Strengths come from translating our values into behavior. While the science of positive psychology is relatively new, the strengths we act on are not. Focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses is also nothing new. It is founded in the timeless and enduring virtues that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, spoke and wrote of nearly 2400 years ago. He claimed that a major purpose in life was to experience happiness through living a virtuous life. One way is to experience “excellence of activity.” When you know how to do something well and act on it, it can bring pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The more things you know how to do well, the more avenues you will have for enjoyment and flourishing.
Developing strengths requires time and experience. The strengths we talk of are predicated on six virtues, including the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. Aristotle claimed that a virtue or strength is developed through action: “Brave people became brave by doing brave things.” He said there were six states of character development: brutishness, self-indulgence, weakness of will or caving into temptation, strength of will or mastering temptation, character excellence, and heroic excellence.
According to this model, all humans are born brutish in nature, crying for food and attention, then moving through the other stages, hopefully leading to character excellence. Because of the eventual consequences of acting brutishly, most people learn that this behavior is not acceptable to others. Therefore, most people move up the “food chain” and eventually develop a sense of self-indulgence, a trait that is more common in young people and occasionally seen in adults. Those who act self-indulgently yield to their desires and are excessive and self-gratifying.
Boston University School of Education professor Steven Tigner uses a narrative, “Six Ways to Eat a Potato Chip,” to help people understand the stages of character development. The lessons of the story about developing self-regulation can be applied in any environment. Here is my retelling of the story.
Take 2 – Self-indulgence. As I start eating the chips with a purpose, and savoring each delectable morsel, I start making the “yum” sound to the point of having a serious relationship with the chip. Don’t even think that I might share; the chips are for me, not you!