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Imagine if all of your problems were gone. Imagine if all of your negative impulses were completely tamed, if all of your bad habits were stopped. Imagine if everything negative in your behavior, your thoughts, your emotions were brought to neutral. Would that bring you happiness?
I don’t think so.
Much as we tend to focus on our shortcomings, other people’s shortcomings, all of the symptoms and vices that make life more difficult than it might be, eliminating the negatives is not what gives life most of its meaning. A neutral life is not a rich life.
(I don’t want to imply that it’s not important to notice negatives and seek to improve on them. It may be necessary for you to remove some negatives or work on areas of weakness as well. And for some, negatives are so pervasive - addiction, violence, impulse driven behavior - that without clearing away a great deal of negative behavior, there can be no positive. See Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom for an idea of just how bad this can get. If you have any of this going on, please get into a good rehab program or find some other intensive help that will give you the support you need and will hold you to the changes you need to make. Do it now, don’t wait until tomorrow.)
Focusing on your shortcomings also sets your sights too low. A martial artist or a boxer knows that when you throw a punch, you don’t aim for the opponent, you aim through the opponent. This is what gives a blow its force. If you aim to eliminate the negatives in your life, you may reach that goal, but only just, and no further.
Alternatively when a person strives to build his or her strengths, that person will also often overcome many of their difficulties in that pursuit. As your life becomes more expansive, the symptoms, the shortcomings, the deficits can often remain their same size, which means that they become proportionately smaller to your now larger life.
Find out what your strengths are, build on them, design your life more around them, find ways of using your strengths in situations where you have not used them before, and in ways that you have not considered before. This is a better path to success and happiness than dwelling on the negatives, and focusing on trying with all your might to eliminate them.
When you focus on a weakness and attempt to strengthen it, it tends to be a much more difficult task, and once you have brought some change to bear, it is much more difficult to maintain that change. When you build on a strength, it is usually a much more robust change, an easier change to make due to greater leverage, and it tends to hold over time.
Now is the time of year when many people make resolutions - changes that they would like to pursue over the New Year. These often take the form of “Thou Shalt Not”: I won’t eat Twinkies. I won’t nag my kids so much. I won’t read books while driving.
Take some time and focus on what was good over the past year; things that worked activities that you would like to continue, engaging projects that have inspired you. Having done this, create a list of positive resolutions for 2005 (this idea is from Martin Seligman’s wonderful book, Authentic Happiness).
Instead of thinking about what you want to stop doing in 2005, focus on what you want to make happen in 2005. I might suggest that among these you include searching for three or four ways that you can use the strengths you have to deal with areas of weakness in your life.
For example, you may be not so good at prudence, discretion, and caution, but very strong on creativity and curiosity. Think of how you might apply your creativity and curiosity to either imagine the trouble you might get into if you aren’t a bit more careful in a particular situation, or you might notice how you have had to use these strengths to get yourself out of the pickles you’ve gotten into. (The Marx Brothers made a very good living demonstrating the latter)
Coming up with positive resolutions in this way can be a great thing to do with your family, bringing even very young kids into the fun. Write these down and keep them where they can be easily seen. Check in with each other or with yourself about them from time to time, to see how you’re progressing.
This makes for a much more fun, expansive, and effective exercise. You’re likely to fulfill some or many over the next year, and you may find that some of those negatives you had considered dwelling upon become smaller as well.
I wish you all a wonderful, resilient, and rich year to come, filled with the Virtue of Happiness.