A Series of Practices to Cultivate Strength and Resilience – The Swamp and The Pond

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.

The Practice

Identify one way to spend more time in the pond today. Then try it out. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Go on to the reflection prompt below and identify one way to spend a bit more time in the pond. Then try it out. 

The Reflection

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. 

Warmly, 
Jane

Part 2: Scrap Your 2020 Resolution. Try This Instead!

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.

Start Small

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!

Be Flexible

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.

Which of your signature strengths might be helpful? If you’re not sure what they are, discover your strengths here or check out my book, a 30-day guided strengths practice, or register for my Power Up session.

I’m Here to Help

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 energizing.

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!

NOTE

Doidge, N. (2010). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Penguin Books, p. 209.

Part 1: Scrap Your 2020 Resolution. Try This Instead!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution for 2020? Unfortunately, only about 8% of Americans who set resolutions keep them. Maybe it’s too early to tell whether you’re in the 8 or 92 percent. Even if you didn’t make a resolution, it’s likely you’ll pursue some sort of valued outcome in 2020. Reduce stress, lose weight, exercise more, save money, travel, learn a new skill, get a promotion. As you do, think of the advice from this article: scrap your resolution and try this instead!

What Is ‘This?

‘This’ is about creating positive changes that last. In other words, positive habit formation. Instead of resolutions, which often don’t produce results, try a 30-day practice supported by your character strengths.

Full disclosure: the 30-day practice isn’t a scientifically derived framework, but it is grounded in science. Most importantly, it works. I’ve seen hundreds of people use the 30-day practice to become healthier, enjoy life, and get things done, one small positive habit at a time. I’ve used it myself, completing more than fifty 30-day practices over the past years. My character strengths helped along the way.

When people use their character strengths, they follow their own will and natural capacities to fulfill their potential and achieve their goals, which would lead to valued outcomes such as achievements and well-being. (Linley and Harrington, 2006)

A 30-Day Practice Helped Me Finish My Book

In late 2017 I was struggling to finish writing my book 30 Days of Character Strengths: A Guided Practice to Ignite Your Best. Every author finds his or her own writing rhythm. Some write all weekend, week, or month. I elevated prudence, a lower strength, and scheduled blocks of time in my calendar for writing. Unfortunately, this precious time got sucked up by other priorities.

As time passed, my confidence waned. Who was I to think I could write a book? I thought about giving up many times. However, I knew in my heart this work was needed in the world. Perseverance, a lower strength, helped me keep pushing forward.

Ironically, my book is a 30-day practice. It guides the reader to cultivate his or her character strengths, starting with basic activities that grow in complexity. How could I ask my readers to do something I wasn’t willing to do? My sense of fairness, a middle strength, wouldn’t allow that. I began a 30-day writing practice.

Getting Engaged Was Easy – Staying Engaged Was Hard

Starting with just 5 minutes per day, Monday through Friday, I committed to sitting down first thing each morning, setting a timer, and writing for 5 minutes. Even if it was gibberish. No judgment. I figured everyone has 5 spare minutes in their day – even me.

I wrote 5 minutes almost daily for several weeks. Occasionally, I forgot so I posted sticky note reminders on my laptop and set alerts on my phone. I felt some resistance to this structure, and seeing these reminders felt annoying at times but I spent the 5 minutes writing anyway.

If I skipped a day, I used forgiveness, a middle strength, and decided not to berate myself. I returned to the practice the next day.

With trepidation, I dragged myself to my laptop many days. Other times the 5 minutes would stretch into 20. My practice was up and down for a while. I tried to accept this with openness and curiosity and focus on progress, not the end goal.

The Successes

Naturally, I felt energized to see the ideas leaving my head and getting captured on paper. With more visible signs of progress, I carved out even more time – an hour or more daily.

My #1 strength creativity helped me juggle my schedule to prioritize writing. My perspective, #3 strength, shifted and I got clearer about what was needed to finish – the hours of writing, the calendar time, the external help, the energy. This was key because then I could put a realistic plan in place to finish.

As I met each milestone, I knew I was up for the challenge of finishing. I even completed the 30-day practice in my book twice, to ensure I knew what kind of adventure I was leading my readers on.

