Last month I collaborated with Insight Timer to host a ten-day challenge called From Surviving to Thriving. To our surprise, over 90,000 people from around the globe joined in. It was a stark reminder that many of us feel that we’re languishing.
While we don’t want to deny or force away our difficult feelings and in fact, it’s important to acknowledge and make room for those feelings, it can be helpful to take proactive steps toward flourishing.
Today, I’m going to share research about five signature strengths that can help boost your mood. The good news is that even if these are not your natural strengths, there are things you can do to cultivate them.
Five signature strengths that can improve your happiness:
A curious mind is childlike, seeking out novelty and a sense of awe and wonder in the world. It moves us away from our fixed opinions and assumptions and allows us to make room for new possibilities in ourselves, other people and the world around us.
Cultivating the strength of curiosity
Next time you’re in disagreement with someone, set your intention to be deeply curious. In order to embrace this mindset, imagine you’re learning about the idea or concept you’re disagreeing about for the first time.
Be curious, not only about the other person’s opinions but also about your own responses to what they’re saying. Notice any changes in your mood while you’re in conversation and aim to put aside judgement of yourself and the other person while you’re talking.
Seek to understand differences of opinion by asking questions about what seems important to them. Ask what their biggest concerns are and why they matter. When you do this from a position of gentle curiosity, you may be surprised at your capacity for understanding connection, even if you agree to disagree.
The strength of gratitude is sometimes considered a problematic aspect of positive psychology, largely because it is misunderstood. Positive emotions are not intended to offset negative ones, but rather, they are used to strengthen the circuits in the brain that help us feel motivated, energised and hopeful about life.
Gratitude is not about only seeing what’s good, but seeking to balance the negative bias of the brain. Too often, we become overly focused on the problematic aspects of life. You only have to listen to the daily news to know that negative stories are more dominant than positive ones.
A daily gratitude practice is a reminder to turn your mind toward the aspects of life that are going well, even in the face of some adversity.
Cultivating the strength of gratitude
Set a daily reminder to reflect on one thing that you’re grateful for. I find it easier to remember to do this by using the Grateful app on my phone. At 7pm each evening, the app sounds a chime that reminds Chris and me to share the best part of our day.
You can change the prompts on the app so you’re asked a different question each day. As well as remembering, “What went well in my day?”, other options might include ”Who am I grateful for and why?” or “What’s one thing I’m looking forward to tomorrow?” or “What made me laugh today?”.
There’s also an option to add photos to the Grateful app. For me, scrolling through these is a lovely reminder of the simple things that make life beautiful.
The strength of hope gives us a reason to carry on and to make an effort to improve things, despite the unpredictable nature of life.
Research suggests that hope lifts our mood, boosts our energy and is the force that keeps us committed to our goals and motivated to take action, even when we’re faced with uncertainty. While it’s partly a state of mind, it is also an action-oriented strength that can readily be cultivated. It isn’t about denying what is real but rather, believing that good things are also possible.
Cultivating hope is more realistic than simply wishing for things to be different – when we hope to achieve a goal, we have a clear plan about the steps we will take, including how to overcome obstacles.
Cultivating the strength of hope
According to Charles Snyder’s Hope Theory, cultivating hope is about identifying and planning toward our goals while at the same time, deepening our sense of agency about our ability to achieve those goals. The latter involves staying focused on what is possible and avoiding ruminating on the past.
Use the following journal prompts to help cultivate hope and importantly, take one step in the coming week that will move you in the direction of one of your goals.
- What is one clear goal you hope to achieve?
- What small actions can you take this week to move you closer to this goal?
- What options do you have if things don’t go to plan?
- Recall a time in the past where you successfully achieved one of your goals (even if that goal was minor). What strengths did you call on? What did you learn from the obstacles you encountered?
Read E.B. White’s brief but beautiful letter about hope, shared by Maria Popova on The Marginalian.
A strength of zest is about having a sense of enthusiasm and energy for life. When we have this strength we feel motivated and engaged and we approach activities with a sense of openness and adventure.
People who embrace the strength of zest engage in what psychologists call ‘behavioural activation’. They participate in activities that make them feel good, they take on tasks that challenge them and they are proactive about spending time with people whose company they enjoy. These activities offer positive feedback and in turn they lift our energy levels and improve our mood.
Cultivating the strength of zest
One of the most effective ways to boost zest is to engage in physical activity. Studies remind us of that movement increases energy, enhances our mood and improves our endurance.
Choose a form of movement you enjoy and make time to participate in that activity for 30 minutes every day. Ideally, also make time to be active in nature. This 2010 study found that time in nature makes us feel more alive and heightens our sense of wellbeing.
Another zest-boosting activity is dancing. Remember this video clip from 2008? It’s a fun reminder that even when if you’re not naturally gifted, dancing can immediately lift your spirits.
When love is perceived as a strength, as well as an emotion, it reminds us that we can proactively value and foster close connection with others. This involves giving and receiving warmth, care and a sense of appreciation for the people in your life.
For most of us, it was the strength we needed most during long stretches of lockdown but one that was less easy to cultivate. We were isolated from many of our loved ones while our intimate relationships were under extra pressure as we experienced the full impact of the pandemic.
For some, those pressures are still current. Our closest relationships might still be strained, loneliness may feel heightened as we remember how to be confident in social settings and a sense of belonging has yet to be re-established.
Positive psychology research tells us that cultivating the strength of love is linked to improved life satisfaction, a greater sense of meaning and longer life expectancy. This means it’s worth working to build on this, even when it feels somewhat difficult.
Cultivating the strength of love
- Reach out to someone you care about to let them know they are seen, valued and appreciated, simply for being who they are.
- Ask those closest to you how they most like to experience your love. For some, the verbal expression of love is important; for others, it’s time spent together talking and listening; for some it includes displays of affection and for others, love is most readily received through acts of support.
- Engage in what social researchers call “prosocial behaviour” which includes helping, sharing, comforting, and cooperating with others. Before offering help, ask the recipient if it’s ok to help them and what kind of help will be most meaningful.
- Listen to a loving-kindness meditation to open your heart to a more loving and accepting state of being.
- Write a letter of thanks and appreciation to a friend or a business to express your gratitude.
- Let love in. If you’re someone who finds it easy to give love but harder to receive it, make a concerted effort to welcome words and acts of love when they’re offered. Remind yourself that it’s a gift to allow this – we all enjoy giving and we need others who are willing to receive to keep the circle of love flowing.