Remember that time when I made waffles obsessively and took a happiness course? If not, I wrote about it here. Also, if you are judging me, the happiness course was developed by a Yale University professor which makes it totally cool, ok?
Anyways, when you start the course there are a few tests to be taken. Several are designed to measure your current level of happiness in order to compare your results to those after the course. But one test in particular — a personal strengths test — made an impression. It was developed by the VIA Institute on Character. According to them, there are 24 positive traits in human beings, and the test helps to figure out which traits in particular are your strongest.
Why should you know your strengths, you ask, apart from simply being curious? Apparently, people who use 4 or more of their signature strengths at work, tend to refer to their work as a calling in their life. And knowing and following your calling makes you happy, I presume.
So I did the test, dutifully, eagerly. Upon completion I received an e-mail. Attached was a strengths profile that had all 24 traits ranked from the strongest to the weakest:
“Your top strength is Love which means you put someone else’s needs equal to or above your own, and you take pleasure from that. You can easily express warmth and caring for the people in your life who matter most to you, and you likely are a compassionate listener.”
I was surprised, to be honest. I never imagined that Love could be a character strength, for one. But even more surprising was the fact that what I currently do — take care of my children — perfectly aligns with my strongest trait. I have to admit that “taking pleasure” from putting someone else’s needs above my own sounds masochistic. I wouldn’t say it gives me pleasure, but it does give my life a meaning. And in my eyes a meaningful life and happiness are tightly connected to each other.
Someone who has found his meaning in life might not necessarily be happy. But someone who is truly happy knows his life is meaningful. Least you suspect that I think children are the only possible source of meaning in life, let me refer you to my post on waffles again. It has a few surprisingly deep thoughts (not my own). For example, this quote by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a concentration camp survivor:
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
He might be talking about success here, but a cause greater than oneself or surrender to another human being are the two ways to finding meaning in life, according to his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He found the meaning of his own life (to which he attributes his survival in concentration camps) in writing the book he had started before his imprisonment.
I wonder if Love would have been my top strength had I done the test before kids. I have a suspicion the answer is no. I have a suspicion the strengths (as well as one’s meaning in life) may change throughout one’s lifetime. Case in point: Creativity — something I expected to find among my top three traits — is actually occupying number 13.
That is because the test featured statements like: I often find myself completely lost in the task I am working on. I answered honestly: false. Not because I never experienced the magic state of “flow”, when you are fully immersed in your creative idea and hours can pass before you lift your head, look around in bewilderment and realize you skipped a meal. I have. It’s the best feeling in the world.
But ever since my kids were born, the “flow” has become a thing of the past. You don’t get to ride that unicorn if you can’t sit and diligently work uninterrupted. No muse likes to wait until you run to the bedroom to breastfeed your baby.
These days I create for 15 minutes at a time, then I have to make someone a meal or put another someone to sleep. I came to terms with this arrangement, though, and I don’t feel bitter about it. In fact, I decided to embrace it. The word I chose for 2023 is “create”, even if I only get to create for a quarter of an hour at a time.
That, of course, makes writing difficult because without the “flow” you just sit there in front of a computer and stare into a blank page and before you know it the 15 minutes are up. And the next time you sit down the page is still blank and the brain is still mostly vacuum and 15 minutes are still not enough to change that.
I keep repeating something I learned from Neil Gaiman in his masterclass on writing. I won’t give you a direct quote because that would mean opening the app and looking for the right class and transcribing his speech, and I only got — that’s right! — 15 minutes. But the essence was this:
Sometimes you write in a state of “flow”, page after page, and it’s so good it barely needs editing. Other times you write one sentence at a time. Then look at the screen for an hour. But once it’s all finished and you read the final copy you will not remember which parts you wrote as if by magic and which were built brick by brick.
That gives me hope. A hope that my writing won’t suffer because of the time restraints, but also that Creativity will slowly move upwards on my list of strong traits.
So Love is number 1 and Creativity is number 13.
Number 2, if you are wondering, is Appreciation of Beauty:
“Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.”
Freaking bingo! That is me and once I saw this line I knew the test was real. Beauty — be it nature, architecture, food, or clothing — gives me life, energizes me.
My family and I have just come back from a trip to Lunuganga, an estate-turned-boutique-hotel that used to belong to Geoffrey Bawa, a renowned Sri Lankan architect. Bawa is known for his incredible ability to merge indoor and outdoor areas into one flawless space. His style is characterized by designing with respect to nature. I’ve been dreaming of staying at Lunuganga for years, and when last weekend we finally arrived I could not erase a stupid grin from my face for at least two hours.
You could argue that everyone loves beautiful things. But, trust me, no one else was running around the property, muttering: “Oh my goodness! Will you look at this chair! And the tree! Have you seen the tree? Isn’t it the most gorgeous lamp?! Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” My husband was more pre-occupied with mosquitos biting our children than with the lamp, but nodded all the same, just so I calm down.
I believe knowing your strong traits — which you might already be aware of intuitively — helps to use them more intentionally. I’ve been waking up and asking myself lately: where can I find beauty today? And when I am overwhelmed as I am taking care of kids, I remind myself that Love is my superpower, not unlike flying is Superman’s.