Reinforce Your Strengths with a Positive Loop

    Studies of the brain and how it works have advanced exponentially in the last couple of decades. Among the findings emerging is a practical one on how habits are formed through cues and reinforced through rewards (Duhigg 2012). Michelle McQuaid, an educator from Australia, has woven strengths into this science of setting up habits and found that, across thousands of people, they can be taught to set up strength habits and then benefit in terms of flourishing, strengths use, setting goals, and feeling more energized (McQuaid and Lawn 2014; McQuaid and VIA Institute 2015). Most of our habits—some good, some not so good—are created automatically, beyond our conscious awareness. Making a small change in your behavior sounds easy, but many of us are so overwhelmed that we lack the daily mental space and energy to start. The following three-part process can give you that extra push by helping you make your strengths habit more automatic: Cue: Choose a brief cue, personal prompt, or reminder to get yourself started. Strength routine: Set a short routine in which you express the character strength. This is the behavioral pattern you want in your life. Reinforcement: Give yourself some kind of encouragement, positive feedback, pleasurable activity, or permission to do a short activity you are motivated to do as a reward for practicing the habit. Examples: Cue: Turn on my computer to start the day. Strength routine: The cue prompts me to write out a resource priming strategy for the day (how I will respond with my strengths to the event that is most likely to elevate my stress today). Reinforcement: Take my first sip of freshly brewed coffee. Cue: Walking by the blue chair in my living room in the morning.
    Strength routine: This will remind me to sit in the chair and turn my strength of kindness inward by practicing a loving-kindness meditation for three minutes. Reinforcement: Play a one-minute game on my smartphone.

     What will be the three-step daily process you apply to your chosen character strengths practice? Character strength or strengths practice: Cue: Strength routine: Reinforcement: It can be helpful to make small adjustments to any of these three steps in order to keep the habit loop strong. If you have trouble with a certain cue, don’t like the strengths routine, or are not feeling the “pull” of the reinforcement you selected, then change it. Make changes until you feel comfortable with and energized by your process. Learn. Practice. SHARE. Remember, you are what you repeatedly do. You are well on your way to implementing sustainable habits so that your actions in life (what you repeatedly do) are your strengths. In this chapter, you’ve taken a new approach to your day. You’ve gotten ahead of stress, preempting its impact by using your strengths and starting off your day strong. You’ve become more versatile with your strengths use as you turn them inward and outward more readily, and you’ve ended your day in a strong way with a potent gratitude practice. You then set a specific strengths intention and used a number of powerful tools (if-then strategies, support system planning, and positive feedback loops) to make your strengths habit a success. Before we move on to the second part of this workbook, reflect on this: What is your biggest takeaway from this chapter? What is most important for you to share with others right now?

    Midway Review: What Are Your Stress Levels? It’s time to reassess your stress levels! Recall the table at the beginning of chapter 1 in which you listed ten to fifteen situations in your life that brought you some level of stress and then you rated the intensity of your stress on a scale from 1 to 10. Turn back to that table now and take a fresh look at each situation. In the second column (“Mid”), record your current intensity level for each. If the situation is no longer an issue, you can give it a 0. This reassessment is important because changes in our stress—how we perceive it and how we manage it—can be subtle. Looking at different situations across separate time points can offer you wider perspective and insight. Do you notice any patterns across the stressors? Big changes, little changes, increases, decreases? As you look at the situations and the changes (or lack thereof) in stress intensity, is there anything noteworthy (for example, the work stressors stayed the same, the more personal stressors decreased, those involving people had a small dip)? Explore your reactions here:
    Apply Strengths to Work and Health For thousands of years, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have used various phrases and terms in an attempt to describe how humans might best express their goodness and their virtues—phrases like these: • The golden mean • The middle way • The doctrine of the mean • The Goldilocks principle • Optimal strengths use Whether it’s Aristotle, the Buddha, Confucius, fairy-tale authors, or modern researchers, their message is the same: there must be balance in our use of strengths. Consider any good quality, virtue, or strength, and you can view its expression as occurring on a continuum. You can have too much of a good thing. Too much love of learning, and you might be acting like a know-it-all; too much leadership, and you’re acting like an authoritarian; too much judgment, and you’re probably viewed as cynical or narrow-minded. These are examples of strengths overuse. You can also express too little of a good thing (or none at all) in a situation. You might express very little creativity in a new social group, so people might see you as bored or unimaginative. Too little kindness is often viewed as selfishness, while too little bravery is typically seen as cowardice or fearfulness. These are examples of strengths underuse. There is usually no precise recipe for the balance between overuse and underuse. It is often a matter of interpretation based on the demands of the situation and the people in it.

    For example, let’s say you wanted to express your curiosity strength to different people by asking them questions. You decide to ask the same three questions (in the same tone of voice) to a close friend at home, a coworker in the break room, and a stranger walking down the street. Then you ask each of them whether they thought you were overusing your curiosity with these questions, underusing it, or whether it was “just right.” Your friend, who is used to your questions, might say it was just right and typical for you. Your coworker’s response might be that you were overusing your curiosity because they felt intruded upon and it seemed that you were being nosey about their personal business. Meanwhile, the stranger might think you underused your curiosity because they wanted to connect more and wanted you to challenge them further with your questions. Moreover, the same three people may judge your use differently in different scenarios—say, at a funeral home, a sporting event, or in a restaurant. Your curiosity remains equal in terms of both the questions posed and your tone of voice, but the situation and the people can change. This is where overuse and underuse emerge. And then there’s optimal strengths use. This refers to strengths expression that is strong, shows mindful attentiveness to yourself and others, and is balanced and sensitive to the particular situation. Optimal strengths use has been found in research to be connected with greater flourishing and life satisfaction and less depression, whereas overuse and underuse have each been associated with higher depression and less flourishing and life satisfaction (Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, and Niemiec 2017). Referred to by Aristotle as the “golden mean,” optimal use means to use the right amount of a strength in the right context. Optimal use of a strength always—because of its strong and balanced nature—brings along other character strengths to the situation. Think of a time when you and a friend were brainstorming ideas about how to spend your evening. You were expressing your creativity by coming up with many ways to have fun, yet you were also likely open-minded (judgment) and interested (curiosity) in what your friend’s ideas were as well. This flexibility kept you from overusing your creativity in this situation. Each of the 24 character strengths can be plotted along a continuum of degrees, where the center represents optimal strengths use for a given situation. As you express higher levels of a strength, there comes a point when it is being overplayed, when it’s too strong for the environment or the people around you—like when your energy and zest become annoying or overactive. On the flip side, you can bring less and less of a strength to a situation to the extent that it becomes too little for the people around you—like when you’re not displaying much perseverance on a project, such that you appear unproductive or lazy to others.

    Finding Your Optimal Use Let’s explore your own “golden mean” on the continuum of your strengths use. Start by choosing one of your signature strengths that you’d like to take a closer look at: How does this strength come across when you are using it well? Give an example of when you felt good about the use of the strength and when others seemed to respond positively to this use: Now provide an example of when you overused this strength and it caused you or others stress. Include details about how you brought the strength forward too strongly. What was the reaction of others?
    Wadifa Club
    writer and blogger, founder of Dog food planet .

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