My 7-year-old son stood on the beach, looking out on the lake. His cheeks bloomed with freckles and his striped bathing suit hung down limp over his skinny legs. He looked contemplatively at the kids splashing in the shallows.
I liked seeing him that way. I cherish the glimpses I get of my son’s face in his quietest moments.
Still, I was slightly self-conscious of both my staring and my sentimentality. I had taken a personality test several days prior as part of a personal effort toward self-improvement and found that my chief character strength was an “appreciation of beauty and excellence.” This interested me for two reasons. Firstly, I’m as narcissistic as the next guy and love to hear myself described. Secondly, this diagnosis — such as it was — offered a potential path to happiness. And I felt like I’d been falling behind on that front. I just needed to make time for beauty and excellence. Easier said than done, of course, but still doable, especially on a sunny day.
The personality test was developed by the VIA Institute on Character, which is dedicated to helping people find (and researchers explore) character strengths, which the institute defines as “core capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that can bring benefit to us and others.” I found the VIA Institute through Yale professor Laurie Santos’ online course on well-being. She explained that the idea of understanding your character strengths is to help boost well-being by engaging in activities that support those strengths.
The VIA Institute’s psychometric personality test categorizes people by 24 character strengths, which include curiosity, honesty, teamwork, prudence, hope, and, rather oddly, zest. The Institute claims that every person has all 24 strengths to various degrees. Their test is designed to tease out which ones feature most prominently in our personality.
After the test, I discovered my top five traits were Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence, Love of Learning, Fairness, Creativity, and Humor. Fair enough. I like books and jokes and progressive legislation.
Professor Santos suggests that everyone do one thing every day related to their strengths in order to chase their happiness. So I took time to enjoy, and learn about, the birds outside my office window and wrote a poem and learned a joke and made a small donation to a charity promoting fair wages. At the end of the week, I felt happier. But I also felt like these things were at something of a remove from my day-to-day. I’m not publishing a poetry chapbook or a guide to the birds of Ohio any time soon. How, I wondered, could I integrate this powerful thought exercise into my life as a parent? After all, I spent the bulk of my free time with my kids or worrying about my kids. Could I improve my relationship with them by focusing on my experience of that relationship?
I started out with humor. It seemed the easiest. After all, my kids love a good joke and I decided to start obliging them. I started lowbrow at dinner one night.
“What time does the alligator go to the dentist?” I asked. After receiving a disinterested grunt from my kids, I hit them with the punchline: “Tooth-hurty!”
My 7-year-old chortled. My kindergartner looked at me blankly. “I don’t get it,” he said, which meant that we had to explain time to him, something he’s just beginning to grasp.
But then it occurred to me that this was the wrong approach. I was using humor on my kids rather than appreciating their humor. So I changed my tactic. I asked them to tell me jokes.
“Why did the elephant go to the doctor?” my kindergartener asked. “Because he had elephant poops and farts.” He laughed uncontrollably. I laughed too. Not because the joke was funny — though it’s not not funny — but because he’s funny, a fact I too often take for granted. When I started to tune into his silliness and pay attention. I started to smile at him more.
So what about the love of learning? I tried to think about how to bring this into my relationship with my kids. Then I realized it was kind of baked into the experiment. And yes, that may sound like a cop-out, but it’s really not. Experimenting is crucial to learning. The process was helping me see my kids and myself differently and that made me happy.
We were two for two.
Creativity came just as easily. My kids are always drawing and building. They often asked me to join and I, more often than not, decline. So, I stopped refusing and started collaborating. One afternoon I was working with my kindergarten son on a collaborative drawing. What emerged was a scary tree monster. It had grasping hands and swirling roots. My kid gave him crazy twirly eyes and a gaping, sharp-toothed mouth. It was strange and wonderful and a product of both our minds. And more than that we talked during the process: about what we liked and didn’t, about trees and roots and monsters.
This made me terribly happy. Almost embarrassingly happy.
Fairness came harder. I figured I would play to this strength by teaching my kids to be fair with one another. Every time they fought or scuffled like brothers I harped at them about fairness. It annoyed them. It annoyed me. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I tried to blame this on my children’s behavior. How can I be a cheery dude when they fight and cry and slam doors and whine? But I also know that the way my kids behave is typical of their ages and their circumstances. It was unfair to expect better. I had to just calm down. I had to enforce that calm as an act of fairness and see if it would take. It did.
And so we return to the beach. A perfect moment Sunlight. Water. My boy. And happiness.
Did it last? Nope. Later that evening I slammed down a dish in anger as I considered the pile of dishes I had to wash. But there’s a misconception that happiness has to be constant. It doesn’t. Constant happiness is a form of insanity. Life is built on a spectrum of emotions, each one coloring our moments with its particular hue. But if I looked back on the experiment, I could see that happiness colored the days more than sadness, anger or frustration. That was a change.
Do I think there is any particular magic to the VIA Institutes character strengths? No. But they did make me more mindful about what I find edifying in life. And living in a way that I actively tried to boost those moments of edification had the effect of making life much more pleasant.
So, I’ll keep my list of character strengths handy. And maybe, when my boys are old enough, we’ll figure out theirs.