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How to Feel Happier

puppyLast week, in response to a question posed during #prodchat, a weekly Twitter chat about productivity, I mentioned a reflective practice I’ve been doing recently that helps me focus on what I’m learning each day. Several people were interested in my remark, and I thought I’d explain a bit more about it.

How to be Happier
Eric Barker’s recent post, What’s the secret to being happy at home and fulfilled at work? summarizes recent research into the benefits reported by people who find ways to use their signature strengths during the day. According to this research, people who spend more time using their signature strengths during a given day report more positive emotions and fewer negative ones.

Psychologist Martin Seligman offers his “formulation of the good life” in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment as:

Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.

What Are Signature Strengths?
Seligman’s published work explains how he and his co-researchers have defined and distinguished among these traits or strengths, ultimately arranging 24 character strengths into six categories (detailed in his Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, co-authored with Christopher Peterson). A detailed strengths finder questionnaire is available at his website.

Simply reading through this list of these 24 traits, however, and paying attention to which ones resonate with you, can give you some idea of what your own signature strengths are. Although your intellectual faculty may recognize the value of most, if not all of these traits, there will probably be a few that seem strongly appealing or familiar to you:

WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE
• Creativity [Originality, Ingenuity]
• Curiosity [Interest, Novelty-Seeking, Openness to Experience]
• Open-Mindedness [Judgment, Critical Thinking]
• Love of Learning
• Perspective [Wisdom]

COURAGE
• Bravery [Valor]
• Persistence [Perseverance, Industriousness]
• Integrity [Authenticity, Honesty]
• Vitality [Zest, Enthusiasm, Vigor, Energy]

HUMANITY
• Love
• Kindness [Generosity, Nurturance, Care, Compassion, Altruistic Love,
“Niceness”]
• Social Intelligence [Emotional Intelligence, Personal Intelligence]

JUSTICE
• Citizenship [Social Responsibility, Loyalty, Teamwork]
• Fairness
• Leadership

TEMPERANCE
• Forgiveness and Mercy
• Humility/Modesty
• Prudence
• Self-Regulation [Self-Control]

TRANCENDENCE
• Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence [Awe, Wonder, Elevation]
• Gratitude
• Hope [Optimism, Future-Mindedness, Future Orientation]
• Humor [Playfulness]
• Spirituality [Faith, Purpose, Religiousness]

[List quoted from Seligman, M. E P, Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.]

Once you’ve identified your signature strengths, you can use that awareness to find ways to use those strengths throughout your day.

Personally Speaking
I’ve found it very effective to combine my awareness of my personal strengths with one of Seligman’s recommended reflective exercises for increasing personal happiness. For instance, one of my personal traits is what Seligman labels a “love of learning.” As part of an evening reflection practice, I ask myself, “How did I learn today?” to prompt my awareness of how I was able to draw on that strength. (You could similarly ask “How did I…” or “How did I experience…” for any of the signature strengths.) Without this practice, it would be easy for me to overlook those opportunities for learning and how much enjoyment I get from them. Reminding myself that I am learning new things nearly every day helps me maintain a more positive attitude (even during busy or stressful times like mid-semester).

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user interllectual]

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