Seligman says an effective method of achieving mental health and high functioning — in other words, a good way to improve your life — is to cultivate specific character traits rather than merely trying to reduce unwanted symptoms.
Seligman and his colleagues found that certain human strengths lead to the good life. These character traits nurture your mental and physical health. They improve your life overall. They lead to feeling good and succeeding in life. The seven core character strengths Seligman has identified are these:
3. Interpersonal skill
4. Work ethic
If you want to improve your life, if you want to do well in life, if you want to have a good life, you should cultivate those strengths or traits in yourself. None of these character traits are fixed. You can cultivate all seven of these traits and make them your strengths.
How can you cultivate these character traits? I’ll give you some ideas for each trait in a moment, but first you should know that there is a process you can do at home that nurtures and strengthens all seven character traits at once: Learn how to make strong, mistake-free explanations of your setbacks. The research on the way your explanations of setbacks can improve your life has really piled up over the last 40 years. It is not a tenuous theory. It is a fact: Improve your explanations and it will strengthen the seven character traits above. It will improve your life. Guaranteed.
But there are specific things you can do to strengthen each character trait. Let’s take them one at a time:
1. Courage. Besides improving your explanations of setbacks, there are many things you can do to increase your courage. The first one I recommend is practicing the art of not flinching. Another is to think in strong ways. You can gain courage by changing what you’re responsible for.
What feels like a lack of courage is often just overactive adrenal glands or an overactive imagination. Both of these can be handled with a single exercise: The Silva method.
2. Optimism. The most powerful way to become optimistic is to improve the way you explain events with the Antivirus for Your Mind, but you can also change the way you talk to yourself. You may be trying to be optimistic or trying to “think positive” and it’s not working for one (or more) of three possible reasons. You can find out what to do about it here: Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work.
3. Interpersonal skill. You can improve your interpersonal skill by having a purpose in social situations, changing the way you judge people, becoming a better listener, staying calm and centered in social situations, changing the way you compare yourself with others, improving your ability to receive criticism, learning to restrain yourself from expressing certain emotions, and learning to distinguish between those who are good for you to associate with and those who are not.
4. Work ethic. You can improve your work ethic by simply moving with more energy, cultivating flow, thinking in a particular way about work, finding a goal that really matters to you, cultivating your own motivation, and applying the Samurai effect on your boss.
5. Hope. The difference between hope and optimism is that hope isn’t based in reality. Hope is in your imagination. You can expect the best for no other reason than it doesn’t hurt. If imagining a particular outcome doesn’t do any harm and does some good, then there is no good reason not to imagine the good outcome. That’s hope. It is best nurtured in a relaxed state (to subdue the worry-producing functions of your brain). I’m not a big fan of hope. I prefer determination instead, but if Seligman thinks hope is important, it probably is. He is not one to assert anything unless it’s backed by solid research.
6. Honesty. You can nurture the character trait of honesty by reminding yourself of the benefits of honesty, by making a careful distinction between who to be honest with and who to be guarded with, by improving the way you express your honesty, and by restraining yourself until you can be honest at the right time and in the right way.
7. Perseverance. The most powerful way to improve your perseverance is to root out the hidden pessimism lurking in your mind and annihilating it. It also greatly helps to read true stories of people succeeding against the odds. People often assume that you’re either motivated or your not. But in fact, many aspects of motivation can be deliberately stoked, and if you want to succeed with your goals, it is your responsibility to keep the fire of your motivation burning hot. This is entirely doable.
After 45 years of doing some of the most important psychological research ever done, having been the president of the APA and being able to influence the national direction of psychological research in America and actively trying to discover what makes people live happy, fulfilling lives, Martin Seligman came up with these seven character traits.
Out of all possible character traits, these are the ones he singled out as essential to the good life. It would be wise of us to take his list seriously. He is a careful man. It took him literally decades to come up with this particular list of traits.
Print out Seligman’s list of character traits, and over the next few years, take the time to nurture each character trait in yourself, starting with the one you feel needs the most work. You will begin to reap immediate rewards. These are the kind of personal changes that produce dividends — of happiness, success, and fulfillment — for the rest of your life. Start today.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.