Harnessing Character Strengths For Behaviour Change

The idea that one has to focus on that which is weak (or lacking) to attain a state of optimal health is pervasive in society. Studies in the field of positive psychology show that focusing - and building - on one's existing strengths is much more likely to achieve a desired outcome. Read on to find out more.

Character strengths - as defined by Dr. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson - are positive traits (or capacities) that tick the following boxes:

  • Provide personal fulfillment.

  • Do not diminish others.

  • Ubiquitous and valued across cultures.

  • Aligned with numerous positive outcomes for oneself and others.

Interestingly, many of us are far more adept at pinpointing where we feel we fall short - more on that in a minute - than we are at recognising our best qualities. Strengths blindness, as it is often called, inevitably leads to overuse or underuse, turning one's latent strengths into what can often be perceived as weaknesses. The key here is to first discover one's strengths and begin to use them optimally as often as possible.

Take creativity, for example. Once overused, it soon manifests as eccentricity while underuse gives an air of conformity. Used optimally, creativity becomes an originality that is highly adaptive and widely applicable to any number of situations to achieve a positive outcome.

It is important to note, however, that not every strength is appropriate for any and all situations. The truth is, applying one’s strengths is a matter of trial and error and not a guarantee of success in every endeavour. It is, therefore, best to view the use of any particular strength in any particular scenario as an experiment, the success or failure of which will provide valuable data on the best next step to take - or strength to bring into play.

The VIA Institute offers a free, scientifically validated Character Strengths Test if you would like to find out your signature strengths. Should you choose to take it, here are a few suggestions for experiments you could conduct once you have your results:

  • Play around with the intensity with which you apply each of your strengths to a health-related behaviour you would like to change. What outcome do you notice when they are dialled up or down?

  • Choose two strengths and see if you are able to use them in tandem to tackle a health challenge you may be facing.

How To Have A Healthy Relationship With Technology

At first glance, the tendency to spend most of one's day using a smartphone, tablet and/or watching television is nothing more than a perk of 21st century life. On the contrary, studies show a sharp rise in sub-optimal mental, emotional and even physical health as a result. In this article, I offer a few tips on how best to reap the benefits of technology without negatively impacting your health in the process.

Used wisely, technology can make our lives easier and, therefore, more fun. There is, however, a fine line between utility and excessive dependence. Depression, impaired sleep, obesity and insulin resistance are just a few conditions linked with increased exposure to the dizzying array of devices available to us today.

The good news is that consistent small changes and simple habits yield reassuringly positive results. Depending on the level of commitment that appeals to you, any - or a mix - of the following may be helpful: 

  • An hour - or two: consider spending an hour a day away from your phone. Increase this period gradually and note how you feel. Blue light emitted from screens (including - but not limited to - computer screens, tablets, smartphones and television) is known to deplete melatonin (the regulatory hormone of sleep and wakefulness). Alternatively, try limiting exposure to these at least two hours before bed.

 

  • A day: choose one day (every week) on which to completely resist the urge to check your phone, watch television or use a computer.

 

  • A week: book a week's holiday to a destination with no Wi-Fi and/or television.

 

  • 30 days: consider a "break-up". Explained by Catherine Price in How To Break Up With Your Phone, it involves "giving yourself the space, freedom and tools necessary to create a long-term relationship" with your phone. You will find that a lot of its principles are applicable to other forms of technology, too.

Have you ever tried to minimise your use of technology to better your health? What worked best for you?

How To Have Productive Doctors' Appointments

It is no secret that doctors are considerably busier than they used to be - the current health crisis has seen to that. Sadly, this means that despite a strong desire to help their patients, doctors are unable to spend little more than ten to fifteen minutes on each appointment. In this article, I will offer suggestions on how to get your most pressing needs met at your next consultation.

You feel unwell or are experiencing a worrying symptom. You ring up your local surgery and make an appointment (or get a GP referral to see a specialist), hoping for the opportunity to air your fears at the very least. The appointed date and time arrives and the doctor does more talking than listening. More often than not, he/she ends the appointment by writing a prescription instead of determining the root cause of your symptom(s). You leave dejected, feeling like just another interruption in his/her busy day. This does not happen to every single one of us every single time we visit a doctor's office but once is once too many. 

Below are a few ways that you can use what little time you spend with your doctor to your advantage.

  • Bring someone with you for support, if necessary. This is especially important if you are likely to get too emotional to get your point across. A level-headed, objective friend or confidant can be a great advocate in this regard.

     

  • Take a list of relevant symptoms and/or points you wish to discuss. Sharing one's most intimate health concerns with a relative stranger can be nerve-wracking. Having a list of prompts to hand (including any tests you would like to request, for example) may be helpful.

     

  • Take notes. Brief reminders that capture your doctor's most salient points are best. Should you choose to bring someone for support, you could ask them to do this on your behalf during the consultation.

     

  • Ask for copies of medical records and/or test results. This will enable you to keep track of your progress (or lack thereof).

     

  • Ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor to repeat or clarify anything you do not understand. The NHS has compiled a detailed checklist of questions you may wish to consider.

     

  • Find another doctor. If you feel as though you are getting nowhere, perhaps it may be time to find a doctor who is willing to be an ally in your quest for health. Simply ask to see another doctor in the surgery or register with another practice altogether, if necessary.

How To Be Supportive

Let's face it - change is both inevitable and one of the hardest things each of us will ever do. As we journey through life, we will encounter others grappling with the same reality and may attempt to assist them. For this to work, there must first be some kind of agreement between both parties and a desire - on the part of the helper - to be an ally rather than a dictator. This is sometimes not the case, however, with friends, colleagues and loved ones. In this article I will highlight the manner in which support is often given, the unintended consequences of trying to elicit change in this way and what to do instead.

