• The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

  • The online Community for people with spinal cord injury, their relatives and friends

Strengths and resources

2319 lake

A person can be described in different ways. In psychology different models, theories and classifications exist. For example, “the big five model” describes a person’s personality according to how open (curious, creative and adventurous), how conscientious (self-disciplined and dutiful), how agreeable (friendly, generous and helpful), how extravert (interacting with people, enthusiastic, action-oriented) and how neurotic (being emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress) the individual is. Some classification systems were developed to capture a person’s vulnerabilities, such as being depressed, anxious, or disruptive/impulsive, to be able to provide support and appropriate treatment to this specific person (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)). Other classifications can help to indicate a person’s strengths and resources, such as optimism, kindness or gratitude to better support people in their individual ways towards feeling more well and happy (Values in Action Classification of Character Strengths (VIA)).

When dealing with a physical injury, such as a spinal cord injury, the affected person is confronted with many challenges and all facets that constitute a person need to be considered. The group of psychologists working at Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPR) focus more on “building what’s strong” rather than “fixing what’s wrong” and pursue a resource and strengths-oriented approach to research. With their research endeavour the group aims at the support of persons living with a disability and their families in providing them with useful information on how they can better deal with their injury and its consequences.

This article introduces the reader to some of the most “powerful” strengths and resources of a person. Powerful, because a great deal of research confirmed that these strengths and resources of a person are strongly related to well-being and happiness. The following paragraph will list these strengths, what they mean and comprise, and what today’s research knows about their relevance.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life. There are many things, both large and small, in our lives that we might be grateful for. These might be particular supportive relationships (e.g., our parents, a close friend or even our dog or cat), sacrifices or contributions that others have made for us (e.g., teacher, neighbour or doctor), facts about our lives such as our advantages (e.g., being creative, smart), opportunities (e.g., having an education, different interests) and circumstances (e.g., living near the lake, enjoying the landscape or city on the way to work). The practice of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating life as it is today and what has made it so.

Research shows that people who are consistently grateful are also happier, more proud and hopeful about their lives and even report better physical well-being. Appreciation of good things in life bolsters self-worth and helps when dealing with stressful life events. Being thankful motivates helping others, thereby building and strengthening social bonds. It prevents people from taking good things in life for granted and prevents negative feelings such as envy, bitterness, anger or greed.

Optimism

Optimism is a tendency to look at the bright side of things in life and to expect the best possible future. Optimists generally believe that people and events are inherently good, so that most situations work out for the best in the end. Optimistic strategies are, for example, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), seeking the challenge in every difficult situation, giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt or simply trusting that we can get through the day. However, optimism is not only about having a strong belief that we WILL get there but also HOW we believe we will get there.

Research shows that optimists are happier, more energetic, have more success in their job, report better health, and live longer than pessimists. Optimistic thinking helps when dealing with stressful life events and trauma and keep persons investing effort in lifelong goals.

Friendship and social relations

Social relations are the key to health and happiness. Social relations act as a buffer to protect people against negative effects of stress. They convey the information of being loved, cared for, esteemed, valued and bestow a sense of belonging that provides fundamental purpose in life.

Research shows that individuals living with a disability who have supportive relationships are healthier, less depressed, can better deal with and adjust to their disability, are more satisfied in life and live longer. Finally, the mere thought of a loved one can reduce the perception of pain.

Kindness

An act of kindness is a selfless act performed by people to either help or cheer up other individuals, for no reason other than to make these persons happier. It is giving for the sake of giving, not in order to receive something in return. There is a famous Chinese saying, which brings this to a point:

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month, get married.

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.”

Why do acts of kindness make someone happier, healthier and their life longer? An act of kindness relieves stress and improves the mood by distracting from one’s own troubles and ruminations, it has a positive impact on self-evaluation and self-worth, enhances sense of meaning and purpose in life, and it also enhances social integration and strengthens social bonds.

Savouring

Savouring is generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. It has a past, present and future component. We can savour the past by reminiscing about the good old days (e.g., our first love, summer camp or accomplishment of a degree), savour the present by completely immersing ourselves in a conversation, book, song or project at work, and savour the future by anticipating positive events (e.g., finalizing a project, an upcoming vacation or retirement). So savouring is not only living the present, it is also bringing the pleasure of the past and future into the present moment.

