The Wow Factor: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence

Swallowtail on White BlossomsWhat sets off the Wow inside you?  A breathtaking sunset?  An extraordinary sports play?  A masterpiece of music or art?  Witnessing an act of surpassing kindness and generosity?

The appreciation of beauty and excellence finds its focus both in nature’s beauty and in every endeavor known to man.  What brings it forth in you may be entirely different from what triggers it for me.  But whatever its focus, the feeling of it is universal – a thrilling sense of elevation and awe.

It’s no accident that positive psychologists classify the personal strength of appreciating beauty and excellence as one of the transcendent strengths.

When the Wow Factor strikes us, we’re momentarily swept into a world that’s higher and headier than simple emotion or thought.  In fact, it’s the kind of peak experience that’s often beyond words.  Beauty and Excellence speak to the very best in us; they raise us up.   Experiencing them with full appreciation adds more joy and meaning to our lives.

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence Defined

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman,the developers of  the personal strengths classification, define the appreciation of beauty and goodness as “the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds.”

They go on to describe three types of “goodness” that can trigger this strength:

  • 1. Sensory beauty, such as a natural scene or a symphony, a work of art, or dance or architecture.
  • 2. Skill or talent, such as we might see in a sports performance, or in any field of human endeavor.
  • 3. Virtue or moral goodness, such as the dedication of Mother Teresa.

You may personally be drawn more toward one type than another.  Or, if this strength is one of your top strengths, you may find that your sensitive to all three.

How to Enhance Life’s Meaning

In our high-tech, achievement-oriented society, it’s easy to turn into “a head on a stick,” and to be so caught up in our internal, intellectual worlds that we overlook the beauty and excellence that life has to offer.

But cultivating the strength of appreciating them makes our lives more meaningful and worthwhile.  It allows us to get back in touch with our sense of wonder.

That’s not to say that we can’t find beauty and excellence in the intellectual world as well, if we choose to look for it.   In his book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins says,

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The time we have for living is indeed finite.  So why not fill it with all the richness and beauty we can?

Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  We can intentionally sharpen our senses and the strength of appreciation for beauty and excellence in many ways.

The key word is “intentionally.”   Each of us possesses all of the personal strengths to greater or lesser degrees, and by paying attention to any one of them, we can raise its degree of functioning in our life.  The first step is to make a commitment to yourself to look for beauty and excellence.  Remind yourself when you wake in the morning that this is one of your intentions for the day.

Psychologist Ben Dean, founder and CEO of Mentor Coach, suggests that you can increase your appreciation for beauty and excellence by keeping a nightly journal in which you record  “something you saw during the day the struck you as extremely beautiful or skillful.”  Or visit a museum and hunt for something that especially touches you because of its aesthetic value.  Afterwards, write down your impressions.

Dr. Clare Wheeler has some suggestions for increasing your appreciation for beauty and excellence, too.

  • Take a mindful walk, she says, where you stroll slowly, opening all your senses to the world around you.  Even if you do this for only a short while, say, from your house to your car, it will enrich you and clue you in to all that can be observed and enjoyed.
  • Add variety to your daily routine.  If you take a different way to work, for example, or to the store, you’ll be more apt to notice new things.
  • Create more time in your life for the things that you find beautiful and moving.  Buy yourself flowers or plant a garden.   Surround yourself with coffee table books about the things that you enjoy and find inspiring.  Read biographies of people who have excelled in their fields.  Attend more concerts and sporting events if they draw you and watch for the moments of high skill and artistry.
  • Use the camera on your phone or a compact digital camera to capture the beauty you spot in your daily life.  “Make a deal with yourself to take one photo of something you think is beautiful every day for a month,” she says.  “Before long, you’ll find yourself seeking, and finding, beautiful people places and things every day.

I have to admit that the last one is my personal favorite.  I started doing it three years ago and the result is my daily blog, “High on Happiness,” where I share my photos and the thoughts they inspire, just for the joy of it.  And I can attest that the activity has indeed added more happiness and meaning to my own life.

However you choose to develop it,  and whatever aspect of life’s goodness creates a Wow moment for you, the time you spend cultivating appreciation for beauty and excellence will enrich you beyond measure.

If you found this article worthwhile, please do pass it on.  And while you’re here, subscribe and get your free copy of the Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well-Being, along with my Sunday morning letters – both special ways to add more uplift to your life.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

You may also enjoy How to Live a Meaningful Life

 

Photo: c. 2013 Susan K Minarik

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Personal Strengths–An Expanding View

Reaching the Top.

“Using our strengths is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference,” says founder of Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), Alex Linley.

The idea has been around for centuries:  To live our best life, we need to play to our strengths.  Aristotle said so 300 years BCE.  But when asked, only about a third of us can name our own best strengths.

Can you?  Do you know what your top strengths are?  Can you spot them in your partner?  Your kids?  Your best friends?

How might it impact your life—and theirs—if you could?

That’s what this post is all about.

Why Strengths Matter

When you’re aware of your strengths, you can leverage them to create a happier, more authentic, fulfilling, engaged and productive life.   And isn’t that what we’re all after?

Not only that, but when we put our strengths to use, doing what we do best and most joyously, we contribute more to our families, communities and, indeed, the entire world.

Recognizing and encouraging others’ strengths enables them to be their best as well.  When you notice and openly appreciate the strengths of your partner, child, coworkers or friends, they feel truly seen and uplifted.

In fact, in his book Average to A+, Dr. Linley makes a strong case for the proposition that we have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to civilization itself to use and develop our strengths.

What Are Strengths, Exactly?

All living things share the tendency to grow, to develop, and to realize their potential, humans included.  Each of us has within ourselves a kind of internal compass that directs us toward the paths that will lead us toward becoming the best that we can be, that provides us with a sense of what is right for ourselves.  To the extent that we follow its guidance, we live authentically, in harmony with our unique individual self.

Our strengths represent our alignment with that internal compass.  They’re signaled by our personal combinations of interests, natural capabilities and preferences.  And it’s when we put them to use in our lives that we feel most authentic, energized and fulfilled, confident that we’re being who we were meant to be.

Strengthspotting

The scientific study of strengths is a relatively new field and so far only some have been named that meet the researchers’ strict definitions of “strengths.”  The VIA Strength list counts 24; the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) names 60.  But the list is expanding all the time and researches agree there are probably hundreds of strengths.

In practical terms, it doesn’t really matter what you decide to call a strength.   Dr. Linley says that whether you can name a strength succinctly in one or two words or not, it will have the same impact if the label you give it is meaningful for you.  So feel free to make up your own labels for your strengths.

When you’re working towards spotting a strength in somebody else, check with them when you think you have identified one and see if they agree on your description of what you observed.  People love to have their strengths noticed and identified, and looking for others’ strengths will help you been more aware of your own and of the ways that all of our strengths contribute to the world.

The key to identifying your strengths is to think about the kinds of things that make you feel most alive, that feel like “the real you.”  They’re the sorts of things that you look forward to doing, that catch your interest the most, that you learn most easily and do quite naturally and well.

Here are some other clues that Linley says you can use for spotting strengths:

  • You feel really energized and engaged and may lose track of time when you use them.
  • You learn new information or skills quickly in the areas associated with your strengths.
  • You tend to succeed when you use them and to do well
  • You don’t procrastinate about things associated with them; in fact areas involving your strength have a great appeal and you tend to give them priority attention and time
  • You love using them, even when you’re tired or stressed or otherwise worn down.

Strengths Surveys You Can Take

Positive psychologists are hard at work to identify strengths formally and have developed formal assessments that you can take that will tell you what your strengths are.   The classic measure is called the “VIA (Values in Action) Inventory of Strengths”, and you can take it  online for free here.   This survey measures 24 strengths that are rooted in your core values.  (See “What’s Right with You: How to Discover Your Personal Strengths,” and “The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview.”)

For a small fee, you can take the interesting “Realise2” strengths assessment from CAPP that measures 60 strengths.  I strongly recommend the Premium Profile for the additional information it gives you.  You can read about its enhanced features at the site.  The Standard Profile is fine, too. (I am not affiliated with either survey or organization, by the way, and receive no commissions from them.)

While you’re at the CAPP website, take advantage of the free downloads of additional strengths and strength-spotting information under the “Resources” tab.  And be sure to check out the “Strengths Dynamics” tab at the site where Alex Linley publishes interesting new strengths-related essay every two weeks.  Regardless which strengths are yours, his tips give you great ways to apply them.

Personally, I found both the VIA and Realise2 assessments extremely valuable in terms of the insights they gave me.  Both did an excellent job of identifying strengths that I heartily agreed were really “me,” and knowing them felt genuinely empowering.

The top strength the VIA assessment identified for me was “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence,”   and CAPP’s Realise2 assessment identified my top strength as “Scribe.”   Obviously, I love writing, and I love promoting excellence here at Positive-Living-Now, and sharing my love of beauty with you at High on Happiness.   Each survey captured a different side of me and I related to them both.

The additional strengths the surveys named for me validated other aspects of my life that I highly value and consider central to who I am.

That’s what identifying strengths does for you: it validates and encourages you.  It confirms your sense of who you are and that you’re on the right track.

Start thinking about your own strengths today.   What values and activities turn you on the most?  See if you can names some, then take the assessments so you can think about your strengths in depth.

As Lindley said, it’s a small thing to do, but it can make a really big difference—both in how you see yourself and in how you live your life.

Speaking of validation, if you enjoyed this article, you can validate my efforts in writing it for you by clicking “Like” or “+1” below.  Thanks!  I appreciate it!

