Strengths, X-ray vision, and a Happier You

What do you rock at?

Now tell me: what’s beneath that? (Tricky, eh?)

Say you rock at rockin’ out. You’re an entertaining and skilled musician, and—no surprise—you love it. What’s at the essence of your musicality? How can you bring this into other areas of your life?

Your strengths pinpoint this essence.

The strengths underlying musicality might be creativity or curiosity (perhaps you’re deeply interested in how music works) or even self-control (you keep a disciplined practice schedule).

Knowing your strengths is like having X-ray vision. It allows you to see what’s beneath your skill sets and talents. Once you know your top strengths, you can start to use them more often and in new ways.

The more you use your top strengths, the more likely you’ll create “flow” (i.e. the high you feel when you’re really into something), and the happier and more engaged you’ll feel.

Sign me up.

You can find out what your strengths are here ( Choose “VIA Survey of Character Strengths” and settle in to answer the 240 questions. It doesn’t cost a penny and it’s legit—run by psychologists at UPenn).

Then try this exercise*:

1. Look at the Top 5 strengths and ask, “Is this a signature strength?”

  • Signature Strengths are the ones that really feel like us (“This is so me”), things we can’t help but do (“Try to stop me”), and that are energy or bliss inducing.

2. Choose one of your signature strengths and designate a time and place (or activity) in which you will consciously use it this week.

  • You might bring use your strength in a situation you wouldn’t normally (e.g. bringing the creativity that underlies music into your dinner preparation by crafting a beautiful salad).
  • You might designate time to use a strength in a way you already enjoy, but don’t currently set aside time for (e.g. Taking 30 minutes to write a poem to exercise your strength of creativity. Or, taking a photo tour of your city to exercise your strength of appreciation for beauty and excellence.)

3. Write about how you felt before, during and after the activity that engaged your strength. Did you find flow? Do you feel more invigorated?

4. Repeat!

*This exercise is adapted from the “Signature Strengths Exercise” in the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. He has a lot of awesome things to say, backed up by loads of research, about how to create a happier life.

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Practice makes progress

Through my dabbling in Buddhism a great love of the idea of practices and practicing emerged.

When I was first exposed to the idea of mind training as a “practice,” I was really opposed to it. It was a visceral reaction and when I explored it further, I realized that my aversion was stemming from an idea that the actions and behaviors that have become habitual for me were “natural.” I thought that practicing a different way of being, thinking, and behaving was going against what was “naturally Mary”.

Then I had to ask myself whether I loved all of my thoughts and behaviors and thought they were effective to achieve the ends I was seeking. You can probably guess what the answer was.

I decided to give some of the Buddhist practices a try. One simple, but nevertheless difficult to execute, practice was to not kill anything. I’m not a natural born killer by any means, but I was in the see-a-bug-and-stomp-on-it camp for a while. And, what’s worse, I did it totally unthinkingly. Especially if it was a spider. Get the shoe. You know what I mean?

But then I became one of those people who does spider and bug relocation. I don’t love spiders so it took some self-control to remain calm at first. I had to practice reacting in a new way. Now it’s second nature.

Relative to some other practices we can adopt, spider relocation is easy. Try practicing non-judgment or flipping negative thoughts in an effort to shift your perspective. Try practicing kindness.

Really. Try it.

Since it’s a practice it is also: a) experimental, b) set for a finite time, and c) allows for you to screw up over and over again. After all, you’re just practicing.

So you could feasible attempt to practice kindness for the next hour and never get it “right”, and still feel like you accomplished something. That something is awareness. Which is sort of like the Buddhist “get out of jail free” card. (I kid.)

It’s helpful if our practices are specific. So it would be even more feasible to practice smiling and maintaining eye contact in every interaction you have with a co-worker, family member or store cashier for the next hour.

It’s also helpful if our practices are framed as “do’s” instead of “don’ts” or “won’ts.” Because you can’t do a “don’t.”* If you say I won’t be mean, but you’re accustomed to being mean, what will you do instead? If it’s not already your established habit, you’ll reach for something in a good-faith effort to practice your practice, but you may not find anything if you didn’t establish possibilities for new behaviors when you set your intention. Thus, the suggestion to offer a smile and maintain eye contact, rather than saying, “don’t be such a jerk to cashiers, Mary!”

What are you (inspired to begin) practicing?

*Hat tip to Marshall Rosenburg for this idea.

Photo Credit: Bill Hails

The Connection Manifesto.

This is the first post in a series designed to bridge the gap between ideas and action.

I love the world of ideas, but the fact remains that lack of information is not the problem in our culture. There’s plenty of good information, readily available. We have an action problem.

These practices and exercises will ask you to do something if you feel compelled. (Often we do feel compelled to try things out, but we stop ourselves and excuses ourselves. Not everything I post will call to you, but when one does, go!)

The first exercise asks us to examine how we want to be in our relationships and interactions. We spend a lot of time in our culture thinking of how we are (as if our identities are fixed) or how we were (in the past). We spend less time pondering how we’d like to be. In the ideal.

Living deliberately (which I wrote about here), with integrity, means we have to know what we stand for and the kind of person we want to be.

This exercise, from The Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, guides us in this endeavor:

“Now write your personal code of unilateral relationship virtues. This could be a handful of words. Or more extensive dos and don’ts. Whatever its form, aim for language that is powerful and motivating, that makes sense to your heard and touches your heart. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful, and you can always revise it later.”

“Personal code of unilateral relationship virtues” sounds a little, ummm, stiff to me. So I call my list The Connection Manifesto. (I like manifestos, maybe you’ve noticed?)

Here it is:
Keep empathy at the forefront my awareness.
Listen attentively.
Whenever possible, leave it (mood, energy level/quality, level of inspiration) better than you found it.
At the very least: Do no harm
If you fail to meet this guideline, reach out later and make a repair.
Speak honestly to support living with integrity.
Remember: Human beings are complex creatures. Everyone is acting and speaking in an attempt to meet their needs. You don’t have to understand why people do what they do to be kind. When people are rude, mean, or snarky, it’s not about you, it’s about them.

I’m learning to apply the same rules in my interactions with myself as I stumble along trying again and again to put this into action. I aim to review my manifesto as often as possible (at least once per day) to help keep the guidelines in my awareness. As the guidelines are more and more in my awareness, so is my awareness of every violation. But, like I said, human beings are complex; I am not exempt. And I don’t even have to understand my own self to be kind to myself as I practice.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds