As I recall, the girl sitting next to me in home-economics class was named Diane. She was a cheery sort, and we chatted amiably while working on our sewing projects. I was making a pair of identical paisley print bolero vests. One was for me, I explained, and one was for Bobby Sassaman, the love of my as-yet-very-young life.
“You like him??” she almost gasped in disbelief. Clearly, Diane did not see Bobby as acceptable boyfriend material. I saw way more than boyfriend potential: later this month, we’ll celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.
We still have the vests.
To be clear, when we got married, I believe a majority in the church — including me — were sure the marriage was doomed. I was a pregnant high school senior, barely 17 years-old. Bobby was enrolled at the local community college, but he was still just a paper boy. Neither one of us had driver’s licenses, much less a car. I was fired from my part time job as a short order cook because pregnant teenagers didn’t fit the restaurant’s family fun image. Not too promising, right? I mean, I was crazy in love, but I wasn’t stupid.
Yet, here we are. Still crazy in love. Nobody’s betting against our relationship anymore, especially not me.
Perhaps that’s because the odds were in our favor all along.
Recently, I asked Bob (the extra syllable disappeared a long time ago) to take the VIA Institute on Character free online survey. I’ve taken the “test” a few times, and used it in workshops, so I have a good idea of my top strengths. I was curious about his, and one Sunday night he announced his results. Turns out, we have the same signature strength: the capacity to give and receive love. The fact that humor is also tops for him, and forgiveness is number two for me, doesn’t hurt either when it comes to maintaining a thriving relationship for the long term.
Okay, there are many other factors that helped us along the way, including the love and support of our families. Still, I was really struck by our common survey result.
I had taken the survey again as part of my home work for the Kripalu Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in. The faculty are very generous with their time and expertise, so I asked program director Maria Sirois if she thought there was any connection between the longevity of my marriage and our capacity to give and receive love. I wondered, is the shared strength of love the chicken that laid the egg of a long marriage, or, is a long marriage the egg that hatched the chicken of love as a signature strength within each of us? Maria responded,
“Some strengths – core strengths – seem to be with us from the beginning – I like to think of them as cellular but I don’t know that the VIA people would use that language. They simply are who we are. If you both had this as a core strength from childhood I could see how it could contribute to your longevity in relationship. And since it is a strength, at least in the recent decades, that you share, you can be sure that you reinforced it in each other and in so doing elevated other strengths that support your relationship as well. Self-esteem and competency both rise when we are in our highest strengths, and the love strength is also closely associated with generosity – which can only help a relationship. So I’d say you have a fabulous chicken and a delicious egg thing happening here.”
Thank you, Maria!
Is this one of those silly Facebook quizzes?
Well, no. Nor is it from a magazine like “Cosmopolitan” or “Redbook” (are they still around?). The VIA index stems from solid research. According to “VIA Character Strengths – Research and Practice: The First 10 Years” by Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., the index of 24 universally admired virtues and strengths “emerged from several scientific meetings led by Martin E. P. Seligman and rigorous historical analysis led by Christopher Peterson, who collaborated with 53 other leading scientists over a period of three years.” This is serious stuff!
I initially learned about the VIA index in 2010, at my first ever positive psychology training led by Dr. Lynn Johnson. Dr. Johnson shared the VIA list with us, and I now share it with you: 1) Creativity, 2) Curiosity, 3) Love of learning, 4) Wisdom/perspective, 5) Open-mindedness, 6) Bravery, 7) Persistence, 8) Integrity, 9) Vitality, 10) Give & receive love, 11) Kindness, 12) Social intelligence, 13) Citizenship, 14) Fairness, 15) Leadership, 16) Forgiveness, 17) Modesty/humility, 18) Prudence, 19) Self-regulation, 20) Appreciation of excellence & beauty, 21) Gratitude, 22) Hope, 23) Humor, and 24) Spirituality.
You may glance at the list and immediately have a sense of your strengths, but, if you take the online test at the VIA site, you can learn so much more! Plus, there’s lots of information about these strengths and how real people have applied them to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
Here’s the best part about the VIA online test: everybody has signature strengths! Everybody is a winner! Go ahead, take the test, find out how wonderful you are!
A couple of caveats and clarifications:
- First, the VIA index does not cover all my strengths, or yours. I know, for example, that I have a facility for painting with watercolors. Apparently, I also have very flexible shoulders. Which is to say, we all have many gifts to share with the world and make our own lives more enjoyable. After you get your VIA list figured out, dig a little deeper. What else makes you wonderful?
- Strengths and Virtues can present in different ways. Take bravery, for example. A few summers ago, on a vacation trip with Bob, my sister Kathy, and her husband Rick, we climbed a waterfall trail in the wild woods of Maine. While Rick clambored to the top of rocks overhanging a steep waterfall drop, I found a rock far, far away from the edge to sit on. I couldn’t even look at Rick. I was terrified. When he was finally safe and we were walking down the hill, Rick remarked on many of the emotional risks I have taken, risks that would have terrified him. Point taken. Bravery wears many faces.
- Don’t overuse your strengths. Tal Ben-Shahar, the primary teacher in the Kripalu program, sometimes talks about the “Lasagne Principle.” In short, he loves lasagne, but if he ate it at every meal, the lasagne would be significantly less appealing. Just as our diets are diverse, so too are our strengths and virtues. Love is not, in fact, all I need.
- Remember your weaknesses. While our strengths deserve top billing, paying an appropriate level of attention to our weaknesses is also a good idea. Case in point: for some reason, I am challenged in getting dates and times right. Twice, I showed up as a weekend guest in a friend’s house a week early. Once I took my kids to a road show of “The Sound of Music,” also a week early. Fortunately, there are these wonderful items now called “calendars.” It’s taken me a few years, but I have finally learned to write down appointments and also to regularly check what’s in there!
“Virtues and Strengths: The Musical!”
As mentioned above, the VIA index is a serious topic for research and discussion among eminent leaders in the positive psychology field — but it can also be fun! Nancy K, one of the TA’s in the Kripalu program, demonstrated that in grand style when she posted her list of 24 music videos, one for each of the virtues and strengths. She invited the rest of us to consider what music videos we might choose for our own signature strengths video.
Lord knows, there are a lot of love songs out there, but most of them are focused on romantic love between partners. The capacity to give and receive love that Bob and I share is broader than that. Yes, we love each other — and, we each love many others. So even though love is not all I need, let me close this blog the way I began — with love. And the Beatles amazing song, “Love Is All You Need” .