With all the emphasis in the scriptures on repentance, worrying about our weaknesses has almost become a national pastime for good Christian folk and Latter-day Saints in particular. But a psychologist named Martin Seligman figured out that we don’t necessarily become happier by trying to fix what’s wrong with us. Fixing what’s wrong gets us to neutral—to being less miserable and having more options. But we are more likely to get to the positive side, to happiness, by pursuing our strengths.
Contribute Your Strengths
This is kind of an interesting lesson for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with us. Trying to get better at what we’re lousy at is still a good thing to do, of course, especially when it includes repenting of genuine sin. But it’s not necessarily what makes for happiness in the day-to-day living of our lives. We are more likely to be happy when we develop and live from our strengths, put our highest values into action, and do what we love.
It’s not too hard for me to imagine that the Lord is pleased when we focus on contributing to the world from our strengths rather than get bogged down in a self-focused preoccupation with our weaknesses. I decided a few months ago to review my patriarchal blessing, wanting to better understand what the Lord wants me to be doing with my life. Just for fun, I decided to make a list of what things He told me were potential strengths and what things He told me were potential weaknesses. It was quite interesting to make those lists. I assumed going in, although I wasn’t really conscious of it, that the weaknesses list would be quite long. I thought I would find a lot of warnings and things I really needed to buck up and fix—and I assumed that if I could figure out what was wrong with me and fix it, I’d feel better. But I actually found only about five instances of that kind of thing, and some of those I had to stretch to include. (For example, my blessing said something about me being humble, and I thought maybe that was an indirect way of telling me to be careful about pride, so I put “pride” on the weaknesses list.)
In contrast, I found more than 40 things in this little one-page document about my gifts, my opportunities, and my strengths. I don’t think I’m unusual here. You might review your patriarchal blessing with a similar purpose. There seems to be something foundational about the importance of working on our strengths as a guide to life.
An Inadequate Missionary—Twice
I learned something about this principle when my husband and I served a mission a few years ago in Quebec, Canada. I served a mission when I was younger as well, and I had some regrets about not having been the best missionary possible on that first mission. I hadn’t done anything horrible, but I wasn’t perfect at living all the rules and I wasn’t always very enthusiastic about every single aspect of missionary work. So when we went on this new mission, I was determined to overcome those early deficits. I made a list of things I needed to work on, and it was a very, very long list. For openers, I am just not a natural missionary by any stretch of the imagination, and talking to strangers about the gospel is really hard for me, as I know it is for many. I practiced and I tried and I worked, but I wasn’t very successful and I wasn’t very happy. In addition, I felt like a terrible hypocrite because I was supposed to be an example and even a trainer for the younger missionaries in how to effectively share the gospel, be more in tune with the Spirit, and obey mission rules. Some of those things came naturally to me, but some absolutely did not. In fact, it felt like the harder I tried at some things, the more miserable I became.
One night I was in my office moaning to the Lord about all these weaknesses that I felt made me completely inadequate in the calling we were trying to serve in. I was literally lying on the floor crying, telling the Lord I didn’t belong there. And the Spirit came through loud and clear, even though it came as a whisper: “Wendy, I didn’t call you here for your weaknesses, I called you for your strengths.”
A light went on in my head. The idea that God wants us to magnify our gifts—as opposed to magnifying our inadequacies—was not a new one for me, but suddenly it was personal, present, and real. I started thinking about some of the strengths I had that I could bring to the mission. I was the first mission president’s wife in that mission in many decades who spoke French, the language of most of the people. I was reasonably comfortable speaking in large groups. I was a psychologist by training. I had served a full-time mission. I loved the missionaries and deeply understood their frustrations and fears. I had spent a lifetime studying and teaching the gospel. In other words, I had many strengths I could bring to the missionaries and to the mission field. And here I had been putting so much of my energy into fretting about my weaknesses! I was so worried about bringing my weaknesses to neutral, to zero, that I forgot about the positive side of the scale—the path that gets us to happy. I found more courage and energy to keep working on my weaknesses when I focused more on contributing from my strengths.
Researchers find that if people use one or more of their strengths or virtues in a new and creative way, they typically see a small boost in their feelings of well-being and happiness. If they keep that up, finding more new and creative ways to live their highest values each week, they continue to feel a little better overall.
Now, go make a list of some of your other personal strengths.
Lead image from Shutterstock.
For more habits that will help you find happiness, check out Habits of Happiness by Wendy Ulrich, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.