In a nutshell, I’ve witnessed people boost relationships, health, happiness, and get a lot of important things done. The 30-day practice enlivened me and put me on the path to finishing my book. I established a positive writing habit, which I still tap into today. I’m not sure I would have finished without it. Along the way, my character strengths helped me overcome obstacles and accomplish one of my most meaningful goals.

Your Turn

Notably, of hundreds of people I’ve seen attempt a 30-day practice only one didn’t feel successful with it. She made the attempt numerous times, but it just didn’t fit with her lifestyle. Not everything works for everyone, but in my experience this practice works for most.

Why not give it a try? In part 2 of this post you’ll learn how to set up and lead your own 30-day practice. Then you can experiment with character strengths that will help along the way.

Step 1 involves choosing a practice. Start by putting on your creativity hat and brainstorming any meaningful, valued outcome that you’re excited about. Perhaps you wish to relax more, exercise 3 times a week, or use your strengths more vigorously. Pay close attention to what energizes you. Stay away from the “ought to do’s.”

Step 2 involves clarifying your practice so you know if you’ve accomplished it or not. “Meditate 5 minutes each day.” “Exercise for 15 minutes three times weekly.”  “Apply a signature strength to 3 routine duties at work daily.” Either you did or you didn’t.

Step 3 is getting started. In my next post, I’ll offer additional insights and tips for success. If you want support, I’d love to join you on your journey. Feel free to contact me. In the meantime, good luck!

NOTE

Linley P. A., Harrington S. (2006). Strengths coaching: a potential-guided approach to coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review. 1 37-46.

Boost Your Stress Resilience During the Holidays

Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or the new year, this can be a time of both joy and sorrow, endings and beginnings. And stress.  Even if you’re in a good place in your life, there’s bound to be stress. You might need to navigate bad weather, difficult relationships, or juggling too much to do at work and home. When besieged by stress during the holidays, or any time of year, there are things you can do to boost your stress resilience. Your character strengths can help.

What is Stress Resilience?

The symptoms of life’s daily stressors – a racing heart, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating – can trigger anxiety or fear. Most of us think of stress as the enemy because we’re afraid of its harmful effects on our bodies and minds. But studies have shown that we have everything we need to benefit from stress and in fact become stress resilient.

I’m not talking about long-term stress due to traumatic experiences. Chronic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression, and even death. If you’re suffering from chronic stress, know that this article is only a starting point and isn’t meant to replace other helpful options, like seeking professional help.

Resilience is about responding to adversity in healthful ways. Not everyone who encounters adversity is harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally by the experience. No two people respond to the same stressful situation in the same way. Those who fare better may be more stress resilient, which is about choosing a response that is beneficial, not harmful.  

Kelly McGonigal, Stanford lecturer and stress expert, says that the harmful effects of stress aren’t inevitable as she and other experts once thought they were. In her 2014 TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, she discusses how to change the body’s response to stress.

In other words, instead of working to rid yourself of stress you can practice responding to it differently. This isn’t meant to be a quick fix, but with practice you can learn to respond in healthier ways.

Two Ways to Respond Differently

#1 – Shift Your Beliefs and Thoughts About Stress

If you believe stress is the enemy, this message is especially for you. Studies have shown that if you believe stress is harmful, it probably will be. You might interpret physical changes – your heart pounding, rapid breathing, increased sweating – as signs of stress or anxiety. Although this is a natural response to stress, it can lead to an unproductive downward spiral of negative thinking and actions.

Instead, what if you could change that response to one that’s more accurate and helpful? If you begin to understand that the body is actually preparing you for the challenge you’re facing, you can change the way you think and feel about stress, and the body is likely to follow.

Where do character strengths fit in? For starters, engage Love of Learning, a wisdom strength, to help you understand what happens physically when the body is under stress. For instance:

  • Your body’s natural response is to release adrenaline, a stress hormone that initiates physical changes like increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen flow. It kicks the body’s systems into high gear.
  • These physical changes help ensure that more oxygen is getting to the brain and other organs.
  • Your energy level increases, preparing you to take action and rise to whatever challenge you face.

