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What is the #1 Character Strength for Living a Happy Life?

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Last month I shared the VIA Character Strengths assessment survey that can help you identify your top character strengths from a list of 24 desirable characteristics. I suggested that you might find it helpful to identify and capitalize on your own natural strengths. I wasn’t surprised about which strengths rose to the top in my own assessment. But as I reviewed the report it was the strength ranked last (weakest?) on my own personal list – Gratitude - that made me stop and think.

Here’s why. Have you heard of Dr. Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology?” I’ve been aware of Dr. Seligman’s work at the University of Pennsylvania for years, but only recently had the chance to take his online course and really delve into the topic. Dr. Seligman famously introduced the idea of positive psychology when he was president of the American Psychology Association (APA). Until that time the APA was focused on disorders – listing and diagnosing all the things that could go wrong within us humans. Using his leadership position he argued that psychology should also research and promote the good stuff within us humans too! And that research has shown that Gratitude is the #1 strength related to happiness in life. Here is a quick video of Dr. Seligman talking about the power of gratitude with interviewer Larry King:

Throughout my childhood and into adulthood I had an attitude of always expecting the worst in any given situation. That way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be disappointed when things didn’t go my way. Which they often didn’t. I remember my mother giving me a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking when I was a teen. I thought, are you kidding me? It was clear to me that some life situations are simply rotten and looking for a silver lining just isn’t possible and can even be harmful. Even then I knew that stuffing one’s feelings and pretending to be “okay” when you weren’t probably wouldn’t make you feel better. Just wishing wasn’t going to make it so! I was comforted later while studying Positive Psychology to learn that while it is helpful to find the positives in life where we can, toxic positivity can result in making people feel guilty or shamed and is to be avoided.

However, taking time out to be grateful for what is good, positive, and beautiful, etc., has been proven to be enormously beneficial for our mental health. Positive Psychology research teaches us that taking a moment each day to be grateful can lead us to greater happiness in life. New information for me! It seems my defensive pessimism, which I used as a protective factor, might have kept me from seeing the good stuff in my life.

And now, I encourage my clients who are living through tough times to write down three things they are grateful for each day – even while we acknowledge the difficulties they are simultaneously facing. It can be difficult to feel gratitude when we are feeling our lowest. I assure clients that what you feel grateful for doesn’t have to be some big, important, life- altering event, but can be something very simple. When we are hurting the only thing we might feel gratitude for is a hot cup of coffee on a chilly morning. Or a cancelled meeting on a busy work day. Or finding a parking space on a crowded street. Write those three things down and acknowledge them. Some things went right today!

As I write this I am grateful for the gorgeous cannas that came from a single brown stick I planted three years ago. It looked dead. But that stick lived and multiplied generously and the cannas are now over seven feet high! I am grateful that one of my kids who contracted Lyme disease appears to be recovering well. And I’m grateful for the meal kit I received today that is helping me to eat more healthfully. I have found that this daily practice has helped me to “stop and smell the roses” and just feel better about the state of the world! This particular character strength, which wasn’t my personal best, is growing stronger. What are you grateful for today?

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