Healing from a Place of Strength: The Gift of Positive Psychology
The professor gave his class of young seminarians this advice: “Build your ministry on your strengths, not your weaknesses.” Most of his students thought his advice was unorthodox, as they had been taught throughout their educational experience to work on fixing their weaknesses if they wanted to succeed in life. When pressed to explain his position, the professor sighed: “If you work always at what you can’t do well, you’re working at a level of mediocrity. Is that what you want for your ministry?”
I remembered this anecdote as I read about the latest psychology model being promoted to evaluate well-being. Since World War Two, professionals who seek to provide mental health care have done so by trying to help people fix what is wrong with them—“identifying pathology and problems.” This is called the disease model of psychology.
A new approach has emerged in recent times, one by which the psychiatrist or psychologist or life coach chooses to “shift attention from pathology and pain and direct it toward a clear-eyed concentration on strength, vision, and dreams.” This approach is called positive psychology. Here, the practitioner does not evaluate the patient’s well-being by trying to identify what seems to be ailing them; rather, the practitioner helps the client use their strengths—positive emotions—to “identify their vision of what they want and turn it into reality.” In other words, the model works to identify and activate positive emotions in the individual’s life to build their capacity to make the changes and pursue the life they desire. The goal is your wholeness and strength rather than pain eradication.
Are we to believe that by just focusing on positive emotions we can cure what has been besetting us for so long? That sounds more like pop psychology than positive psychology, does it not?
No, not when we come to understand that negative and positive emotions serve different purposes in our lives and do affect our well-being in a comprehensive way. The Evidence Based Coaching Handbook, in its chapter on positive psychology, states that negative emotions focus us on how to “cope or overcome fear, stress, anger, sadness, disgust” and ensures our “survival by galvanizing [us] into action when faced with life-and-death challenges.” Positive emotions, on the other hand, include joy, love, awe, gratitude, hope or desire which “boost other psychological and physical functions.” The handbook points to groundbreaking research that shows the areas in our life where positive emotions can help us thrive. For example:
Physical impact of positive emotions
Positive emotions have been shown to have the following physical impact:
- increase immune function
- improve resilience to adversity
- reduce inflammatory responses to stress
- increase resistance to rhinoviruses
- lower cortisol
- impact brain symmetry
- predict longevity.
Psychological impact of positive emotions
Positive emotions have been shown to have the following psychological impact:
- increase intuition and creativity
- widen scope of attention
- increase capacity to use multiple social, cognitive and affective resources
- increase capacity to take an integrated long-term perspective.
Mental health professionals insist, states the handbook, that these characteristics are the “kinds of competence” individuals need for life. They are the individual’s places of strength, otherwise known as character strengths.
How to identify and measure character strengths
The seminary professor of some two decades ago was right: what is important — if you want to be successful — is to know and use your strengths. Thanks to the work of positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, there is a way to identify and measure one’s character strengths. In 2004 they developed a classification system of strengths called Values in Action (VIA). VIA is a scientific survey that is based on the supposition every individual possesses 24 character strengths in different degrees. By completing the survey, the individual finds their “unique character profile.” Once you have identified your character strengths through VIA, you can use the information to move yourself along a trail of dreams rather than a trail of disease. Mental health and well-being then become about building a life not fixing problems. That is not to say you would not have issues to fix; the fixing would be the means not the goal.
The VIA Character Strengths
Get to know your character strengths by taking the VIA survey.
There are six primary categories of strength, also called core virtues:
Character strengths are the places from where we can build not only ourselves but our relationships, our community, our world. If you assess your well-being according to what makes you unhappy or depressed, you’re working at a disease and not for health and wellness. Do you want disease or health for your life?