How do we achieve fulfillment and happiness? That’s the focus of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology explores how our strengths, such as courage, perseverance, or sense of humor, foster a flourishing life.
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 the 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 present in all cultures. Those strengths such as “courage,” “curiosity,” “love of learning,” and “honesty” constitute the genes of a flourishing life.
But how difficult is it to achieve happiness? Studies by Barbara Fredrickson and Robert Emmons reveal that we require at least three positive emotions to neutralize one negative feeling. We need four or five to flourish.
Unfortunately, research also reveals that two third of individuals can’t name their strengths. This strength blindness conspires against wellbeing and goal setting.
A Special Class of Class
That’s why I immediately knew what to offer when the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, one of the central learning Jewish institutions in the Spanish-speaking world, invited me to teach. I decided to design a very unusual class: Positive Psychology applied to Midrash. Midrash is the ancient rabbinic collection of sermons. I wanted to connect the world of Positive Psychology to one of the world’s richest spiritual traditions.
The class had the highest number of registrants. Twenty-four Spanish-speaking students from over ten countries, including Argentina, Spain, Chile, and Costa Rica, gather weekly to explore Positive Psychology and Jewish spiritual wisdom. We are adventurers in an uncharted terrain of strength and meaning.
Mapping the Strengths
We began the journey by immersing ourselves in a solid theoretical foundation of Positive Psychology. Then, each participant took the Via Instrument, which maps the twenty-four strengths.
I asked the participants to compare the VIA results to their strengths’ self-perception. Would the results of the instrument coincide with their self-assessment? We discovered that in most cases, the results matched their self-definitions.
Students confirmed the unfortunate “strength blindness.” Most were unaware of their inner power and potentiality before taking the VIA instrument and consciously thinking about their strengths. We all could sense the excitement and empowerment as each participant shared their strengths with the group.
Once the strengths were discovered and internalized, I asked the students to match any of their top five with a life situation. That’s when the most significant challenge emerged. The students found it difficult to express their strengths in specific experiences. They instead remained immobile in abstract expressions. A gap separated strengths from their application. But I did not stop. Instead, I pushed them to explore ways to implement their strengths in their lives. The results were inspiring.
One student living in a remote region of Argentina shared an amazing story. He does not receive internet or phone service at home. He must thus walk a long distance to the only town cultural center to use their internet. As the center closes at night, he attends classes in his car in the parking lot. Once his car engine burned out. During the cold winter night, he walked to the center, wrapped himself in a blanket, and sat outside not to miss a class. No wonder his top two strengths were “love of learning” and “perseverance!” We were all in awe and admiration of how his strengths materialized in goal setting, dedication, and accomplishment. Another student who had as his top strength “spirituality” shared how he felt moved to help the poor in the streets of Santiago, Chile.
For the final assignment, students will write a sermon using Midrashic techniques about their own life and strengths. We will hopefully compile our own Positive Psychology and Midrash wisdom sourcebook. Strengths, narrative, and meaning will dance in harmony. I hope that through this experience, the realm of spirituality and Positive psychology integrate into a powerful tool for wellbeing.
A Positive Encounter with Rabbis
At the end of October, I will travel to Argentina’s wine province Mendoza, by the Andes Mountain range, to be a scholar for the South American Rabbinic Convention. You may guess what I have decided to teach: Positive Psychology applied to rabbinic leadership!” My goal for Rabbis is to maximize their strengths in their sacred work and invite their communities to engage in strength and spiritual development.
I have written a previous blog on positive psychology https://www.bipolarrabbi.com/positive-psychology-and-mental-health/, which I invite you to read.