Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis.
Over the relatively brief time since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, many of us have quite quickly moved into a new ‘normal’, going about our everyday lives in very different ways, and finding new meaning in the challenges we are having to adapt to.
This period of adaptation has caused many of us to re-evaluate our lives, and ask ourselves “what is the good life?”. Were we living it before the pandemic? And now, with so many of life’s distractions and pleasures stripped away, what do we really value and view as important?
Unsurprisingly, this question “What is the good life?”, first posed over two thousand years ago by Aristotle, is still as relevant to us today in our modern lives as it ever was. But rarely do we have time to step back and contemplate what it means to us.
In this blog, we consider the role of our strengths and values in helping us to answer this question. We return to the idea of flow discussed in a previous blog, and how achieving this through activities that draw on our character strengths, or virtues, can help us build our resilience and wellbeing and rediscover a ‘good life’.
What is flow?
Flow is a psychological concept or state of being that arises when we are fully engaged in the things we love to do. Time stops for us when we are in flow and we are completely focused in the moment. We might be engaged in a mental activity such as reading or writing; a physical activity such as sport, dancing or singing; a social activity such as sharing an experience with others, joining together to create something or being in sync with others.
Each activity that creates a state of flow leads to more than just positive emotions, pleasure or the satisfaction of a physical need. The activities have authenticity and meaning in their own right. They take effort and focus, are associated with clear goals and give us immediate feedback, leaving us feeling a sense of control and involvement. The activities tend to be gratifying and this is because they draw on our strengths.
What do we mean by strengths?
A strength is a psychological characteristic or trait that is visible across different situations and over time.
Character strengths tend to be moral traits that can be learned and developed, such as honesty, loyalty, perseverance, creativity, courage, wisdom and fairness. They are a useful source of meaningful activity that can positively impact our own lives and the lives of those around us. As such, key character strengths are ubiquitous, being shared and valued across all cultures and religions.
However, character strengths are also valued in their own right and not just because they enable us to produce good outcomes. They are valued characteristics and traits that any parent would wish for in their child, such as wisdom or creativity, courage or honesty.
Character strengths are buildable and this distinguishes them from talents, which are inborn aptitudes which cannot be greatly changed through choice, practise, or application.
When we use our strengths we experience positive emotions such as pride, satisfaction, joy or fulfillment. This is because our strengths are closely connected to our values. Acting in accordance with our values, using our strengths to move towards being the person we want to be, living the life we want to live and being the person we want others to see us as, makes us feel good about ourselves. This contributes positively to our self-esteem.
What are your strengths?
Having started to read this article, you may already be wondering what your own strengths are. Or perhaps you have in mind the personal strengths that you usually draw on to get you through difficult times or new challenges. You may have been using and noticing them through the recent challenges associated with the pandemic. But there may be other strengths in your toolbox that do not show up so often and which it would be good to be aware of.
It can be quite difficult to fully acknowledge our own strengths, as there are often cultural or personal pressures to downplay our strengths and successes. The phrase ‘pride comes before a fall’ highlights the common cultural tendency to ‘bring down a peg or two’ those who feel a sense of satisfaction or pleasure in their achievements.
Rather than thinking about what you consider to be your personal strengths, try asking yourself how you would like other people to see you, as you really are. Imagine a television station wanted to make a documentary of your life, and interviewed all your family and friends. What would you hope they would say about you? It is often easier to identify your strengths indirectly in this way.
Alternatively, you may want to complete this online quiz which can help to tease out a bit more detail about your character strengths. This quiz focuses on 24 key strengths which relate to the six ubiquitous virtues described by positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson:
- Wisdom: Intellectual strengths that help you gain and use information.
- Courage: Strengths of will that help you accomplish goals in the face of fear and internal or external obstacles.
- Humanity: Interpersonal strengths that help you befriend others and tend to your relationships.
- Justice: Social or civic strengths that help bolster a healthy community.
- Temperance: Protective traits that help you avoid excess and stay on track in the face of temptations.
- Transcendence: Strengths of meaning that connect you with the larger world and provide meaning.
Completing the quiz will help to identify your key character strengths. Some of these will ring true to you whilst others might seem unexpected or counter to how you normally see yourself
Try narrowing down the list to a core set of key strengths that you feel a true connection to in your everyday life at work and home, in your relationships and in your recreational activities. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman recommends asking the following questions about your strengths to find out which are your ‘signature strengths’.
For each one, do any of these criteria apply?:
- A sense of ownership or authenticity (“this is the real me”)
- A feeling of excitement while displaying it
- A rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced
- Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
- A sense of yearning to find ways to use it
- A feeling of inevitability in using the strength (“try and stop me”)
- Invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the strength
- The creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around it
- Joy, zest, enthusiasm while using it
Drawing on your personal strengths to live ‘the good life’
Research shows that drawing on your signature strengths, using them every day, in the different areas of your life will help you to live the good life. Finding new ways of applying your strengths, taking time to reflect and develop new skills that build on your strengths will create a state of flow, leading to a more meaningful life and what Seligman refers to as ‘authentic happiness’.
If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of our other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.