Research shows that the ability to savour the positive experiences in life is one of the most important ingredients of happiness.

Flow

Flow is being so absorbed in what we are doing (e.g., painting, reading, woodwork, conversing, fishing, web surfing, or even working on a project at work) that we completely lose track of time. Nothing else seems to matter and we even fail to notice that we should go to the bathroom, eat or sleep. Flow is a state of intense and complete absorption and involvement in what we do. If the challenges of the situation overwhelm our level of skills we will feel anxious and frustrated, or if the activity is not challenging enough, we will become bored. Flow is just the right balance between our skills and challenges.

Research shows that flow experiences produce intense feelings of enjoyment and, in the long run, lead to a strong sense of self, control, involvement and meaning in life, and happiness. Flow states are intrinsically rewarding, we want to repeat them. However, to maintain a flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Therefore, we are constantly striving, learning and growing, and become competent and successful in what we do.

Goals

Persons who strive for something personally important (e.g., learning a new language, a new sport or craft, changing careers, raising pets or volunteer in church) are far happier than those who do not have strong dreams and goals. The process of working toward a goal, participating in a valued and challenging activity, is as important for becoming lastingly happier as its attainment.

Working towards a goal gives us a sense of purpose and control over our life, makes us feel efficacious and bolsters our self-esteem. Commitment to goals during times of crisis helps us cope better with problems.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness involves suppressing or mitigating one’s motivations for avoidance and revenge (often accompanied by emotions of anger, disappointment, and hostility), and replacing them with more positive or benevolent feelings, attitudes, and behaviours. Forgiveness is NOT condoning, reconciling, justifying, excusing, pardoning, letting go and moving on with one’s life, forbearing, or forgetting a transgression. We have forgiven when we have experienced a shift in thinking, such as that our desire to harm a person has decreased and our desire to do this person good has increased.

Forgiveness is a gesture of supreme value. It is a mark of compassion, love, and caring. But forgiving is something that we choose to do for ourselves and not for someone else. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and holocaust victim, wrote in 1959:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Why should we forgive? Research shows that people who forgive report better physical well-being, such as a healthy heart rate and blood pressure, better immune functions, lower body tension and better quality of sleep. Forgiving people are less stressed, less likely to ruminate or dwell on revenge, are less likely to be hateful, hostile, angry and neurotic, are less depressed and anxious, show less fatigue and report a higher life satisfaction.

Spirituality

Spirituality is a search for meaning in life through something that is larger than the individual self. Spirituality is not only about sanctifying ordinary things on earth, it is taking care of our soul.

Research shows that spiritual persons are happier and healthier, recover better after trauma and even live longer. Spirituality is very powerful as it is a source of self-esteem, feeling unconditionally valued, loved, and cared for. It embraces sense of security, hope and optimism, gives explanation and solace, emotional support, meaning and purpose in life. Finally, it helps to forgive and is a constant opportunity for personal growth.

Physical activity and meditation

Research shows that physical activity leads to not only better health, but also more self-esteem, mastery, energy, enthusiasm and vigour. Research also shows that meditation, which is basically about cultivating attention, is linked to better physical health, less depression, anxiety and pain, but also more serenity, peace and calm.

Both physical activity and meditation embrace positive emotions, which not only make us feeling stronger, but distract us from worries, stress and anxiety.

These strengths and resources can be promoted by therapies and simple exercises. Studies in the general population indicate that these therapies are effective to increase well-being and reduce depressive symptoms. Furthermore, a recent pilot study showed that these resource- and strengths-based therapies not only enhance happiness and reduce depression, but also diminish pain in individuals with a disability.

Book suggestions:

  • Seligman, M.E.P. (2011): Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
  • Lyubomirsky, S. (2007): The how of happiness. A new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin.
  • Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004): Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

References:

  • American Psychiatric Association (2013): Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  • Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004): Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Sin, N.L. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009): Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: a practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology 65(5), 467-87.

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