, or simply use the graphic below as a reminder of the 24 character strengths. Then return to the reflection.
As I tackle my next challenge today, my strength of _____ can help me by _____.
Think of one way you can put this strength into action and then try it as you go forward.
As we adjust to our new ‘normal,’ time continues to march forward. We’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet people all over the world are celebrating religious holidays like Easter and Passover. Steeped in rituals, these traditions can help us feel comforted when under duress.
As one of the 24 character strengths, spirituality is about connecting with meaning and purpose in daily life. It’s accessible to all of us, not only those who practice organized religions. Notice that within the word itself lies the noun, ‘ritual.’ In times of hardship, rituals can be powerful tools for managing stress and emotions.
The Restorative Power of Ritual, a Harvard Business Review article, describes how we can expand our perspective on the power of rituals. Mike Norton, a Harvard Business School professor who studied the effects of rituals on well-being, says that:
In the face of loss, rituals can help us feel less grief,
Rituals with families can make us feel closer, and
Rituals between partners can reinforce their commitment to each other.
These rituals don’t need to continue forever, only while they’re helpful.
This week’s practice is designed to help you discover a comforting ritual of your own. As I was completing this practice myself, I discovered a ritual that’s both meaningful and comforting. Each morning after my cup of coffee, I listen to the Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli duet of the song, “The Prayer.” Many thanks for a friend of mine who shared a video of herself singing this song on Facebook. She was my inspiration.
Why did I choose this? For me, music is like a salve that soothes. It connects me with some of the most meaningful experiences in my life, like singing in a choir at the Berlin Wall many years ago or performing a holiday program in a local nursing home. Music fills me with positive emotions like hope and joy. In my experience, it can be a unifying power. It may seem strange, but at this time, it’s what comforts me.
Now, I invite you to give it a go. There isn’t a “recipe” you can follow, but the reflection and practice below will help guide you in discovering your own comforting ritual.
Begin your reflection by pondering this thought:
“When facing difficulty in the past, the rituals that brought me the most comfort were…”
Take your time with this reflection. You might wish to journal or speak with a trusted friend about it. Feel free to let your thoughts flow, free of self-judgement as you fill in the dots.
Choose a ritual from your reflection that might bring comfort to you now. It can be religious or not, that choice is yours
As an option to #1, craft your own new ritual as I did. Gather inspiration from anything or anyone you feel drawn to – nature, other people, something you read online, etc.
Complete the ritual you’ve created, and decide if continuing it would be helpful. If you’re not sure, try it and see.
Verbally, internally, or in writing, describe how your ritual provides you with comfort.
If you choose to do so, share your ritual with someone you trust. Perhaps even invite them to create their own.
Whether you describe yourself as religious, spiritual, or something else, I leave you with the lyrics from the award-winning song, “The Prayer,” by David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager, Alberto Testa, and Tony Renis. Perhaps a phrase or word will inspire you in some small way.
I pray you’ll be our eyes and watch us where we go And help us to be wise in times when we don’t know Let this be our prayer When we lose our way Lead us to a place Guide us with your grace To a place where we’ll be safe
Every day, we’re being overloaded with news of the COVID-19 pandemic – how to stay healthy, the latest data, and other updates. I don’t know about you, but my attention span is waning, and I’m having trouble taking it all in. Although it doesn’t always come naturally, I have found myself wanting to shift my attention more often towards what’s going well and connecting with loved ones during these times of physical distance.
As we are all adapting, I will be sharing A Series of Practices to Cultivate Strength and Resilience, designed to provide a few moments of respite as we navigate through extraordinary times. Steeped in research from the field of positive psychology – the scientific study of human flourishing – and my own experiences, this series is designed to cultivate a bit of positivity each day.
Colleagues, friends, and family find these practices straightforward, yet impactful when it comes to feeling resilient and improving their well-being. Most will take just a few minutes to complete. I encourage you to practice and share them with family, friends, roommates, or teams.
I hope you enjoy your first short practice. Without further ado, I introduce to you: “The Swamp and The Pond.”
Science informs us that it’s possible to find light in times of darkness. My mentor and positive psychology expert Maria Sirois has helped me put this into perspective using this practice.
In her teaching, Maria likes to use the metaphor of a swamp and pond to capture a typical day in our lives. It’s easy to spend a lot of time in the swap, especially as we navigate the pandemic and its aftermath. From minor annoyances to major losses, fears, and anxieties, we might characterize many of life’s difficulties as “swampy.”
And yet, we have the power to pave the way towards positive moments. Relief in times of stress. Strong connections during times of distance. Reassurance that things will be okay no matter how bad they may seem. These positive experiences might be characterized as being in “the pond.”
When we stop to notice, the pond is filled with little and big things that elevate us — feeling grateful, having a moment of levity, receiving good news about a work project or medical test, and the list goes on.
Just a few moments can change our bodies and minds, and prepare us for what comes next. We do have the power to choose to spend more time in the pond, even just a bit more, to boost self-care practices, build internal strength, and stay connected. As we live during fearful times and experience anxiety, let’s choose practices that sustain us.
Identify one way to spend more time in the pond today. Then try it out.
To begin, take two pieces of paper and draw a large shape representing the swamp on one and the pond on the other. Draw any shape you choose. I like to use a kidney bean shape.
In your swamp shape, write down everything that feels swampy right now. The argument you had with your partner, a friend who became ill, or your wedding that was canceled.
Next, write down all the contents of your pond right now. Gratitude for your friend who checked in on you, having a warm place to sleep, or anything or anyone you appreciate and value right now.
Step back and look at your work. Notice that some things or people might be in both places. Notice that these things occur on the same day. It’s the same day.
Go on to the reflection prompt below and identify one way to spend a bit more time in the pond. Then try it out.
If I spent a few more minutes today doing ________, I might be able to ________.
My reflection, for example, is:
“If I spent a few more minutes today moving in a joyful way rather than sitting at my computer, I might feel more energized and less glum.”
Take your time with this reflection. You might wish to journal or speak with a trusted friend about it. Feel free to let your thoughts flow, free of self-judgment. Come up with as many options as you like. Then choose one and put it into practice.
A colleague of mine has reframed the term “social distancing” to “safe spacing.” As I am settling into my safe space, I hope you will find yours. One that allows you to spend more time in the pond.
Now, I’m going to get up from my laptop and take a walk around the block in the sunshine.