Below are other ways your character strengths can help you practice choosing how you respond to stress:

  • Use Self-Regulation to notice and name the signs of stress as they’re occurring – the racing heart, the sweating, rapid breathing. Remind yourself that your body is preparing you to rise to the challenge.  
  • Use your other wisdom strengths to learn more about what’s going on around and within you.   Use your Creativity and Curiosity to personify the stress and ask yourself: What is this stress telling me to do? Or not do? Use Perspective to take a wider view of the situation and Judgment to think critically about what’s happening.

Your top strengths might be even more helpful than the ones I’m naming but engaging them when under stress might seem like a stretch. If you’d like help unpacking this, please contact me.  I love helping people use their strengths to boost stress resilience!

#2 – Connect With Others

In addition to adrenaline, there’s a lesser-known hormone that’s also part of the stress response: oxytocin. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory that may help regulate fear and anxiety. Oxytocin is also known for its role in social bonding.

In a stressful situation, the release of oxytocin motivates you to seek social support. Below are a few simple actions you can take when under duress:

  • Tell someone how you feel.
  • Surround yourself with people who care about you.
  • If you have an instinct to withdraw, try to resist it.  

How can your character strengths help? Try tapping into any of the three humanity strengths that support strong relationships: Love, Kindness, and Social Intelligence. If any of these are your signature strengths, you might already be naturally engaging them.

If these are your middle or lower strengths, you can bring them forth at any time. Call a trusted friend or family member. Give, or ask for, a long hug. Allow yourself a form of Kindness you might not normally extend to yourself – time to read a good book or a meal out with a friend.

In addition to the humanity strengths, perhaps the courage strengths would help you connect with others. Persevering through difficult conversations can help you connect with others despite the anxiety or fear you might be feeling. Zest can activate the energy you need to stay engaged. Brave actions you’ve taken in the past might inform what you do in the present situation. Honesty might help you to feel more open and real rather than self-conscious.

In stressful situations, you are the best person to Judge which of your strengths will be most helpful.  If that seems unclear or overwhelming, we can begin to address this in a brief 1:1 coaching session.    

Trust Yourself to Handle Life’s Challenges

McGonigal says that when you view stress in this way, you’re trusting yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.

We’ve been given the gift of having everything we need to care for ourselves and others, especially when under duress. In a season that seems full of bright lights and shiny objects, perhaps that is the biggest and best gift of all. Take good care during these holidays.

WISHING YOU MUCH STRESS RESILIENCE & JOY
THIS HOLIDAY SEASON!

Recipe for a Delicious, Strengths-Fueled Thanksgiving

Here in the United States we’re approaching the Thanksgiving holiday. Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something else right now, it’s the holiday season for most of us. As you might already know, experiences and emotions around the holidays can run high, ranging from joy and camaraderie to loneliness and depression. Wherever you are on that continuum, your character strengths can help boost your enjoyment, buffer stress, and even reduce depression. Below is a recipe for a delicious, strengths-fueled Thanksgiving. Share it with all who wish to make every day a holiday.

Ingredients

Top 3 signature strengths
2 parts strengths-spotting
1 or more “happiness strengths” (I recommend Gratitude and Hope, for starters)
At least 1 overused strength, tempered
At least 1 underused strength, elevated

Step 1

Choose 3 of your top signature strengths, and identify one new way you’ll express them Thanksgiving day.

Using a signature strength in a new way every day for a week can increase happiness and reduce depression. To identify your signature strengths, take the free, scientific survey.

I’m choosing my top 3 – Creativity, Humor and Perspective. For Creativity, I’ll experiment with cranberry relish flavors and create my own new recipe. I love unleashing my Creativity in the kitchen, combining flavors in interesting ways. When I think of my family enjoying my creations, I feel contented and happy.

Humor will lighten my mood when I start feeling the weight of everything that came before – the push to finish work projects, last-minute shopping, cooking, cleaning and setting up. My all-time favorite video makes me laugh every time. I can’t resist those cherubic faces and the giggles that come from them. Watching the quadruplets always brightens my day and provides a burst of enjoyment.

