Picture the scene. A teenager opens their exam results: an A in Art, two Cs in English and French and an F in Maths. The response from their parent is likely to focus on either the good bits or the not so good bits.
For example, their response might be:
‘An F in Maths. What went wrong? I know you struggle with numbers but that’s why I paid for Maths tutors to help you.’
Or alternatively: ‘An A in Art. That’s fantastic! I wonder if we can help you use all that creativity and imagination to improve in your other subjects…’
How to be happy: don’t focus on your weaknesses
Being honest, which option would have been your default response?
Most of us would probably have focused on the not so good bits. Humans are problem-solvers by nature and society has conditioned us to focus on the areas that need work. Anyone that has experienced an appraisal at work will know how obsessed we have become with weaknesses.
If you were more likely to focus on the success in Art, then you are in agreement with one of the newer branches of psychology: the field of positive psychology.
Positive psychology suggests that you can improve yourself, become more satisfied with your life and increase your happiness by working on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
When Professor Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998 he noted that much of the focus of psychology had been on mental ill health and diseases of the mind. In fact, professionals in the field relied on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a comprehensive and regularly reviewed ‘bible’ for the diagnosis of mental illnesses, personality defects and behavioural difficulties.
Seligman’s view was that too little time had been spent looking at the positive side of human nature; its potential, talents and possibilities. With colleagues, he resolved to fill this gap and in 2004 they published the seminal book, ‘Character Strengths and Virtues.’
You can find your own Character Strengths and Virtues by completing the questionnaires at authentichappiness.org).
How to be happy: develop your character
Commonly, we tend to think of character as something that is fixed and unchanging. For example, ‘he’s a shady character,’ or ‘she is always honest and straightforward’. Positive psychologists view character in a different way.
Their perspective is that character and character virtues are something that can be worked on and improved. Well-being can be promoted by working on 4 or 5 key strengths at any one time according to this nascent branch of psychology.
The following video by filmmaker, Tiffany Schlain, gives a little more detail on the science of character.
How do we develop our character strengths and virtues?
Character is like a muscle; the more you use it the abler you become. Therefore by focusing on and enhancing your positive character traits, it is possible to further develop them.
Here are some examples taken from our own guide, ‘Relationship Tips for New Parents’ to illustrate positive character traits and ways to build upon them:
- Take time to introduce children to their new sibling or step-sibling. (Fairness)
- In the early days when you are both tired, take turns to look after your new baby. Give each other a break to sleep, shower, etc. (Kindness)
- Be patient with each other and listen to each other’s perspective. (Perspective)
- Talk about what you need to buy and what can be borrowed from friends and family. Talk about your finances and how you can realistically manage your budget. (Prudence)
- There can be a change in the balance of your relationship if one person is staying at home to look after the baby. Be sensitive, talk about how this feels, and find ways to share responsibilities. (Teamwork)
How to be happy: find your flow
Jonathan Haidt, author of ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ gives his explanation of the link between exercising our strengths and happiness. He suggests that using our strengths encourages us to immerse ourselves in the moment, in what we are doing right there and then. Eventually losing self-consciousness and achieving a feel-good factor that psychologists call ‘flow.’
Being in the ‘flow’ – whether that be in your work, in your hobbies or time with friends – can create feelings of happiness and joy that we struggle to find in our normal, everyday life. Ultimately by doing more of the things we are good at and enjoy doing, the more we will develop our positive character virtures and therefore experience feelings of happiness and joy more frequently.
Check out this excellent talk by leading positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on ‘flow’ and how to be happy.
The How to be Happy series
Catch up with part 1 of our How to be Happy series and find out how post-traumatic growth can be the key to a healthier, happier life.