Though I am “pumping iron” these days as part of a local bone builders class, and exercise is hugely important for happiness, today I’m using that term metaphorically. The focus of this blog is actually internal, on our innate and unique character strengths. Since it’s summer, let’s start outside, in the blueberry patch.
Blueberries and happiness: For two and a half years, six bags of unopened pine mulch lay undisturbed along the border of my small blueberry patch. Last summer, my daughter and her newborn with uncooperative sleep habits moved in with us, so I think I have a good excuse for never finding the time to weed and mulch the blueberries. As for summer 2011 … hmmm, I can’t quite remember what got in my way. Finally, after seeing the bags of mulch in the Google satellite image of my house (ummm, that’s embarrassing!), I was determined to get it done this summer. By mid-June, I had finally weeded and mulched the entire patch. No more accusing mulch bags spoiling my backyard view.
Now you may think that a job with such limited parameters that still took me more than two years to finish does not play to my strengths. Perhaps, but I’m still a lot better at digging in the dirt and strewing mulch than I am at storing the harvested berries. With no knowledge of how to make jams and preserves, I’ve just popped them in the freezer.
Then, while weeding, I had an “aha blueberry moment”. My daughter LOVES to cook and she LOVES to research, so I made a deal with her — I’ll pick the blueberries and supply jars if she’ll figure out how to make jams and then proceed to do so. She happily said, sure! Happily because, in part, she’ll be working from her strengths (much more so than me!).
Strengths as a path to happiness: When I went to my very first seminar on positive psychology in 2010 (probably even before I bought all that mulch), I gained an intellectual understanding that pinpointing what our strengths are, and using those strengths, can lead to greater personal joy. But it took me a long time to really “get it.”
Some keys to happier living make instant sense to me — like gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, savoring. Those make my heart sing. Other strategies take more time to internalize. With strengths, sometimes I’d get hints at how they work – like the time a teacher told me that she and her colleagues were unhappy because they had to spend too much time doing paperwork rather than, duh, teaching — but I had to experience it in my own life before gaining a genuine understanding. This experience, which transformed a grumpy me into a happy me, happened last winter. Let’s go back inside.
The painting episode: I came to a Small Group Ministry meeting at the Montpelier Unitarian Church because I hoped discussing spiritual beliefs in an intimate setting would feed my soul. When I got there, I wished I had read the fine print. Already in low spirits (it was January and grey and I was sick with a cold that took about two months to conquer), I was quite disgruntled to learn that our group was expected to perform a service project.
“Service project!?!?” I thought. “I didn’t sign up for any service project!” Between helping care for my live-in baby granddaughter and planning a free-to-the-public happiness weekend, I felt like my whole life was a service project already. I was displeased, and, this being a setting where we encouraged to share our genuine feelings, I said as much.
However, at our second meeting, when the subject of our service project arose, one group member suggested we paint the walls of the local food shelf, to make it more inviting for their customers. And here’s where it all shifted. I said, “A few years ago, I led a group of fifth and sixth graders painting a fruit and vegetable mural for their school cafeteria. Maybe we could do something like that?”
Much to my surprise and pleasure, the group readily agreed. Because painting is definitely a strength of mine, suddenly, this project became joyful. I was also grateful, because the whole group enthusiastically worked from my strength. I got to draw each fruit or veggie, then instruct the other group members on how to apply the base paints. Several of us did the shading that is so vital in making paintings come to life. In the end, we left behind paintings of a pumpkin, eggplant, cherries, grapes, a carrot, peas, and tomatoes. Other than the grapes (my fault entirely), I think we did a pretty good job.
(BTW, this was anonymous — a random act of kindness. Only the director of the food shelf knows who we are, so please don’t spill the beans.)
So I was happy, and glad my fellow group members pulled me out of my funk and taught me a valuable lesson. Since then, I see the strengths issue frequently. For example two weeks ago, I heard a brilliant — and very Vermont — radio commentary by Helen Labun Jordan on using her strengths to contribute to the vitality of her community — in this case, baking pies for the Adamant Black Fly Festival. Very funny! (P.S., she won!)
What about you? Working from our strengths is a happiness strategy Martin Seligman tested and proved with his graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman, who is a towering, momentous figure in the positive psychology world, does a great job explaining the strengths strategy in part of this video. He and his colleagues have also given all of us all a great gift: a free VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which takes about 20 minutes to complete. I was a little surprised at my results (I expected creativity to show up higher on the list), and maybe you will be too.
In any case, the next time you find yourself feeling grumpy — and we all know there will be a next time — maybe knowing your strengths will help you find your way back to happiness a little faster. Maybe even with pie, or blueberry jam!