When feeling depleted, whether temporarily or chronically, it’s important to remind yourself of the things that support your well-being. So I’ll place a sticky note that says “quadruplets” on the kitchen wall. Not only will this remind me to engage my Humor and prioritize my well-being, it’s also a conversation starter.

Perspective is probably my best friend when in pressure-filled situations. During holidays, there never seems to be enough time to work, exercise, sleep, shop, cook, clean, and prepare for the relationship drama that sometimes sprouts up. Of course, I want time with family and friends to be picture-perfect, but it never is. It’s just not realistic to think it will be.

Instead, I will periodically step back to take in and notice what everyone is doing. Are we enjoying ourselves? Does anyone seem to be in distress? Is there something I can do or not do to create a more positive experience? I like to enjoy myself when with family and friends, and Perspective helps me do that.

Which of your top strengths will you choose for your holiday recipe? If you’d like to feel more confident discussing your strengths, consider registering for a personal coaching session with me to Power Up and strengthen your strengths.

Step 2

Add 2 parts strengths-spotting in yourself and the people around you.

Strengths-spotting is a gift you can give on every occasion. It is the gift of seeing and valuing others for their best qualities. When your 10-year-old is behaving well, appreciate her Self-regulation.  When you notice someone being helpful, point out his Kindness. Don’t forget to notice your own strengths – how your Bravery led you to this moment in time, or how your Honesty is helping you feel or act authentically.

For extra sweetness, spot the strengths in someone with whom you have a difficult relationship or who is rubbing you the wrong way. Notice the effect this has on not only the person, but you. To learn more about strengths-spotting, check out Week 2 in my book 30 Days of Character Strengths: A Guided Practice to Ignite Your Best.

Step 3

Choose 1 or more “happiness strengths” and add a healthy portion of each. I recommend Gratitude and Hope for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Five character strengths are highly correlated with life satisfaction and happiness. These strengths are Gratitude, Hope, Love, Zest, and Curiosity. Gratitude is inherent in the Thanksgiving holiday, but we don’t always remember to express it. No matter how bad things get, there is always something to feel grateful for – the sunny sky, a dear friend, good health. Take a moment before sitting down for a meal to notice and appreciate the blessings in your life. If you’re with others, ask each person to name what or who they feel grateful for, and notice the elevation effect.

Hope helps us think positively about the future. Ask everyone to write down what they’re looking forward to. Read the responses aloud to share this positive vision. Here are more tips for boosting Gratitude, Hope, and other happiness strengths.

Step 4

Add at least 1 overused strength, tempered, and 1 underused strength, elevated.

Which of your strengths might you tend to overuse or underuse during holidays? Some of us become overly critical when under stress, overusing Judgement. Temper that strength by taking a few deep breaths to reset and open your mind. Others might forget that even a crabby relative deserves Kindness. Elevate your Kindness by speaking to him with kind words or striking up a conversation to get to know her better.

Step 5

Fold all ingredients carefully and gently together to infuse your strengths into Thanksgiving, or any holiday. Feel free to add more of your unique blend of character strengths for added sweetness.

Enjoy!

Remember that this recipe is your recipe. It is within your reach to have a delicious, strengths-fueled holiday. Choose your ingredients according to who you are at this moment and who you wish to become during the next holiday. And don’t forget to share it with your loved ones to multiply the goodness!

May all your holidays and days be fueled by your strengths.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

What Would You Be Like Without Your Signature Strengths?

We don’t often appreciate what we have until it’s gone. This applies to people, like when a college student feels the absence of his parents after going off to school the first time. It applies to things, like when that old broken-down car finally gives out and you’re left without transportation. It applies to character strengths. Have you ever stopped to think: What would you be like without your top strengths?

*******

Recently, I was asked to teach character strengths to participants in a 10-month positive psychology certificate program. We were at a week-long immersion taking place towards the beginning of the course. At this first immersion, deep personal connections are forged, and small learning pods are formed in preparation for the virtual portion of the program. I know because I graduated from this certificate program in 2014, assisted the faculty for 4 cohorts after that, and then became a faculty member.

