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Exercising Signature Strengths Is A Key To Sustainability

February 15, 2010 by ·

Sustainability is the buzzword of today’s progressive movements in business and environmentalism. It is the challenge we face of figuring out ways to accomplish our ends without negatively impacting the environment around us. Global warming and political-economic conditions have gotten our attention like a two-by-four upside the head.

We have discovered in dramatic terms how going about our business with parochial, insular perspectives can create havoc in the world around us. And, that, when the world around us is crumbling, our success and well-being become unnervingly temporary.

At last, many of us are realizing that the key to positive futures for ourselves and our loved ones requires a broader perspective that takes into account the well-being of the social and physical contexts in which our lives unfold. Even from a completely selfish perspective, we need to care about the “indirect” effects of our own actions.

While much of the work on sustainability focuses on the effects on the physical environment, positive psychology adds the important dimension of looking at effects on people. Since people drive every machine, project, and business, the sustainability of their positive energy is critical.

Promoting positive affect and an alignment of activities with personal strengths of character, talent, and interest can diminish energy depletion associated with work, and, in some instances, actually produce personal energy. (After performing a task a person can feel more energized than going into the task).

When people reflect on times when they are utilizing their “signature strengths” (typically defined as their top 5 character strengths as measured by the VIA Survey of Character,  they often describe an energizing effect. And, when people deploy their efforts towards aspirational goals instead of simply fixing problems, their energy can often soar even higher. Using strengths to move towards aspirations may be critical in creating sustainable businesses.

Evidence also points to the contagion of positive affect. Happy people are more likely to be surrounded by happy people as friends and even neighbors. To the extent that we bring positive affect into our lives, we bring it to the lives of others as well. And, happy people tend to be healthier and more productive. It has been shown that an important pathway to happiness is the practice of one’s signature strengths of character.

David Cooperrider, the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, has framed it well, saying that sustainability has three critical dimensions: capital, technology, and people. Businesses need sustainable capital to keep their doors open. They need sustainable technology, such as deriving energy from wind and the sun. And, they need their people to have sustainable energy. Utilization of each employee’s signature strengths of character is an important source of this sustainable human energy.

Finally, we have unfortunately seen the devastating effects that character weaknesses can have on our world. Some experts point to unchecked greed as one of the core causes of the world’s financial collapse. Character lapses in our politicians have resulted in an apathy and cynicism that brings only a small percentage of eligible voters to the polling booth during most elections. Our future does not bode well if we have leaders disconnected from their constituents. Hope resides in the possibility of creating unity of purpose and alignment of interests and efforts.

There is an upward spiral that positive psychology brings to the world, and I feel it even as I write these thoughts. It is people who can make a difference in this sustainability revolution. Tapping into the vast resource of personal strengths of character is a key to creating sustainable “good lives” for us all.

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