Police Interview Newsletter

Volume 5, Issue 2
March-April, 2006

What would you say if I told you that I have an almost sure-fire method for increasing the level of "happiness" in your life? You would probably tell me to "take a hike" (or, in a less kinder fashion, direct me to the hotter regions of hell).

You've heard these things before! And, they usually seem to revolve around get-rich-quick schemes or some new pop psychology book. This, however, is the real deal-and it's free! It is based on the "Positive Psychology" Movement, barely seven years old. This approach involves your taking the time to accurately identify your character strengths and virtues, then boldly committing to using these "signature strengths" in your daily life.

As a clinical psychologist who has treated hundreds of clients during the past 25 years in my private practice, I well understand and accept the fact that some people suffer profoundly with mental/emotional disturbance and require the best therapies available to cope with overwhelming life challenges.

Many more millions of Americans, however, struggle to find some clear sense of happiness in their less-than-meaningful lives. All too frequently this quest takes us in the direction of chasing money, possessions, power, and fleeting pleasures-none of which reliably delivers the high-level life satisfaction we seek.

Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and best selling author (Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness), and his research colleagues have worked diligently to define and measure "happiness", and how people seem to achieve it. Their efforts have also produced a new scientifically-based mapping of 24 character strengths that exist across people world wide.

Please take a moment right now, to visit http://www.authentichappiness.org where you can take the 240 item "VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire" for free, to determine which of these character strengths and virtues are most important to you as you live your life-at the most engaging and meaningful levels.

Ok, now that you've identified your signature strengths, the rest of this newsletter will make more sense to you as you start thinking about ways that you might express your character strengths more liberally, meaningfully, and enjoyably in your day to day life.

Classification of 6 Virtues and 24 Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004)

Note: These strengths and virtues are simply listed below. For definitions of each, the reader is encouraged to visit the web site and/or find a copy of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson & Seligman, American Psychological Association, 2004).

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge
    • Creativity
    • Curiosity
    • Open-mindedness
    • Love of learning
    • Perspective
  2. Courage
    • Authenticity
    • Bravery
    • Persistence
    • Zest
  3. Humanity
    • Kindness
    • Love
    • Social intelligence
  4. Justice
    • Fairness
    • Leadership
    • Teamwork
  5. Temperance
    • Forgiveness
    • Modesty
    • Prudence
    • Self-regulation
  6. Transcendence
    • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
    • Gratitude
    • Hope
    • Humor
    • Religiousness

So, What are your top five character strengths? Were you surprised by any of them? Do you get the chance to employ your "signature strengths" on a regular basis? It turns out that the "happiest" people are the ones who have frequent opportunities to use their particular character strengths and virtues. But, before looking at the research findings, let's take a moment to see how Dr. Seligman describes and defines "happiness".

What is "Happiness"

Seligman's research reveals that there appears to be three elements or features that constitute happiness: the "pleasant life", the "good life", and the "meaningful life".

He defines the pleasant life as "characterized by fleeting positive moods and immediate experiences of comfort and pleasure." Seligman suggests that simply enjoying the pleasant life is dangerously close to hedonism. And, it turns out to be the least important component of happiness.

"Seligman, who loves to work himself, is much more enthusiastic about the next tier of the pyramid: the good life - what Thomas Jefferson meant by happiness. This part of happiness is anchored in building a full life that goes well. It comes from exercising our talents and virtues - what Seligman calls our 'signature strengths' - and it depends heavily on the ability to lose oneself in the earned pleasures of sustained effort, absorbing work, conversation, accomplishment, contemplation, or what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow" (Psychotherapy Networker, Jan-Feb. 2006, p.37).

The third and final aspect of happiness in Seligman's model is called the meaningful life. This is defined as "the dedication of one's life to something larger than yourself-something beyond family and personal or intellectual achievement" (ibid, p. 37).

In the American Psychologist (July-August, 2005), Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson state, "Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits towards all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning" (p.413).