When teaching strengths, I like to start with the scientific evidence behind character strengths then move quickly into giving participants the experience of what they are and why they matter. Consistently, there is one activity that can significantly influence whether we appreciate our top strengths. I featured this activity in my book 30 Days of Character Strengths: A Guided Practice to Ignite Your Best.  Readers consistently share that it’s among the most memorable.  

Strengths Activity With a Lasting Impact

The activity is simply to imagine your life without a top strength. In research, taking away something important and positive is called mental subtraction (Koo, Algoe, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008).  Participants in this study felt better having thought of themselves without something positive. When you think about it, this is counter-intuitive. Instead, we might think more easily about something we want but don’t have – better health, a nicer home – rather than starting with something we already do have.

Interestingly, when we think about boosting happiness and success, the pathways forward typically involve adding something like mindfulness or positive emotions. This evidence-based activity is different. It’s about subtraction. Without fail, after imagining a life without a top strength, each group I’ve worked with describes what their lives would be like in undeniably negative terms. Boring. Suffocating. Purposeless. Useless.

I’m careful not to leave anyone hanging out in a difficult space like that, so I always end with a reflection about why the chosen signature strength is important in participants’ lives.  The descriptors become energizing again. Inspired. Authentic. Enlivened. Motivated.

Now It’s Your Turn

I encourage you to see for yourself. Below are the steps you can take. Be sure to find a quiet space and a 15- or 20-minute block of time.

  • Choose one of your signature strengths. If you haven’t taken the character strengths assessment yet, or if you haven’t updated your results within the past year, take the free survey. Then review your results and choose a strength from among the top 5 that captures your attention.
  • Close your eyes or fix your gaze softly on the floor or wall in front of you. Allow yourself to begin tuning into this strength. Notice how you use it each day in different parts of your life – with family, friends, or colleagues. Picture how it helps you connect with someone, achieve something, or simply feel happy. Focus on how you think, act, and feel when engaging this strength. 
  • Next, imagine that you’re unable to use this strength for 1 month. If you chose Perseverance, you’re unable to finish anything or pursue a goal. If you chose Love of Learning, you’re unable to read a book or develop greater mastery of a skill. If you chose Kindness, there’s no caring for or helping others. If you chose Curiosity, there’s no internet surfing, new restaurants, or asking questions. Imagine in great detail what life is like without this strength. Imagine what you are like.
  •  Write down a word or phrase that describes what you pictured. If you prefer, journal for a few minutes.

See The Bigger Picture

Now step back and look at the big picture. Living without our core valued strengths isn’t how we wish to live our lives. Sometimes in a workshop setting, tears begin to flow.  This activity can strike an inner chord about who we are and what we value most in life, like the capacity to:

  • Persevere despite hardship,
  • Grow by mastering important skills and topics,
  • Help and care for others,
  • Explore new territory.

Imagining oneself and life without these capacities can feel painful. This is not an image of a flourishing life. Unfortunately, sometimes life does feel this difficult. Or worse.

The Good News: Your Strengths Are Always Accessible

We don’t always appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Now that you’ve imagined life without a signature strength, are you beginning to appreciate it in a new way?  

The good news is you don’t have to live without this strength. In order to finish on a positive note, please repeat step 2.  Do not end this intervention without repeating the second step:

Notice how you use it each day in different parts of your life – with family, friends, or colleagues. Picture how it helps you connect with someone, achieve something, or simply feel happy. Focus on how you think, act, and feel when engaging this strength. 

Trust me, I skipped this step once myself to save time. It led me down a pathway of negativity that was hard to shake off the rest of the day.

Take a Next Step

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into your character strengths profile, consider working with me for 1.5 hours in my Power Up: Strengthening Your Strengths debrief session. I’m scheduling now for November, and there are a few slots remaining so grab your spot now, while you’re thinking about it!

Enjoy this newfound appreciation of you and a key trait that helps you function at your most authentic and best. Cherish this part of you. Bring it forth with abandon. There is only one of you, and there is only one life for you to lead. Make it count by living into your strengths.

NOTE

Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of personality and social psychology95(5), 1217–1224. doi:10.1037/a0013316