For managers, coaches and consultants working with others around their character strengths, it’s sometimes difficult to see how the strength of love can be appropriately expressed in a work environment. The key is finding the right context and expression with colleagues which will differ from the way it is expressed among loved ones.
Here’s a conversation I often have with professionals who take a look at the 24 character strengths in the VIA classification to help clarify this distinction:
Manager: “I see how the strengths of perseverance and self-regulation are important at work because employees can learn to work hard, be disciplined, and focus their attention.”
Ryan: “Yes, that’s right!”
Manager: “And, I can even see how strengths like curiosity and gratitude have a place at work because employees can ask one another curious questions, express interest in projects, and they can be grateful and appreciative of the positive that exists at their company.”
Ryan: “Yes, all 24 of the character strengths are highly relevant in the workplace.”
Manager: “But what about love? There’s no place for love in the workplace. This stuff has its limits, right?
Ryan: “Is it not relevant to express warmth and care to your coworkers? To show support and genuineness when a co-worker is upset? To offer the practice of careful listening to customers and thoughtful, mindful speech with your boss?” These are examples of love.
Then they get it. Love simply takes on a different form but it is still love. Love will often be expressed differently at home and in one’s closest relationships, perhaps with hugs, kisses, and loving touch. That is not the way love is expressed in most workplaces.
This shows that all 24 character strengths – which are parts of all of us – not only have a place at work but they are what really matters most in the workplace.
In the last five years, there has been an ever-increasing array of connections between character strengths and work outcomes. Here are 10 of the research benefits to using your character strengths at work right now!
Higher work performance
Less counterproductive work behavior
Better stress management
Greater harmonious passion
Greater flourishing at work
More work-as-a-calling (meaningful work)
More positive work experiences
Greater work engagement
Higher job satisfaction
Increased strengths use the next day
Take simple action
Express love at work by being warm, caring, and genuine to each person you interact with.
Social anxiety has always been examined with a deficit-based approach—exclusively looking at what’s wrong or weak. Until now. Newly published research shows how social anxiety can be linked to strengths expression, specifically overuse and underuse.
It is possible to overuse any of your character strengths. For example, if you use too much curiosity by asking your shy colleague one too many questions, they might start to view you as nosey and bothersome. Conversely, you can underuse your character strengths. For example, if you never give money to an important work charity, year after year, your colleagues might come to view you as low in generosity or underusing your strength of kindness.
Back to social anxiety disorder. How might the underuse and overuse of character strengths be operating here?
My colleagues, Pavel Freidlin and Hadassah Littman-Ovadia, and I investigated this question. We developed a new test called Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) Survey of Strengths and gave it to people with and without a social anxiety disorder. While there were many interesting findings, one in particular stuck out to me. It turns out a unique combination of six overuses/underuses of strengths could be used to identify people with the disorder from those without (with over 87% accuracy!). This is the first actual study of character strength overuse/underuse to be published.
Here are the six overuses/underuses, along with an explanation of why they are relevant to social anxiety (they are not listed in any order of importance):
What it means: You are analyzing your thoughts and feelings too much. You might also be quick to over-analyze the intentions and actions of others.
How this relates to social anxiety: You are probably giving extra attention to your nervousness and worry and less attention to more balanced thoughts and other feelings (such as excitement, interest, and hope). For example, you might see a hand gesture or expression on someone’s face and come to an immediate conclusion that they are thinking something negative about you.
What it means: You have little interest in talking about yourself or any of your accomplishments. When people praise you for doing something good, you feel uncomfortable and awkward and say little to nothing.
How this relates to social anxiety: Humility is an important strength and can have social benefits. However, too much humility in certain situations can lead to depriving others of learning about you. If people can’t learn about you, it’s hard for them to connect with you, which can subsequently contribute to sub-optimal social situations.
What it means: If others perceive you as coming across without even a moderate amount of energy, you might be perceived as uninterested or lacking in enthusiasm. Zest is one of the character strengths most connected with happiness, so in some situations, you might even come across as “unhappy.”
How this relates to social anxiety: In order to contribute to social situations, you need to express energy. If you are bringing forth too little of energy, you won’t contribute as much. This underuse feeds your “avoidance” mechanism which is a problem because “avoidance of fear” is a hallmark feature of all types of anxiety. Socially anxious people avoid what they are afraid of, which further perpetuates the cycle of anxiety. Underuse of zest feeds this process.
What it means: In some social situations, you are especially serious and don’t smile, joke, laugh, or see the lighter side of things. While that might be appropriate behavior at times, there are situations where humor is particularly important—take, for example, socializing with friends or co-workers at a restaurant.
How this relates to social anxiety: Socially, humor and playfulness are kings (or queens). People generally want to be around funny or playful people. They want to laugh and have a good time. If you underuse humor in social situations, you are essentially eliminating one of the main pathways to connecting and socializing with others.
