Four Paths to a Happier You

Know Your Strengths

Your top character traits are those that allow you to achieve meaningful happiness, instead of mere hedonic pleasure. Chris Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, devised the Values in Action (VIA) strengths test to measure a person's five signature strengths. The list comprises 24 attributes that positive psychologists have found are valued across cultures. Although they have only begun to analyze their data from the 110,000 individual tests logged online, Peterson's group has come up with some intriguing findings. Indications are that people whose top five strengths are curiosity, zest, gratitude, hope, and the capacity to love and be loved score higher on surveys of life satisfaction than the rest of us. The most ubiquitous strengths, so far, are curiosity, fairness, love, judgment (open-mindedness), and appreciation of beauty, says Peterson. The strengths held by the smallest percent of test takers are those in the temperance category: modesty, prudence and self-control. In surveys of Authentic Happiness coaching students, the strengths test has been rated as the most useful and longest-lasting exercise.

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Make a Beautiful Day

Exercises that involve savoring are designed to enhance positive feelings about the present and to reinforce memories of good times. One of the assignments Seligman gives to his Authentic Happiness students is the "Beautiful Day" exercise, which uses a person's talents and attributes to create the "perfect day," or even the perfect half day. He stresses that it's important to schedule enjoyable events. If your top traits are love of learning and curiosity, your day might include a trip to a favorite museum or a few hours with a book that you've been meaning to read. If the capacity to love crowns your list, you might spend an evening with old friends or summon family for a dinner. A twist on the Beautiful Day is the Strengths Date, designed to allow couples to express their talents together.

Count Your Blessings

Pessimists have a hard time looking at the glass as half full, which can obscure good feelings and lead them to dwell on misfortune or small annoyances. In the "Good Things in Life" exercise, Seligman teaches students to cultivate gratitude, which studies show can increase life satisfaction. The assignment is to write down three good things that happen each day. For each item, ask, "What did I have to do with it?" Seligman says that, eventually, seeing the bright side of everyday incidents becomes easier. And it becomes harder to discount one's positive contribution to events.

Start a Fight

The "ABCDE" method of disputing negative thoughts is designed to fight off feelings of helpless pessimism when misfortune strikes. Seligman says we already have the skills of disputing—many of us would speak up if coworkers or family members criticized us unfairly. But when negative thoughts fill our own heads, we may have a hard time telling ourselves that we are wrong. The ABCDE model goes like this: Consider the adversity (A) you are currently facing. Examine automatic beliefs (B) about the situation. Are they unreasonably pessimistic? What are the usual consequences (C) of these thoughts? Dispute (D) the routine belief to interrupt the cycle of pessimism and self-pity. Argue with yourself. You will feel energized (E) and ready to take on the problem. Viewing situations logically and objectively can help you build a case against your pessimistic self.

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