 

 

VIA Classification  © by The VIA Institute on Character
Photo: istockphoto.com
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Authenticity, the Hero's Journey

At its heart, positivity is living in alignment with your unique set of personal values. It’s about telling yourself the truth, about recognizing where you’re pretending and then making different choices in those areas of your life.

Disappointed WomanMy friend was telling me about her failed marriage.  “I knew from the beginning that I was making a mistake,” she said.  “I remember standing at the altar in my wedding dress thinking I really shouldn’t be doing this.  But it just seemed too late to change my mind.”

All of us have made painful mistakes somewhere along the line, knowing at the time that they were wrong for us, and yet feeling too pressured, confused or weak to say no. We get so busy tap dancing to the expectations of others that our own music gets drowned out, so wrapped up in the roles we’re playing that we forget who we really are.

The mistakes we make because we have lost sight of our own authenticity bring pain.  But like all mistakes, they bring opportunities for self-discovery, too.

As my friend Cristina Diaz recently said on her Face Book page, “Pain is a great mechanism to help us pay attention, to say ‘I don’t want anymore of darkness, what I want is light.’  The hero’s journey would be no journey if there were no problems.”

Striving for the Light

Authenticity is what the hero’s journey is all about.  The light that you, as the hero of your own story, are looking for is the light of your own truth.  It’s the truth that’s uniquely yours, made from your particular set of genes and experiences, your values, tastes and preferences, your dislikes and judgments, your longings and desires.   Your truth is what is real for you.

The hero’s quest is the quest for positive living – for committing to being the best you can be and to accepting total responsibility for your choices.  It’s about being honest with yourself about what truly brings you satisfaction, meaning and joy and then choosing the things that move you in that direction.

It takes courage to live authentically, to pursue your own truth and to live it even when it’s contrary to the way everyone else around you is living.  Committing to positivity, deciding that genuine happiness is your number one priority, helps you generate that courage.  Not only does the practice of positive living lead you to a more sensitive recognition of which choices are right for you and which are wrong, it also rewards you with genuine joy as you move in increasing harmony with your own genuine nature.

Spotting the Not-Me

At its heart, positivity is living in alignment with your unique set of personal values.    It’s about telling yourself the truth, about recognizing where you’re pretending and then making different choices in those areas of your life.  The more you practice living in accord with your values, the more natural living authentically becomes.  That’s why values expressed through action are called personal strengths.

Monopoly MoneySomebody once told me that when you work in a bank, they never let you handle counterfeit money, only the real stuff.  The paper the real stuff is printed on has a certain quality to it, a certain feel.  It’s made of different materials than counterfeit bills.  So when you run across the fake money, your fingertips can tell that it’s not the real thing.

That’s what living authentically is like.  If you’re immersed in the high-value stuff, you sense the counterfeit right away.  Some part of you that’s as sensitive as your fingertips says, “Hey! Something’s not right here.”  And you start looking for what’s amiss.

We all have areas of our lives where we’re pretending to be something that we’re not.  We pretend we’re on a diet, but the truth is we’re sneaking Twinkies when nobody’s watching.  We pretend we’re hard workers when we’re mainly goofing off.  We pretend we’re being faithful.  We’re pretending to be happy.  We’re pretending we’re in favor of an idea that we don’t find appealing at all.

These are the places of darkness.  These are the sources of pain that gnaw away at our vitality, that dull our lives and steal our joy.  They sap our energy and confuse us and keep us from being all that we can, and long to, be.

The Choice for Happiness

Positivity helps you build the kind of strong, joy-based character that can turn away from those kinds of situations before you’re in so deeply that you’re overwhelmed.  When you’re grounded in the values you most deeply cherish, good boundaries naturally develop between the things that are right for you and the things that aren’t.

As you move toward living more and more in harmony with your values, your senses of purpose and of direction grow keener.  You develop the sensitivity to spot the “not-me” feelings inside yourself almost instantly, so you can say no to choices that aren’t in harmony with your true self.  You grow more honest with yourself, and your commitment to self-honesty produces such a sense of wholeness that to breach it becomes unbearably painful.

The best part is that the “work” involved in building more positivity into your life doesn’t feel like work at all.  Oh sure, you have to exert yourself to build some new habits and to let go of some old ones.  But the rewards are so delicious and satisfying that the effort is easy to make.

It all starts with deciding to be kind enough to yourself to make happiness your number one priority, your central intention and goal.  That’s the first step in your hero’s journey: commit to the light, to the truth of your own being and to living in harmony with it. Decide to master it.  It will grow you, and free you, and ultimately, lead you home—to the true self that you were meant to be.

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What’s Right With You: How to Discover Your Personal Strengths

Your personal strengths reflect your core values and provide you with a sure sense of direction. They energize and satisfy you and let you feel real and whole.