What it means: You are not particularly attuned to your own feelings or the feelings of others. You pay little attention to social cues, body language, or the circumstances of the social situation you are in.
How this relates to social anxiety: Social situations often require a subtle and nuanced level of awareness of feelings and circumstance. People unaware of their own feelings, unable to speak appropriately to those feelings, unaware of how others might be feeling, or unaware of how to query and discuss others’ feelings are at a significant disadvantage. Furthermore, those who sense this reality within themselves are prone to feel more anxious about this disconnect. People with social anxiety may also misinterpret cues or misread body language, further contributing to the problem.
What it means: You have some difficulties in managing your reactions to others or in managing your feelings or personal habits. You may come across as lacking discipline (in your speech and behavior).
How this relates to social anxiety: The best social interactions involve a balanced back and forth of questioning, sharing, and communicating. If your self-regulation is particularly low in these situations, you may appear insensitive to others. This can impact the interaction and contribute to anxiety.
1.) The first step is awareness. If you or someone you know suffers from social anxiety, what is it like for you (or for them) to look at anxiety in this way? The best course of action with this new research is to reflect on how you might be overusing or underusing these particular character strengths in social situations. This will lead you to new insights and ideas for taking action.
2.) Think about social anxiety from the lens of overuse and underuse. This does not mean you have to get rid of deficit-based thinking or attending to symptoms and other parts that feel “wrong” about you. Instead, you now have an empowering language and a new lens for looking at this challenge.
There are different subtypes of social anxiety disorder that I have not addressed in this article. These are quite wide-range, for example, there are social fears involving eating in restaurants, giving presentations, and using public restrooms, to name a few. Thus, the overuse/underuse of these character strengths will need to be adapted accordingly.
Remember, this is a new study so it is important to have these findings replicated in additional studies. If these findings above are also found in future research, this could lead to new treatment approaches to this relatively common and painful condition.
Want to do research on overuse/underuse?
Scientists and student researchers can use the new Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) Survey of Strengths for free in their research. Go to this link here to take action.
Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50–54. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.003
Do you wake up most mornings with your mind furiously spinning as though you’re a hamster stuck inside the wheel of your work life? If so, you are not alone.
Isn’t it time to turn this unhealthy mindset on its ears?
Rather than lying in bed allowing harmful thoughts to hold you captive, consciously, develop the practice of focusing on all that is good in your world.
Are you not able to come up with a single thing?
How about, I’m grateful for:
A paycheck every month that helps me provide for my family and myself—believe it’s not worthy of Gratitude? Think of those who don’t have a job.
Having the opportunity to work with a great bunch of co-workers. You get to chose who you pay attention to in your career.
Being challenged to grow and expand my capabilities. Decide to embrace the uncomfortable because this is where exponential growth takes place.
By flooding your thoughts with the VIA character strength of Gratitude, you will jumpstart yourself right into a happier, more productive, and positive state of mind. Concentrating on the upbeat in your world will shift your attention and help you realize how remarkable life is. You see, negative emotions are turned upside-down in the face of Gratitude.
Because Gratitude is not only a feeling you self-generate; it is a gift you can freely give others as it is contagious—a contagion that creates an enhanced work environment for everyone!
Research corroborates, Gratitude fosters realizing the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from circumstances.[i] The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology adds that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience which is a valued attribute in today’s chaotic, ever-changing environment.[ii] And there are consequences when businesses don’t cultivate a culture of Gratitude according to a study by the American Psychological Association: more than half of all employees intend to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.[iii]
Don’t Miss The Small Stuff: Sometimes you’re so caught up in dissatisfaction you miss all the positive. You know your fellow co-worker who lends a hand when you’re overwhelmed; or the executive who connected with your idea. With this expanded sense of Gratitude, your focus goes beyond self to discern the meaningful and valuable all around you.
Make it a practice of sharing the good. You create a climate of positivity when you communicate what is going well at meetings. Recall emotions are contagious. When you help another recognize and celebrate what is going right, your senses lifts too.
Savor and value your positive experiences. Don’t just name what you appreciate; instead, live fully in the emotions of gratefulness. You will feel infinitely more alive and energetic.
Mentally stash feelings of Gratitude. It helps to tap into energizing memories when faced with negativity. Recalling past occasions of Gratitude will transform the difficult circumstance of the moment and have you dwelling in a more joyous reality.
As you choose to live in Gratitude, you will notice a shift in your energy and discover your circumstances don’t determine the quality of your life or career rather your attitude does. Simply put: Gratitude goes a long way toward living a life filled with happiness, and success despite the challenges confronting you.
To learn where Gratitude falls in your strengths profile take the free VIA Survey.
