It’s almost natural. Most people seem to focus in on people’s weaknesses and negative behaviors. Even traditional (and perhaps outdated) psychology is centered on what’s wrong and then how to correct it. What if we took a different approach and tried to find a person’s strengths, no matter how many negatives there might be? Perhaps this is what our Rabbis had in mind in Ethics of the Fathers (1:6) when they instructed us to always judge our fellow man favorably. It seems that we need to be told this because we have a tendency to see things negatively. If we find someone’s strengths despite what might be many negative attributes, we can focus on that and encourage a person to use those strong areas in order to better themselves and their well-being.
Helen was an overweight client in her late 40’s who tried to lose weight many times. As she put it, “every time I lose 6 kilo out of the 15 I need to lose to be healthy and feel well, I get stuck and I give up.” When questioned about why she thought that was, she answered with phrases such as “I just can’t succeed in anything”, “I’m a loser”, and “I define the word failure”. After that answer, we explored other areas of success in her life. It turns out that there were more than just a few and the more we spoke, the more it became clear that she had more successes than failures in her life. Now the challenge was to take her strengths and use them to succeed in her weight loss.
- What worked in the past that can help you now?
- What did you learn about in that previous circumstance that could save you time now?
- How did you successfully handle a similar situation?
- What do you know about yourself that could help you stay on track?
- How could remembering past successes help you in your current situation?
You might not find a good answer to every question but one should find enough answers to help them reach their goals. In Helen’s case, we found what helped her lose the 6 kilos each time, and modified it to help her break through. She also shared with me some successes she had in repairing a relationship in the family and we applied those techniques to her relationship with both food and exercise. We also found that she felt very good about her previous successes in weight loss and we discussed how good it would feel to be successful on an even grander scale—she found this very motivating. Perhaps the toughest thing to deal with was getting her to figure out how she could stay on track even when she had a setback. She had realized than in her daily job as a logistics coordinator, when things go wrong, she is the one who find solutions and fixes ongoing problems. She then realized that she can approach her weight loss issues in the same way.
Staying positive and focusing on strengths is integral not only to success but it also contributes to health and well-being. The father of Positive Psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman. In his latest book he brings several pieces of research that absolutely confirm this.
Among the studies he mentions is one from the mid-1980s, where 120 men from San Francisco who had their first heart attacks were studied as to the relationship between type A (aggressive, time urgent, and hostile) and B (easygoing) personalities. This study disappointed many psychologists and cardiologists by ultimately finding no effect on CVD (Cardiovascular disease) by training to change these men’s personalities. However, Gregory Buchanan, then a graduate student at Penn, studied their first heart attacks: extent of damage to the heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, and lifestyle—all the traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In addition, the men were all interviewed about their lives: family, job, and hobbies. Every single statement they made in regard to optimism and pessimism was taken. Within eight and a half years, half the men had died of a second heart attack. None of the usual risk factors predicted death: not blood pressure, not cholesterol, not even how extensive the damage from the first heart attack was. Only optimism, eight and a half years earlier, predicted a second heart attack: of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died. Of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died. This finding has been repeatedly confirmed in larger studies of cardiovascular disease, using varied measures of optimism.
Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study done in 1986, tracked 1,306 veterans for ten years. During that time, 162 cases of cardiovascular disease occurred. Smoking, alcohol use, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, family history of CVD, and education were measured, as was anxiety, depression, and hostility. Men with the most optimistic style had 25 percent less CVD than average, and men with the least optimism had 25 percent more CVD than average. This trend was strong and continuous, indicating that greater optimism protected the men, whereas less optimism weakened them.
In the European Prospective Investigation, more than 20,000 healthy British adults were followed from 1996-2002 during which 994 of them died, 365 of them from Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). Death from cardiovascular disease was strongly influenced by a sense of control, halting smoking, social class, and the other psychological variables that were constants. People high in control had 20 percent fewer CVD deaths than those with an average sense of mastery, and people high in a sense of helplessness had 20 percent more CVD deaths than average. This was also true of deaths due to all causes.
Can we really change our attitude from negative to positive and even achieve a greater degree of happiness? According to happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, 40% of our happiness is within our power to change through our actions and thoughts. Another 50% can be attributed to genes. Surprisingly (although perhaps not surprisingly in the Torah world), only 10% of our happiness is associated with life circumstances, such as money, health, marriage, appearance, etc. So keep in mind, as Dr. Avraham Twersky has told us many times, when it comes to happiness, there is nothing to pursue. The pursuit of happiness is a false trail. We already have the happiness within us, we just have to dig deep and find it.
Helen not only plowed through a previous weight loss plateau, she became a more positive person who gained self-confidence and self-esteem. She realized that her inner strengths could carry her through life and even her friends and acquaintances noticed that much of her negativity had disappeared. The result was that others now viewed her more positively. And as is true for everyone—her positivity has also brought her better health and well-being.
As we have seen, the benefits of positivity and happiness are great. Look for the good in other people and look for the positive attributes in yourself. It will help you succeed in reaching your goals in life and will keep your health in check. It will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”