Discover Your StrengthsWant to know one of the top ways to put more meaning, satisfaction and joy into your life?  Identify your signature strengths and bring them into play in as many ways as you can.

Over and over again, that’s what the positive psychologists say.  Your personal strengths reflect your core values and provide you with a sure sense of direction.  They energize and satisfy you and let you feel real and whole.  Living in alignment with them is living well.

When you put your values into action through the expression of your strengths, you’re living authentically, from your heart.  And that is where the deepest joy is.

But what, exactly, is a strength?  How is it different from a skill or a talent?  How can you discover your own top strengths?

“A Classification of the Sanities”

A little over a decade ago, when Dr. Martin Seligman was initiating the field of positive psychology, he realized he needed a way to define the qualities demonstrated by psychologically healthy, thriving people—to come up with what he called “a classification of the sanities.”

Toward this end, he recruited Dr. Christopher Peterson, director of the clinical psychology program at University of Michigan and a world authority on optimism and hope, to lead a study that would result in an authoritative classification and measurement system for the human strengths.

“One of the first tasks that Cris set,” Dr. Seligman writes in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, “was for several of us to read the basic writings of all the major religious and philosophical traditions in order to catalog what each claimed were the virtues, then see if any showed up in almost every tradition.”

To their surprise, “almost every single one of the traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues:

Core VirtuesWisdom and Knowledge
Courage
Humanity and Love
Justice
Temperance
Spirituality and Transcendence”

But while these characteristics were almost universally endorsed as the qualities that make up the good life, they were too abstract to measure in human behavior.  So the next step was to identify the measurable strengths that were the means through which these virtues were expressed.  Dr. Seligman calls them the routes to the virtues; by walking the paths the strengths described, you become virtuous—a good human being.

Next, the Seligman-Peterson team developed criteria to define what a “strength” is, and finally ended up with two dozen traits that qualified.  At last they had their “classification of sanities,” and from this base, the whole science of positive psychology has evolved.

Strengths, Talents and Abilities

Strengths are moral traits, traits of character that people can acquire and build.  Talents, on the other hand, are inborn gifts.  If you have a talent, you can hone and refine it to some degree.  But if it’s not a part of your personal make-up, you can’t will yourself to acquire it.  You either have a talent or you don’t.

Like strengths, abilities are acquired.  But while they may provide you with a sense of competency and allow you to perform adequately in a given role, unless they’re related to one of your signature strengths, they don’t necessarily bring you satisfaction or joy.  You can learn, for example, to be a highly competent engineer or accountant or assembly line worker and discover you really don’t like the work at all.

Strengths make you feel good when you use them.  Because they represent your core values—the things you deeply and authentically care about—they give you a sense of purpose; they feel meaningful and satisfying.  They’re inspiring and elevating.  And when you put your own best strengths into action, you feel like you’re being “the real you.”

Why Should I Identify My Strengths?

Once you know your key strengths, you’re empowered to find more and more ways to employ them.  You can begin to look for opportunities to express them in all the arenas of your life, becoming more and more authentic and heart-centered in all you do.  The value-centered life is the good life—as identified across the centuries and across the world’s cultures.

How Can I Find Out  My Personal Signature Strengths?

Working OnlineYou can take the VIA Character Survey at no cost at two places online:  here and here.  You only need to register, and your privacy is assured.  The survey is nearly identical at both places, and both sites are worth exploring for their host of additional resources.

The Survey is composed of 240 questions and takes 30-40 minutes to complete.  Even if (like me!) you ordinarily dislike completing surveys of your preferences, it’s well worth your time to make the effort.  You get your results back right away, with a list of your personal strengths ranked in order.

When you do, focus on your top five personal strengths.  Take a look at the in-depth description of them that you’ll find under the “Classification” tab at the VIA Institute on Character site.  (Personally, I thought this was especially rewarding—as if someone was describing me the way I really see myself, deep down.)

See which of your top five feel most like you and whether one or two maybe don’t resonate with you with quite as much power.  Dr. Seligman suggests that you ask yourself some questions about your top five strengths:

  • How attractive is each one to you?
  • How easily did you acquire it?  Did it seem automatic?  Second nature?
  • How strong is your desire to use it in more ways in your life?
  • How much energy does it give you when use it?
  • How much joy, zest, enthusiasm and even ecstasy do you feel when you’re using it?

The ones that have the most of these qualities are your “signature strengths.”  You’ll want to focus on bringing them into play in as many ways as you can because you’ll feel so good, so alive and so real when you do.

Set aside the time to take the survey as soon as you can.  It’s one of the most worthwhile and rewarding actions you can take to enrich your life and expand your well-being.  I guarantee it.

 

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Personal Strengths – An Expanding View

 

VIA Classification  © by The VIA Institute on Character

 

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