Most people seem to focus in on his or her weaknesses and negative behaviors. It’s almost natural. Even traditional (and perhaps outdated) psychology is centered on what’s wrong and then how to correct it.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 Chazal had in mind in Pirkei Avot 1:6 when they instructed us to always judge our fellow man favorably. It seems that because we need to be told that, 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 six 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 defined 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. 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.
According to Life Coach and Therapist Billie Francis, there are five probing questions to ask yourself in order to find your strengths:
- 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 six kilos each time, and modified it to help her break through.
She shared with me successes she had in repairing a relationship in the family and we applied those techniques to her relationship with both food and exercise. We found that she felt very good about her previous successes in weight loss and 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 that 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.
Father of Positive Psychology Dr. Martin Seligman brings several pieces of research that absolutely confirm this in his latest book.
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:
Similar studies showed similar results.
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 percent of our happiness is within our power to change through our actions and thoughts. Another 50 percent can be attributed to genes.
Surprisingly (although perhaps not surprisingly in the Torah world), only 10 percent of our happiness is associated with life circumstances, such as money, health, marriage, appearance, etc.
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.”
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a BEHAVIORAL CHANGE and WELLNESS COACH with over 19 years of professional experience. Alan is the creator and director of the “10 Weeks to Health” program for weight loss. He is available for private coaching sessions, consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs both in his office and by telephone and skype. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out the his web site –www.alanfitness.com US Line: 516-568-5027.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.