This course introduces key principles from the diverse sciences of optimal human functioning, including positive psychology, neurobiology, and the social and behavioral sciences. The research is integrated through the SPIRE model of well-being. Students are introduced to the concept of aiming towards an ideal self, the advantages of a positive focus, the five perspectives of well-being, how to engage character strengths and appreciation, and using evidence-based tools to make lasting change.
Objectives and Outcomes
Understand the key principles of positive psychology
Practice new perspectives—and learn how changing our mindset can be a leverage point for positive impact
Apply the SPIRE model of well-being to increase appreciation for and application of a multifaceted view of thriving
Focus attention towards the positive for more creativity, motivation, health, and overall success
Integrate the personal learning by constructing a narrative that aims towards the ideal self
While it is part of our universal nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, culture plays a central role in how we deal with suffering. In the West, we generally reject suffering. We see it as an unwelcome interruption of our pursuit of happiness. So we fight it, repress it, medicate it, or search for quick-fix solutions to get rid of it. In some cultures, especially in the East, suffering is acknowledged for the important role it plays in people’s lives, in the meandering path toward enlightenment. While I have yet to be convinced that it is possible to reach a stat of enlightenment or nirvana—a state of perfect and permanent inner peace—there is much we can learn from the Buddhist approach to life’s impermanence and imperfections, defeats and disappointments.
The Tibetan monk Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche discusses four benefits of suffering: wisdom, resilience, compassion, and a deep respect for reality.
Wisdom emerges from the experience of suffering. When things go well, we rarely stop to ask questions about our lives. A difficult situation, however, often forces us out of our mindless state, causing us to reflect on our experiences. To be able to see deeply, to develop what King Solomon referred to as a wise heart, we must brave the eye of the storm.
Nietzsche, a wise man himself, famously remarked that what does not kill us, makes us stronger. Suffering can make us more resilient, better able to endure hardships. Just as a muscle, in order to build up, must endure some pain, so our emotions must endure pain in order to strengthen. Helen Keller, who in her lifetime knew much suffering, as well as joy, noted that “character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Everybody hurts sometimes, and allowing ourselves to feel this universal emotion links us together in a web of compassion. The dictionary defines compassion as a “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it,” but the only way we can gain a deep awareness of the suffering of others is by having suffered ourselves. A theoretical understanding of suffering is as meaningless as a theoretical description of the color blue to a blind person. To know it, we need to experience it. As Pastor Fritz Williams notes, “Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own.”
One of the most significant benefits of suffering is that it breeds a deep respect for reality, for what is. While the experience of joy connects us to the realm of infinite possibilities, the experience of pain reminds us of our limitations. When, despite all our effort, we get hurt, we are humbled by constraints that we sometimes fail to notice when we’re flying high. It seems to me more than symbolic that when in ecstasy we often lift our head up, to the heavens, to the infinite, and when in agony, we tend to cast our gaze down to earth, to the finite.
Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa says that we all need to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets: the first slip with the Talmudic words “for my sake the world was created” and the second slip with the words from Genesis “I am but dust and ashes.” The healthy psychological state resides somewhere in between the two messages, somewhere between hubris and humility. In the same way that the synthesis between hubris and humility breeds psychological health, combining ecstasy and agony establishes a healthy relationship with reality.
Ecstasy makes me feel invincible: it makes me feel that I am the master of my destiny, that I create my reality. But agony is likely to make me feel vulnerable and humbled: it makes me feel that I am the servant of my circumstances, that I have little control over my reality. Ecstasy alone leads to detached arrogance; suffering alone engenders resignation. Life’s vicissitudes bring us closer to Aristotle’s golden mean.
A deep respect for reality implies an acceptance of what is—of our potential, our limitation, and our humanity. Recognizing that suffering is integral to our lives and that there are other benefits to pain, such as the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, we become more accepting of our suffering. And when we truly accept grief and sorrow as inevitable, we actually suffer less.
Nathaniel Branden refers to self-esteem—for which self-acceptance is central—as the immune system of consciousness. A strong immune system does not mean that we do not get sick but rather that we get sick less often and that, when we do get sick, we recover faster. Similarly, suffering is unlikely to ever go away completely, but as the immune system of our consciousness strengthens, we suffer less often, and when we do, our recovery is more rapid.
The fact that suffering yields benefits does not imply that we ought to seek it actively—just as the fact that sickness actually strengthens our immune system does not imply that we need to look for opportunities to become sick. We naturally seek pleasure in our lives and try to minimize the amount of pain we endure. The imperfect and impermanent world provides us ample opportunities, without us actively looking for them, to fortify our immune system.
The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering—a truth we can either reject or accept as an inevitable part of being human. And when we learn to accept, even embrace, difficult experiences, our suffering becomes a tool, an instrument, for growth.
