More Than Money
Issue #42
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More Than Money Magazine

Table of Contents

“Leaning Toward the Light - How to Find and Apply Your Signature Strengths”

It may be that happy people do not “reframe” the negative as much they increase their ability to attend to the positive—about them and in their lives.

By Carol Kauffman

Most of us lie awake some nights mulling over something that went wrong or that didn’t get done that day. We chalk this up to fruitless worry or maybe something more neurotic. That explanation may not be completely wrong, but there is another layer of explanation as well. Focusing on our problems is, well, natural, a result of our human tendency, honed by evolution, to latch on to information related to problems and dangers.

Researchers have studied this trait, which they call “the Zeigarnik effect” (after the Russian psychologist of that name). Memory studies show that we are apt to recall things that go wrong much more vividly and intensely than we do those that go well. In other words, we are genetically and cognitively primed to gloss over our successes, be they accomplishments, positive interactions withothers or simply pleasant experiences.

One arena in which the Z effect can be especially evident is our relationship with money. We take our money strengths for granted and throw a lot of negative energy at our money weaknesses. The danger of this is that we may get overly focused on “fixing” or solving certain habits or behaviors that are, in fact, a part of who we are—while missing an opportunity to build upon our strengths.

What can we do about this? Welldefined but simple interventions have been shown to be effective in reversing the Z-effect. These exercises help us tilt the balance back to the positive and remain anchored in the good things in our lives; they have also been shown to have a lasting impact, helping people feel happier and more satisfied six months after they did them for one week. I’d like to share two exercises. One helps us to focus on the good things that happen to us. The other directs our thoughts and feelings toward those things that are good about us .

The “three good things” exercise is the essence of simplicity, but it has surprising power. Sometime in the evening, when brushing your teeth or lying in bed, mentally relive your day in search of three things that happened

that went well. Mull them over for a moment; even better, write them down. The key is to ask yourself, “What did I do to help make that good thing happen?” Sometimes the answer isn’t immediately obvious to us. You enjoyed that sunset, but, gosh, you didn’t make it happen. That’s true. But you may realize that you did stop to look. Do this exercise for one week. Unravel the events or motives that led to the good thing and heighten your awareness of what you did to invite it into existence.

The goal of the second exercise is to help us recognize and emphasize our unique strengths. First, of course, we have to know what they are! Just as we all have a way of signing our names on paper that identifies us as unique, so we all have what psychologists call our signature strengths. These are areas, traits or skills in which you excel. Once you’ve identified one of your top strengths, try to find new ways to use that strength the next day and week.

If your key strength is gratitude, find new ways to express thanks to people. If it’s bravery, find something slightly new to be courageous about; if originality, apply your creativity to a new area of your life. Studies have consistently shown that people who did this for a week feel more vital and alive, even six months later. (Studies of results after one year are still underway.)

These two exercises may seem too simple to have an impact, but they do. Why? They lead our thoughts down different pathways and help us begin to reverse how we think about events, ourselves and others. What we pay attention to becomes clearer and sharper – the choice is up to you whether that’s for better or for worse.

The Principle of Interest

Think of attention as currency—what you pay attention to is implicitly of value to you. Just as the principle of interest creates exponential growth of savings, learning to shift your attention and reverse the focus makes a huge difference that builds over time. This is not, I wish to emphasize, the same as making the best of a bad situation or putting a positive spin on a problem. The point isn’t to reframe the negative. It is simply to develop your ability to attend to the positive as well.

I know someone I’ll call Jacob who knows too well his financial flaws. Frustrated that previous efforts to track expenses or stick to budgets have failed, he’ll go the other way and let the nuts and bolts of managing his money, even checking his bank account, slide for weeks.

When this catches up with him, he may have a full-fledged “shame attack” and pangs of feeling horrible and worthless when it comes to money.

When we spoke, he perhaps assumed that I would urge him to be more disciplined. It’s true that he could learn some better habits—couldn’t we all? The bigger issue is that his focus on his flaws undermines his self-esteem and eclipses his awareness of his real financial strengths.

“Sure, you’re terrible at day-to-day management,” I told him. “That’s not a news flash. But let’s try to see the bigger picture.” If Jacob could widen the focus to include his strengths, I asked, what would he see? What is the larger truth?

“My strengths? I don’t know…” It was harder for Jacob to articulate what he did right. But with prodding he recognized that he was actually pretty good with the long-term stuff. Like what? Turns out he’s a decent investor and has been responsible in generational planning —addressing his children’s future and laying the groundwork for their children. Now isn’t that a bit more important than going online to check the checkbook balance? Doesn’t that fit with his values and strengths? Reconciling the check register isn’t his strength and doesn’t have to be; someone ? else can do that. But now he can see the big picture and not undermine himself.

What about you? Do you bring a deep sense of gratitude with you for what you’ve been given? Does this translate into finding causes you connect with? Or maybe you aren’t best with philanthropy but can work with the nuts and bolts of money and can keep track of it and get those gifts out the door to people who need them. There are dozens of strengths—appreciate what you do right. Soak it in and perhaps think how to use that strength in a new way.

Are you so aware of your money flaws that you don’t also appreciate your strengths? There is no need to pretend that everything is perfect. What matters is that we are growing in the right direction. If you need help growing, just remember your new skill: reverse your focus. And give more time to the light-filled side of you than you do to the dark. ■

A Tool to Help Identify Your Strengths

If you would like help in identifying your strengths, visit the Web site, , and take the self-assessment survey developed by psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman of the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.

It tells you what your top five strengths are. The survey uses 24 individual strengths divided into thee 6 categories:

>> Wisdom and knowledge (curiosity, originality)

>> Courage (bravery, integrity)

>> Humanity (intimacy, kindness or social intelligence)

>> Justice (leadership or civic strengths)

>> Temperance (forgiveness, prudence)

>> Transcendence (spirituality, a sense of hope, aesthetic appreciation)

Knowing how your strengths are configured is also important, because you can then draw on them in new ways. The Peterson-Seligman survey provides a detailed but reasonable method to assess our strengths reliably.

Carol Kauffman is a life coach, a practicing psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in positive psychology. In her private practice, she coaches writers and individuals who want to live their lives more fully. Her Web site is

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