MEANING in life is essential or our "character strengths" can DRAIN the effects of "PERMA"
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Most positive psychology articles will mention one of two key areas of focus: The 24 "Values in Action Strengths of Character", and/or the concept of PERMA (the 5 key elements which enable a person to thrive: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships (healthy ones), Meaning and Achievement. Not many highlight a key link between the two:
Unless you are APPLYING your top strengths in a manner that generates PER_A and is Meaningful - you are actually only using them to survive. As we all know "thriving is NOT about 'just getting by' - it's about flourishing", and the act of only applying your strengths for 'survival' is in fact one of the most detrimental things that you can do to your wellbeing.
Take the example of a client who has the strengths of "Perseverance, Prudence, Teamwork" as their top three - and (at least on the surface) has a "wonderful family" (relationships), "recognition and promotion" (Achievement), and always seems to be doing something (Engagement) yet, despite appearances simply feels exhausted and overwhelmed...and on top of that feels guilty(!!) that she's "just not happy" ie "I know I should be grateful for my high paid job/children/house..."
In this situation it is very likely that she is applying perseverance (she is working many hours, while also trying to be present for her children); she is exercising prudence (she knows she is taking on too much - but life happens doesn't it?); and she pushes on because of her commitment to and love of her teams at work and home (teamwork).
The ideas that most Strength Reports would suggest would be similar to "How can you apply perseverance" in your life - as the point of finding out your VIA is, if you are engaging regularly in your top strengths, you will be flourishing.
This is clearly not the case here.
The importance of MEANING
The reason behind this view is that positive psychology looks for "beyond normal". It's not about "getting through" but springing forward. And this is commendable. In doing so it teaches clients ways to feel good - to engage with the things (ie their "character strengths") that they love and will bring out the best in them - and often this works! I, for example, left my personal facebook page because I was simply being brought down by the constant negativity and lack of meaningful connection. In taking my relationships into messages, emails and phone calls, I was more energised..."Zest", I now realise, is my top strength.
However, sometimes, our strengths are used to "get us through". Why? Because they are the types of behaviours we are most comfortable with.
Taking the example of "Zest" - as a coach I have to challenge clients; and with a media profile I sometimes have to stick my head above the parapet. Bravery (also within the 24 strengths - but very near the bottom of my 24(!)) just doesn't feature with me. So instead, what I do is speak honestly, but positively. I challenge, but give an "out". Instead of saying "I don't agree" - I try to validate that you have a right to your opinion first. It helps me do my job, but there's an extra layer of thinking that goes into it (not to mention the worry afterwards of "Even though I thought it through - did I still offend!?") and that can be tiring.
Now, you may ask, "If she's finding zest tiring" why do a job where she has to use the strength in that way. The answer is simple - meaning. I LOVE - truly adore - MY JOB overall and so I can deal with the exhausting bits.
During the times we need to apply our strengths to "go to the hard place" WE MUST FIND MEANING - otherwise all we are doing is labouring under a misapprehension...spending the very values essential to our wellbeing on something where little positive emotion is generated; achievements become pieces of paper; and our relationships may suffer because people cannot understand why we aren't happy "living the dream".
THE "DREAM" MUST BE MEANINGFUL
Let us return to our case study.
This client is engaging her strengths daily - but if perhaps if she feels zero passion for her job (perhaps because of the way her industry has changed; perhaps because of the effects of the pandemic; perhaps because the organisational team has restructured) she is getting no energy from it - the strengths are used to get her through, not to fill her sails.
Then perhaps as a knock on effect, while she loves her family - she is so focused on her working life she has no time to appreciate them - the various things she must attend are duties rather than joyous moments. Meaning diminishes there too - not to mention healthy relationships if her children notice this. Her "strengths of character" when used to survive are in fact draining her experience of Positive Emotions, Relationships, Achievement and Engagement.
Bringing Meaning Back
At this point intervention tends to be threefold:
Practical tools which may help streamline the feelings of being overwhelmed.
Simple positive psychology work to rebuild feelings of happiness and empowerment, creating a buffer for the stress that cannot be influenced, and making taking action over 1 and 3 easier.
A recalibration of your current world including an exit strategy; a redistribution of your talents; a change of direction within role should this be permitted (ie. I never wanted a Head of Year role when I was a teacher, but happily took Head of Department and Programme Management positions...NOT ALL PROMOTIONS ARE CREATED EQUALLY - at least not in terms of their meaning to YOU!!)