Research Findings on Character Strengths

In the context of their experimental trials seeking to "describe and classify strengths and virtues that enable human thriving", Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues have reported (American Psychologist, July-August, 2005) three rather surprising research findings:

  1. "First, we have discovered a remarkable similarity in the relative endorsement of the 24 character strengths by adults around the world and within the United States (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). The most commonly endorsed ('most like me') strengths, in 40 different countries, from Azerbaijan to Venezuela, are kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude, and open-mindedness, and the lesser strengths consistently include prudence, modesty, and self-regulation" (p.411).

  2. "Second, a comparison of the strengths profiles of U.S. adults and U.S. adolescents revealed overall agreement on ranking yet a noticeably lower agreement than that found between U.S. adults and adults in any other nation we have studied (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). Hope, teamwork, and zest were more common among U.S. youths than U.S. adults, whereas appreciation of beauty, authenticity, leadership, and open-mindedness were more common among adults" (p.412).

  3. "Third, although part of the definition of a character strength is that it contributes to fulfillment, strengths 'of the heart'- zest, gratitude, hope, and love- are more robustly associated with life satisfaction than are the more cerebral strengths such as curiosity and love of learning (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). We find this pattern among adults and among youths as well as longitudinal evidence that these 'heart' strengths foreshadow subsequent life satisfaction (Park et al., 2005).

Positive Interventions for Promoting Happiness

Dr. Martin Seligman and his fellow researchers have committed themselves to learning more about "specific interventions that make people lastingly happier."

A 2002 research study of 411 adults was designed to explore the impact of five specific happiness exercises on the participants' (1) level of reported happiness and (2) degree of reported depression. Each subject was tested on a happiness index and a depressive scale, then randomly assigned to one of the following six intervention groups:

Note: These intervention descriptions that follow are quoted directed from the American Psychologist (July-August, 2005, p.416).

Placebo control exercise: Early memories. Participants were asked to write about their early memories every night for one week.

Gratitude visit. Participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.

Three good things in life. Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, they were asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.

You at your best. Participants were asked to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on the personal strengths displayed in the story. They were told to review their story once every day for a week and to reflect on the strengths they had identified.

Using signature strengths in a new way. Participants were asked to take our inventory of character strengths online at www.authentichappiness.org and to receive individualized feedback about their top five ("signature") strengths (Peterson et al., 2005). They were then asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.

Identifying signature strengths. This exercise was a truncated version of the one just described, without the instruction to use signature strengths in new ways. Participants were asked to take the survey, to note their five highest strengths, and to use them more often during the next week.

Amazingly, after these 1-week interventions, two of the exercises-using signature strengths in a new way and three good things-"increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months."

Another exercise, the gratitude visit, created positive changes (lower depressive scores, higher happiness index) for a period of one month-a lesser, but still very powerful effect.

Needless to say, Seligman and his colleagues were thrilled by these findings and are now systematically researching other "happiness interventions" to determine which ones may actually be effective in promoting lasting happiness.

Now that you've taken the VIA Signature Strength Questionnaire at Seligman's web site (www.authentichappiness.org), I hope that you will join me in applying this new knowledge in your personal life. Given these exciting research findings, I've already committed myself to the following two daily practices:

  1. Three Good Things in Life (see description)
  2. Using Signature Strengths in a New Way (see description)

Seligman's questionnaire revealed my character strengths as including: (1) appreciation of beauty and excellence, (2) authenticity, (3) open-mindedness, (4) religiousness, and (5) prudence. So, the way that I will attempt to "use signature strengths in a new way" to increase my personal happiness may include:

  • "Taking time to notice and appreciate skills and excellence in other people
  • "Choosing to be more transparent and genuine when interacting with strangers and new people that I encounter
  • "Taking initiative to be more open-minded and curious with my children, especially when they disagree with me
  • "Making daily time for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading
  • "Deciding to truly savor my time-off by slowing the pace and getting absorbed in the beauty of Spring time and activities that provide "flow" in my life

How do you plan to use your signature strengths?

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