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Rewiring Your Remote Control Builds Character
By Sherri Fisher
Positive Psychology News Daily
January 4, 2007

Cash or credit? I handed over the plastic to the gas station attendant on the Garden State Parkway. It was very early on a Saturday and there was only one other car at the station which had perhaps 20 other pumps.

I was traveling alone; it was cold. I had an appointment to keep at UPenn. The other driver was handed her receipt and the attendant proceeded to my car. Imagine my surprise after the tank was filled when the attendant said, “Lady, if you want a receipt, you’ll have to go to the end of the parking lot and go into that white building.” Confused and irritated that I was not given a choice at one of the 18 other available working pumps, but wanting that receipt for my records, I did as I was told.

Upon entering the white building, the attendant there said, “What’s your problem?” I could feel numerous and inappropriate answers bubbling up. I began to explain what I needed and nicely, I thought, followed up with how to improve the situation for subsequent customers. Traffic cones seemed an obvious solution.

By now I was furious and filling my tank had taken close to 30 minutes. I needed to get on the road. But why had I been so irritated by the situation?

The answer was in my Signature Strengths, Seligman and Peterson’s well-researched approach to identifying one’s Values in Action. My top five are Creativity, Curiosity, Kindness, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, and Spirituality/Sense of Purpose. These really resonate with me, and are the automatic and natural way I think, act and believe.

  • I wondered why the workers had not attempted to find a possible solution to sending customers to a remote location for receipts. (Curiosity)
  • I instantly started thinking up possible practical solutions given the existing situation. (Creativity)
  • I tried to be nice by offering help. I was irritated that the workers did not seem to care that they were inconveniencing customers. (Kindness)
  • While gas stations are not necessarily connected with beauty and excellence, somehow it seemed that this one could be a whole lot better. (Beauty)
  • I wondered: Did the workers have any connection to the work they were doing? Was it even possible to feel “called” to work in a gas station? (Sense of Purpose)
All of my responses happened with split-second timing—what UVA’s Jon Haidt calls moral intuitions. We like to think that we are appealed to through our rational selves, especially when we have been educated to be thinkers. But the truth is that the emotions are reached first, if only momentarily. Becoming aware of the underlying values that drive your behavior and intuitive response is an excellent first step toward improving the way you get along in the world. This is part of building character.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take the VIA Signature Strengths test and the Authentic Happiness Inventory. Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) found that people who use their Signature Strengths in their daily life and work were lastingly happier. (No easy fixes: It’s not enough to just learn your Signature Strengths. You have to really use them. People continued in the study for six months.) We know that happiness confers many desirable benefits. How are you using your strengths in new ways? How are you becoming happier as a result? Retake the AHI after consistently using your strengths in new ways.
  2. Discover how your buttons are being pushed by knowing yourself through your strengths. Then take a stab at rewiring your remote control. Be less angry. Get over disappointment faster. Become more patient with others. See the silver lining in those dismal clouds. Be engaged in things that feel productive and meaningful. And learn to appreciate that other people have their unique strengths set, gas station attendants included. Which of their buttons did I push? Maybe they were being socially responsible (citizenship) or not taking undue risks (prudence) or being disciplined (self-regulation). Those, after all, are strengths, too.
  3. Get a friend or coach to help you stick to your new routine: Make it a habit. Choose someone you want to be responsible to and who won’t be critical of your character-building. In Positive Psychology we call this an “Aristotelian Friend”, after one of the first positive psychologists, Aristotle, who believed that good character was essential for the good life.
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