So, as we reach Christmas, where hopefully you all have a moment to catch your breath and regroup, I wanted to give you some ideas for all three categories, just in case this post resonated with you. Remember, this is not about any major shifts (although it can be) - but it is about the need to realign.
Tips to manage daily stressors
"Do, Delegate, Delay, Delete": This is an excellent way to redistribute your commitments. If you have to do it and you have to do it now - get it done; BUT if YOU don't have to do it (but it needs to be done) - can you delegate it? If you have to do it, but not immediately, can you delay it...and if it's simply exhausting you and really not essential - can you delete it?
-A word on "delegation"
Delegation is a skill. You need to choose someone who can do it (or have the ability to support them - templates, examples, and training them up before can be helpful - or at least make sure your instructions are clear and you do take a moment to check in with their progress.) Even something as "silly" as loading the dishwasher can be a shared load, especially if the instructions are clear - and perhaps "whose turn" it is.
If you feel you cannot delegate, ask yourself why. Notably:
- WHY are you holding onto that task (eg. Do you not trust others to do it (can you teach them?); do you not think they will (is this just an assumption or have you asked); do you think the task makes you feel needed (this is a whole other article, but may be worth recognising and dropping me an email about!)
- WHY are you afraid of asking? (eg. Do you think "it's your job?"...and if so, is this fair?)
If you are struggling then consider using this approach from Seligman's book "Learned Optimism":
Activating event/Stress trigger: Eg. Having to load the dishwasher
Belief: eg: I can't ask my partner because they're busy
Consequence: I do it all and I get even more stressed, and I might even resent my partner for not helping
Dispute and possible approach: My partner helps me in other ways, and they won't mind doing this on a rota, and if they do, I can at least ask why or ask whether they have any ideas to help reduce my workload. I will ask tonight about the ways we can distribute the household tasks.
Energiser: Something that will help you take effective action (ie. do the thing outlined above in an open, rather than angry manner.)...these tend to be the things in the next category.
Tips to build your sense of self efficacy
- Three good things about YOU
Not simply 3 good things today, but three things you are proud of YOU for doing/being/saying... Done regularly, this will move you from the mindset of being stuck to the mindset of I'm capable to do some things...and then to - I've got this!
- The "Losada challenge"
I will not go into the arguments based on the mathematics of the original Losada Ratio often used as an example of where positive psychology gets it wrong; but as a qualitative researcher would just add that the findings through what I would deem acceptable coding/grounded theory based methods that work, finds that teams who voice 2 positive statements for every negative; and families who voice 5 for every negative are happier. This forms the basis of the challenge.
For every negative experience at home or at work - try a minimum of creating 2 positives. At home for example, if your son hasn't done his homework and you need to chastise him, find something you can do together, and compliment him on something he's done well. At work, instead of simply pushing back with "I can't take on more.." (which also doesn't give the best impression of you...arguably unfair given the above circumstances, but people can't always look beneath the surface) suggest two possible solutions that show your knowledge of the role and what is needed eg "I don't have the capacity in my schedule, but X would be delighted to work on that project; or Y has been improving their skills and would love the opportunity to showcase them - and I'll oversee."
-Work on active and passive CONSTRUCTIVE language, rather than destructive language (Seligman)
Active constructive language is engaging conversation - asking more, showing interest.
Passive constructive language is a positive comment "That's great".
It is notable that we often use passive constructive language in our professional lives eg opening an email with "I hope you're well" rather than asking "how are you?" - and social media has allowed us to get away with clicking a button rather than entering into dialogue.
Nonetheless, this is still preferable to:
Active destructive language eg: Why didn't you do... or "Why are you so stupid?" (and even if you don't use this to others - do you use it on yourself!?)
Passive destructive can simply be ignoring it.
Try the Losada challenge there too if you notice you use a lot of destructive language - including about yourself. At least 2 positives for every negative!!
- Emphasise physical wellness
A walk, a run, a 5 minute meditation - and eating properly - may all help you focus, sleep better and above all remove those feelings of sluggishness.
Tips to move forward
Then you also need to look at how to bring back meaning. Perhaps write down the pros and cons of your job (or the situation you are puzzling over).
Look at what you love, look at what you don't, then ask questions such as:
- Are there other opportunities for me to use my skills in a different area (great if you like the organisation but perhaps not the job anymore)
- Would a sabbatical be cost-effective and help me explore options?
- Are there transfer possibilities?
- What other work might I enjoy
A lot of this needs to bear in mind your financial bottom line and the professional market, but one thing you can be sure of - if you are simply using your strengths to survive, they will drain you rather than energise you.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt