“You can’t be anything you want to be — but you can be a whole lot more of who you already are.”
– Tom Rath, bestselling author and expert on strengths in the workplace
In a recent spring-cleaning project, I discovered a bin in the back corner of my basement. It held my high school yearbooks from decades ago. Feeling nostalgic, I picked one up and flipped through the colorful markings and handwritten notes left by my classmates.
Throughout the stories of misadventures, brief confessions of feelings, and bursts of teen-aged wisdom, I noticed one predominant theme: Never change.
“Stay who you are honeybuns,” said one. “You’re so fun – stay that way,” said another.
Never change? Really?!
It turns out, this is some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
We often hear that one of the only constants in life is change. Through the ups and downs of my life – navigating single parenthood, overcoming cancer, and transitioning into a new career – I have found this to be true.
However, we can choose to keep what’s best within us the same, and even develop those qualities. Then, “never change” truly is great advice. We know this to be true from research about signature strengths in the field of positive psychology.
Signature strengths are personality traits that reflect what’s best within you. Research shows that people who focus on their signature strengths are more likely to flourish in their work; have less stress, anxiety and depression; have more confidence; and experience more positive outcomes in virtually every facet of life.
So, what are your best traits? If you aren’t aware of your unique signature strengths, I invite you to discover them by taking the character strengths survey. Your signature strengths will be in the top 5-7 of your results.
I find it ironic that during my high school years, when everything seemed to be changing, my classmates and I urged each other to stay the same. Many yearbook comments reflected my signature strengths, which I lean on every day to face daily challenges and opportunities.
“You were a great listener when I had problems with my love life.” (Perspective)
“No, seriously you are…always fun to be around.” (Humor)
And a favorite: “…your personality is a rare, but good one.”
That last comment was a testament to how a friend appreciated my uniqueness. It made me laugh out loud!
You don’t need to make yourself over to transform your work or life. By focusing on your signature strengths, you can not only grow and change but also live more deeply into who you are. In Tom Rath’s words, “…you can be a whole lot more of who you already are.”
So, never change? Absolutely!
Try living into a top signature strength by following these two simple steps:
Develop an awareness of your signature strengths, and
Practice engaging them with intention.
This practice will help you accomplish both.
I invite you to choose one signature strength. If you wish to skip taking the survey at this time, choose one strength from the graphic below that resonates with you.
Practice using the strength you’ve chosen in a new way. If you’re unsure how to think about this, consult this character strengths resource from the University of Toronto and select the strength you chose.
To challenge yourself, try engaging this strength in a new way each day for the next week to help you relax and de-stress, achieve a meaningful goal, overcome an obstacle to a goal, or make a deeper connection with someone important.
If you get stuck, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I love helping people live into their signature strengths!
When using my signature strength of _______, I noticed that _______.
Take your time with this reflection. Perhaps journal about it or talk it through with someone you trust. You might notice that you felt more confident or energized, had an “aha” moment about an obstacle you faced or approached a situation or person with a different perspective.
Just notice what happens when you engage a signature strength, and feel free to try this practice with other signature strengths.
May you live into who you are when at your best, today and every day.
Not everyone likes a corny knock-knock joke, but I do. Whether you prefer playfulness, cleverness, or full-on belly laughing, we can all probably use a spoonful of humor to provide levity right now.
It’s easy to forget to laugh and have fun when what’s happening around and within us is so serious. Each of us is facing our own bundle of inconveniences, losses, and sacrifices. Humor can provide a brief, but necessary, respite from these stressors.
There are potentially infinite ways to cultivate humor. And great news: You don’t have to be a stand-up comic to appreciate and share humor.
Over the past few weeks, the character strength humor, the human capacity for laughter and playfulness, has been coming up often in my personal and professional conversations. For instance, I recently hosted a virtual family Zoom birthday party for my younger sister. One highlight was the guest appearance by Tito, the rescued cow, from Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary. Tito was invited by my older sister as a surprise. We were told his appearance is a way to change up the flow of Zoom calls. It did! It was very “amooooooosing!” Perhaps even “moooooving.”
Humor can help us shift from tension to relaxation. Our personal experiences, along with research, support this. Here’s a great article from the Mayo Clinic about the benefits of humor. It mentions that humor:
Lowers the stress response, depression, and anxiety
Helps relieve pain
Reduces blood pressure and heart rate
Boosts our ability to cope
As long as it isn’t at the expense of others or ill-timed, humor is a strength that can be practiced and developed. However, situations that end in hurt feelings or insult may be due to the overuse of humor. We each have our own sensitivities, so when we’re with others it’s important to engage in humor judiciously, based on knowledge of the situation and the audience involved.
When you pause in your day for a coffee or water break, think about adding a spoonful of humor. Although this practice is not a substitute for professional medical care, it might be just the right prescription for your body and mind right now.
Below are a few things you can do to bring more humor into your life. Of course, you can also play with your own ideas. Humor is contagious, so think about sharing a spoonful with others for multiples of fun!
Try laughter yoga. Whether you’re genuinely laughing or just making laughter sounds, your body is getting the same health benefits.
Watch and share funny videos. I’ve shared these laughing quadruplets many times, and they never fail to amuse.