This post is excerpted from “Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life”, by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD
The participant is asked to imagine not being allowed to use their signature strength for a month. “Say, for instance, your signature strength is curiosity and, for the next month, you are not allowed to search for any new information on the web,” Ryan explains in an interview with coach Michelle McQuaid. “Basically, you are not allowed to have any new experiences. What would your life be like? What it would feel like in your body, in your mind?” He then goes on to share that, in more than 95 percent of cases, the reaction is along the lines of, “I felt so depressed,” “I wasn’t myself,” “I felt miserable.” He concludes that this simple exercise shows how essential our core quality is to our identity.
There was a time in my life when I removed myself from my signature strength of Appreciating Beauty and Excellence. After more than 10 intensive years in the world of art criticism, I felt burned out and disillusioned with the art scene. I was tired of dealing with artists’ insatiable egocentricity. I longed for a true sense of community, for mutual support, for kindness, for… love. Yes, my second top strength, Love, was not sufficiently cared for.
Not long after, I met a director of a prominent business school at one of my art events. She was impressed with my communication style and invited me to attend one of their events. I was touched by the attentive and kind attitudes I found there—finally, there was someone interested in me, too! They asked me to work for them, and I went home and cried tears of appreciation. This was what I had been longing for.
The new job presented ample opportunities to express and satisfy my strengths of Curiosity, Zest, and Hope. There were so many things to explore, to learn, to master. I invested myself completely. And all my efforts were met with the appreciation and comradeship of my new colleagues. The new environment was so different from where I had come from, though—so much so that it felt easier to detach from my previous world rather than to build a bridge between the two.
I rarely mentioned my previous work to my new colleagues. I stopped attending art events and saw my art-scene friends less and less; when I accidentally met one on the street, it felt as if we are worlds appart. My coach encouraged me not to remove myself completely from the art world, telling me, “There are some contributions only you can make,” but I didn’t follow her suggestion. Instead, I donoted most of my art books to the local library. To highlight my new identity, I cut my hair short and died it almost white. I remember one of the few art-scene friends I stayed in contact with saying, “You look so … (after a very long pause) different.”
Meanwhile, I was succeeding at the business school. My unorthodox approach was fresh and, as it turned out, just what clients were interested in. So I immersed myself even more in my job. I willingly spent long hours and worked many weekends. I barely saw my family or friends. I was always busy.
Then, at one point, the initial enthusiasm and zest began to turn into stress and emptiness. Even my achievements were not enough to fill the void. A few more attentive colleagues and friends noticed and kindly pointed it out to me. I was annoyed when one asked me, “What’s your hobby? What do you like to do besides your job?” I was annoyed because I couldn’t name anything. Nothing really inspired and excited me, which was why meetups with friends had become rare. I had lost who I was.
Sensing my growing desperation, another friend started to invite me out more—for a coffee, lunch, or to check out a new restaurant in my area. Once she called me on a workday in summer to suggest a quick sunbathe at the beach during lunch.
“No I can’t,” I replied. “I have to work.”
“No one will notice if you’re back a little late,” she urged. “Come on, it’s summer!”
So we went. What a delight it was to lie on the sand under the warm midday sun. The colors, the refreshing breeze, the love of my friend. I was feeling happy for the first time in a very long time. And, that afternoon, my work was much more inspired.
Not long after, I started my own company and was now able to manage my time. I often accompanied my sister on her business trips across the country, mostly because it gave me an opportunity to see the beautiful landscape of Latvia and discover new places on our way. I felt such hunger for the beauty of nature, of colors and sunshine. I appreciated every tiny bit of beauty I could get. My soul was recovering from a period of deprivation.
Then, one day, while waiting for a friend on the terrace of a café, I noticed a couple of artists I knew. It had been years, but they greeted me as if they were old family friends. “Where were you? We were wondering …”
After that day, I started to notice artists again, gradually. I met them on the street, in the café, near my house. Very slowly, I was begining to allow beauty and art back into my life. I spent time regularly in nature, even if it was just a walk around my neighborhood in the evening. I took the advice, long given to me by my coach, to take photographs—something I have loved doing ever since I can remember, but had given up. I began to attend a few select art shows, and to open some of the art books I had kept.
Working in the business world had allowed me to see my talents in a new perspective. I found a way to renew my professional involvement in art by organizing art tours for clients. The intimate format satisfies my need for personal interaction and allows time to really enjoy the art.
Not only has my joy for life returned, but my identity has become clear: I am a lover of beauty at heart, and I must insert an element of beauty in everything I do. Surprisingly, my business clients particularly appreciate this. One of them told me during a visit to the Art Basel fair, “Anda, you are Tarkovsky’s Stalker,” referring to the Andrei Tarkovsky film in which the “stalker” is a professional guide taking his clients into a mysterious world in search of inspiration. “You connect worlds!”
After giving it up once, I will never say no to beauty again.