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How Positive Psychology Can Improve Your Mental Health in 25 Minutes

A warning. Research (1) shows that only two-thirds of Americans can answer the following question: what are your top strengths? Can you?

You wake to notice a foul odor emanating from your basement. Standing at the top of the basement’s stairs, you witness your wedding and graduation albums, artwork, and Kashmir carpet succumb to a mighty bubbling sewer spring. In desperation, you call the 24-hour emergency plumber service. The plumber assesses the situation and announces, “umm…, I’m sorry, but I did not bring the right tools.”

Join the 21 million Strong People in 25 Minutes

Americans suffer from an alarming unhappiness pandemic. Research reveals that less than 25% of the US population experiences flourishing (2). We languish 16th behind Ireland, Germany, and Canada on the World Happiness Scale. Fortunately, scientists have also discovered that activating our natural strengths such as “curiosity,” “humor,” and “perseverance,” can boost our flourishing 18-fold (3).  Still, like unprepared plumbers, 75% of Americans remain unaware of their life tools.  

Your strengths are readily available. Just click on http://www.viacharacter.org/  and join the 21 million who have taken the Via Classification Survey.

You will receive a free personalized list of the 24 universally accepted strengths, such as “leadership” or “fairness,” according to your preference.

So, am I exaggerating on this blog’s title? Can a short survey radically improve your life? Can Positive Psychology boost mental health? Research shows that just knowing your strengths can increase your flourishing nine times (4).  Blindness to your strengths is a severe life handicap.  

Twenty-Four Reasons to Be Strong

An ancient Greek and an Eskimo meet for coffee. Would they share a common language about what is being human? Is there a set of ethics or values that unifies people across time and geography? It was not until 2004 that a universal theory of positive strengths emerged. Dr. Seligman (past-President of the American Psychological Association), and Dr. Cristopher Peterson, blessed be his memory, from University of Michigan, invited 55 scholars to study the positive aspects of the psyche. After three years of collaboration, they produced the groundbreaking: Character strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. The team identified 24 strengths in all cultures. Those strengths such as “courage,” “curiosity,” “love of learning,” and “honesty” constitute the genes of a flourishing life (5). They are your favorite screwdrivers in your life toolbox.”  

Positive Psychology In; Depression Out

Though almost a decade ago, I still dread the weeks of depression I spent glued to a green couch. A mania exacerbated by a wrongly prescribed antidepressant resulted in my arrest for impersonating a police officer. I was twice hospitalized, diagnosed with bipolar, and fired in twenty days. From NY to Ireland to Japan, the press ridiculed me as the “Road Rage Rabbi.” I felt that my life was disintegrating.

I vividly recall the instant my life shifted back into flourishing. Walking by my desk, I saw the VIA survey results I had taken two years earlier during a workshop on Positive Psychology at the VIA Institute.

I looked at my forgotten top 5 strengths, “creativity,” “curiosity,” “love of learning,” “perseverance,” and bravery.” Tears began rolling down my cheeks. “Alfredo,” I mumbled, “this is you.” A week later, I enrolled in Adelphi’s social work school.

Stigma, be Afarid. Positive Psychology is in Town

Mental illness hijacked my identity. My bipolar occupied the totality of my Self. I felt displaced into the margins of society, alone, lonely, and isolated. As I looked at my strengths, the painful emotions of abnormality vanished. I now belonged to a community of universal shared strengths. I regained my humanity. I held that VIA report right before my eyes and shifted my self-definition from victim to empowered. Stigma lay defenseless against the might of my strengths. In the land of strengths, we who struggle with a mental illness are as courageous, prudent, and fair as our neighbors. Or, toughened by our journey, even stronger.

The Most Unique You

There are 5.1 million possible combinations of the top five signature strengths. The number of sequences for the 24 strengths exponentially surpasses the world population. No two individuals share identical strength identities. Your VIA classification is your unique strength footprint. It provides you with the gift of an inimitable Self. Embraced by Positive psychology, your existence is irreplaceable. Stigma and its horrendous forcing of others into fixed categories evaporate. Your illness dissolves in your singleness. Like the finest art piece, you are one of a kind. Mental illness will no longer define you.

You are not a Car. You Don’t Need Fixing.

An abyss separates “fixing” from “developing.” We fix problems and develop strengths. Mental illness is traumatic. It confronts us with an inner disintegration (6). Instinctively, we rush to glue the broken Self. But once we discover our strengths, a new question emerges, “what can I do with them?” A sense of purpose fills you. A world of possibilities can displace the fixations of our trauma. Inspired by a “love of learning,” “curiosity,” and “perseverance,” I chose to return to school to become a social worker. Strengths surpass who you are. They move you forward towards whom you can become.  