Find and share the jokes you enjoy. Google “funny jokes” and you’ll find thousands of sources. You’ll have to find the sources that resonate with you.
Have a conversation using different voices or accents.
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.
In the new year, many of us resolve to do things differently, like take better care of ourselves or be more patient at work. Unfortunately, we like to think and talk about making these changes rather than actually doing something differently. This is one of the reasons so few of us keep our resolutions. Why not scrap them and try something that works?
It turns out we can’t think our way to positive, lasting change. We need to behave differently, and the 30-day practice can facilitate that shift in behavior. In part 1 of this article,you can get an introduction to the 30-day practice – what it is, why you should create one, and how I’ve led successful 30-day practices.
This is part 2. It offers a step-by-step guide to setting one up and gaining insights and tips from experienced 30-day practice enthusiasts who have improved our health, boosted relationships, and completed meaningful projects.
Why Is Habit Change So Difficult?
Even a small change like getting to bed 15 minutes earlier can be a challenge. The habits you currently have, harmful or helpful, in your brain are like the snow tracks created from sledding down a slope over and over. In Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself, the metaphor continues:
“…if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down…there will be tracks that you have created, and it is very difficult now to get out of those tracks. And those tracks are not genetically determined anymore.”
These mental “tracks” lead to habits. The habits can be harmful or helpful but the process is the same and they are often difficult to change. For instance, if you develop poor posture that’s difficult to correct.
The 30-Day Practice Can Help
The good news is you can create new tracks that lead to healthful habits through repetition and time. How much time depends on the person and the desired change. Habit change can take from a few weeks to a few months or longer. The 30-day practice can get you started on the path to positive, lasting change. If you need more time, you can always continue the practice.
How to Set One Up
Below are the steps I suggest for setting up and following a 30-day practice. I incorporated tips and insights I’ve learned from completing over fifty 30-day practices. Each one served as a pathway to better self-care, learning and growing, or attaining meaningful goals.
Choose a Practice
Sounds simple, right? This can be one of the most difficult parts of the practice. Remember, you want to choose a practice that will help you pursue a valued outcome.
For instance, at a particularly difficult time in my life, when suffering through a serious illness, I missed my #2 strength humor and the playfulness that comes with it. Life isn’t always playful, but that didn’t mean I had to choose to be in a dark funk 24/7.
A mentor invited me to step into just two minutes of
pure pleasure each day. I accepted the invitation and chose activities that
brought that pleasure. Some days it was simply sitting in the warm sunshine for
two minutes. Other days it was two minutes of funny videos that made me laugh
and enjoy myself.
Over 30 days, two minutes became 5 and then 10. I became more mindful of the lightness, which grew. My practice didn’t cause the darkness to recede, but it boosted my mood and reduced anxiety, even if momentarily. It was like pressing a reset button, which was helpful in my recovery.
Initially, choose a 2% or 5% step. These are tiny, doable steps to get you started. Two minutes of pure pleasure was a 2% step. I knew I had 2 minutes to spare daily, and I felt that was doable. Two minutes might sound laughable, and I could have started with 30 minutes, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Remember, this is about positive habit formation where the focus is on repeating a particular behavior.
Make It Clear and Specific
You need to know if you took action or not. In my example, I either spent the two minutes or I didn’t. Maybe I spent more or less but the fact that I did it was what mattered.
Build In Accountability
I posted a calendar on my refrigerator and at the end of the day, checked off the days I completed my practice. It was satisfying to do so on the days I did, and I had a visual image of how I was doing overall. You might use a similar method. Or you might instead have a daily check-in with a buddy doing his or her own practice.
Set Reminders to Practice
I can almost guarantee that you will skip days or forget to practice. You might even decide you don’t want to practice. Your practice doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective. Still, the more you practice, the better grooved the “track” becomes. Keep yourself on track by posting sticky notes in a prominent place or setting daily alerts on your phone.
Begin Your Practice Again and Again
When you skip a day, forgive yourself and simply return to your practice. The return is one of the most important elements of your 30-day practice. By returning, you continue grooving those tracks in your brain rather than discounting all the progress you’ve already made. If you have a tendency to berate yourself for not being perfect, perhaps you could focus your next 30-day practice on tempering that overuse of appreciation of beauty and excellence!
If you have little positive energy around your practice after several weeks, you might need to tweak it or even pivot to another more engaging 30-day practice.
Use Your Character Strengths
Creativity will help you set up the right practice. Prudence will help you plan and schedule practice time. Zest will help you get into action. Self-regulation can help you return to the practice when you skip a few days. Perseverance will help you finish. Humor can help you enjoy yourself along the way. All 24 can help you navigate roadblocks and complete your practice, but your signature strengths might help the most.
I’ve witnesses hundreds 30-day practices helping people introduce positive changes into their lives, from reading more to focusing more time on hobbies, relaxing, writing books, exercising more, reducing sugar intake, drinking more water, and many others.
What would you like your
30-day practice to be about? Make sure it’s something that is important,
meaningful, or valuable. It should elicit positive energy in you, not drain
you, as you think about it. If it is draining, change it up until it’s
As you get started, let me know if you’re feeling stuck or confused along the way. I love helping people experience positive changes in their lives! Feel free to contact me.
Keep me posted!
Doidge, N. (2010). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Penguin Books, p. 209.