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Attempting to influence change (of behaviour or choices) in another usually plays out in one of the following ways: 

  • You discover a new way of eating, managing your stress or moving. You feel better than you have in years and you want to tell everyone you know - or meet - about this exciting new revelation. Naturally, you begin with your partner/spouse then parents, friends and work colleagues. You not only regale them with tales of your transformation, but you become a zealot who now wants everyone else to act (and, therefore, feel) as you do.

OR

  • You read/hear about something that could help someone overcome a new or long-standing health condition. You decide to make it your mission to share this information and help them apply it to their particular situation. 

On the face of it, these seem to be thoroughly justifiable and laudable pursuits but they inadvertently create an unhealthy attachment to an outcome that is very clearly defined and unwavering in the mind of the person who offers advice or support in this manner. It is entirely possible to accept the choices others make even when one does not agree with them. Despite appearances to the contrary, this conveys the fact that you care about - and respect  - the person enough to allow them to exercise the right to make choices governing the course of their lives.

You might feel that these choices will also affect your life and that the end, therefore, justifies the means.  While the former is strictly true, this train of thought - or perception - is not the best tool for the job at hand. Below are a few reasons why:

  • It may create the need (in your mind) for robust involvement, inciting resistance and defensiveness in the person you are trying to help.

  • It could - perhaps unintentionally - give you an air of superiority, thus creating distance between you and the recipient of your advice.

     

  • It may discount the innate imperfection of human beings, a trait that makes us all worthy of compassion.

     

  • Finally, it may breed resentment, frustration and - one of the most common causes (and drivers) of disease today - stress in everyone concerned. 

What to do instead:

  • Practice empathy: put yourself in the shoes of the person in question. This is a great way to awaken to the realisation that had you encountered all the experiences they have had thus far, you would behave exactly as they do. Consider using this as your default starting point.

     

  • Care: the best way to show someone that you care is to be caring. At best, scolding may temporarily mask underlying fears and the pain of perceived powerlessness over the situation in question. Can you recall a time when a scolding evoked feelings of being loved and cared for? What did you feel instead? Choosing to calmly express you fears or concerns using "I" statements (and without any expectations) can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable but it is a much more effective way to show that you care. For example, "I'm worried about your health and I'm here for you if you ever need my help." Note that there is, of course, a difference between being genuinely caring and manipulation - or the notion of attempting to "save someone from themselves".

     

  • Ask permission or wait for an invitation: this may seem overly formal and completely unnecessary but nothing could be further from the truth. You could say, "What can I do to help?" or "I just came across an article that I think might interest you - would you like me to email it to you?" Prepare yourself for the possibility that the answers may well be, "Nothing." or "No." respectively. When this happens, take this as your cue to resist the urge to coerce or shame them into giving your preferred response. Invitations are also best navigated with the same level of courtesy. Should a friend ask you to support them in their efforts to use less social media, for example, he/she may later decide that they no longer want/need your help whether they have "legitimate" reasons or not. Again, when this happens, believe it and accept it. You can make it clear that you will be there for them if they change their minds in the future - but only if you mean it.

     

  • Change yourself: you are - and always will be - the only person you can change. By the same token, changing your response to (or perception of) the behaviour and choices of others is the only behaviour you can control. It is often said that changing oneself could inspire others to improve themselves but I would add that it would be unwise to make this one's primary goal. Remember that every minute spent looking for opportunities to change others, corresponds directly with missed opportunities for self-improvement/mastery. Cultivate the habit of turning the spotlight inward on any unaddressed issues you may have been too distracted to notice. When you bring a version of yourself that is non-judgemental, caring and healthy to any relationship, you will be best placed to take on the role of an ally or carer, should the need arise. 

There will be moments when any - or all - of the above will appear counterproductive, ridiculous or downright impossible. Perhaps you feel that way even as you read this. In those moments, it may take every ounce of your strength to act as I have suggested.

You might, on the other hand, find that you neither have the strength nor the desire to do so. If this is the case, don't be hard on yourself. We are all wonderfully, imperfectly human, remember?

Try to treat yourself with the compassion you will, no doubt, someday be able to extend to others.

How To Be Healthy

So much has been written on the subject that I wondered if the world needed yet another magic pill dressed up as a new exercise craze or the latest superfood - or this article. Faced with a concept so idealistic, highly prized and therefore so daunting, the kindest thing one can do for oneself is to keep it simple. Here's what I propose, if I may be so bold.

Let's boil down our perpetual quest for health to its simplest molecule. Choice.

There is power - real power - in choosing how you will respond to your circumstances from one potential-laden moment to the next. The decision to shy away from making a choice counts as a choice, too, by the way.

I said we'd keep things simple so here are three choices you may wish to consider as you get started (or continue) on your quest for true health:

  • Look within. Accept that the choices you have made up to this point have led you to where you are now. Acknowledge this without judgement, blame or criticism of yourself, others or your genes.

  • Practice gratitude. Isn't it incredible that we each have a body that constantly lets us know how we're doing? A physiological whisper ("Ahem! That raw kale in the green smoothie really didn't agree with me.") becomes an ear-splitting yell and, eventually, a diagnosis when appropriate changes are not made. Think of these as gentle nudges and signposts that can help you get to where you need to be.

  • Take action. This could be getting to bed earlier than usual or choosing to spend more time in contact with nature. Make the very best choice you can manage at the time. Baby steps.