Positive Psychology: The Eggs on the Cake

Mental illness throws us into a state of unsufferable anxious randomness (7). As we sense depression rushing through our body, we fear, “oh no! Will, I miss the wedding of my best friend tomorrow!” “I’m the best man!” “We already paid for the cruise, and I’m still in the psychiatric ward.” I have once again ruined family vacations.” “They will never forgive me” Uncertainty robs us of our dreams. Life becomes a chronic earthquake. Strengths, however, never vanish. No matter the depth of the crisis, we retain our gratefulness or forgiveness. Psychosis will not rob you of your creativity. Mania can’t strip you of your love. Beneath your horrific experiences, the strengths that form your character remain vivid and vibrant. Our strengths are the eggs on the cake of life. They hold us together.

Smell the Roses, Spot Your Strengths

Our ancestors experienced constant danger. Leaving their cave’s safety entailed a daring act of courage. As a precaution, our brains evolved to expect the worst. That defensive anxiety remains ingrained in our psychic DNA (8). Frustrated coaches try to convince their clients to focus on their signature strengths instead of the bottom ones. It’s no wonder that it took psychology almost two hundred years to transition from trauma to what is best in us. This predisposition toward the negative is the source of our perversive blindness to strength. Our defensive instincts tell us that paradoxically, by relying on our strengths, we may lower our guard.

If the negative forces are so strong, how can we overcome strength blindness? We must engage in “strength spotting.” Buy a journal and document the best in you. Bring your strengths into consciousness. Don’t explore them in the abstract. Match your strengths to different situations such as home, work, or leisure. Look at your favorite tv show, movie, or book characters and ponder what strengths do I value in them? Reflect on the most influential individuals in your life. What are their strengths? If you trust somebody, ask him or her to name your strengths. Become a strengths detective. Actively search for the best in you and in others. That positive attitude will energize and propel you toward fulfillment.   

I am Curious…

Tell me, what are you waiting for to learn your strengths? Would you share them with me? I’m so curious. Don’t act surprised. You already know that curiosity is among my top five strengths.

1. Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realizing strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

2. Keyes, C.L.M. (2002). The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 207-222, and (2003). Complete mental health: and agenda for the 21st century. In C.L.M Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.). Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 293-312). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. For similar data in New Zealand, see: Hone, L.C, Jarden, A., Duncan, S., & Schofield, G.M. (2015). Flourishing in New Zealand workers: Association with lifestyle behaviors, physical health, psychosocial, and work-related indicators. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(9), 973-983.

3. Hone, L.C., Jarden, A., Duncan. S, & Schofield, G.M, (2015). Flourishing in New Zealand workers: Associations with lifestyle behaviors, physical health, psychosocial, and work-related indicators. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57 (9), 973-983.

In fact, the simple awareness of our strength increases the chances for flourishing. A representative sample of New Zealand workers reveals that those highly aware of their strength increase their flourishing likelihood nine times. Hone, Ibid).

4. Hone, L.C., Jarden, A., Duncan, S., & Schofield, G.M. (2015). Flourishing in New Zealand workers: Associations with lifestyles behaviors, physical health, psychosocial, and work-related indicators. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(9), 973-983.

5. For a comprehensive treatment of Positive Psychology, the academic and practical perspectives see: Ryan M. Niemiec, Character Strengths Interventions: A Practical Guide for Practitioners, (Hogrefe: Boston, 2017). Searching the index for “depression, “or “autism” you will find an analysis of research on the impact of Positive Psychology upon mental health. 

6. For a study on mental illness and the feeling of “being fixed,” see Gillard, LM., Shattel, M.M., and Thomas, S.P, (2009), Mental health patient’s experiences of being misunderstood. Journal of American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 15 (3), 191-199.

7. For mental health and uncertainty see, Erdner, A., Magnusson, A., Nystrom, M., and Lutzen, K. (2005). Social and existential alienation experienced by people with long-term mental illness. Scandinavian Journal of Carig Sciences, 19, 373-380. And Jonsson, P.D., Wijk, H. Skarsarter, I., and Danielson, E. (2008). Persons living with bipolar disorder-their view of the illness and the future. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 29, 1217-1236.

8. Baumeister, R.F, Bratslavsky, E, Fikenaeuer, C., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general Psychology, 5 (4), 323-370.

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