Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

In our quest for self-awareness, we have likely identified a mixture of both personal weaknesses and strengths. If we want to go about improving, is it better to focus on fixing what is wrong with us or accentuating the positive?

While it is important to know our shortcomings, the field of positive psychology contends that it is more beneficial to emphasize our strengths. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with us, they argue that we should focus on what is right. This approach is encapsulated well in a quote from Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz: “Woe to a person who is not aware of his faults, for he does not know what he needs to correct. But double woe to a person who is not aware of his virtues, for he is lacking the tools for correcting himself” (quoted in Alei Shur vol. 1, pp. 169, translation from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Gateway to Happiness).

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We previously noted Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s positive pedagogical technique, naming his students’ individual strengths (Avot 2:8). In the subsequent Mishnah, Rabbi Yochanan asks these same students to “go out and observe which is the straight path a person should cleave to” (Avot 2:9).

What exactly is the assignment? What is this straight path they are supposed to observe and where are they supposed to go to investigate?

According to Rabbeinu Yonah, Rabbi Yochanan is asking them to identify one character trait to try and perfect. The assumption is that it is more beneficial for a person to master that one meta-trait, which will likely help the cultivation of other traits. Maharal highlights that in order to figure out the answer, it wasn’t enough to study Torah texts. They needed to leave the beit midrash and observe real world interactions between people.

Almost 2,000 years later, positive psychologists went about asking a related question. What are the character traits and virtues most valued throughout history and cultures? They surveyed texts and traditions, but also went to observe people all over the world to see if and how the answers differed. Because he traveled to countries such as Greenland, Kenya, India, and Israel to explore this issue, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology.” With the help of his research, the field developed a manual of 24 cross-cultural character strengths featuring essential traits for a flourishing life.

So which trait is best? Rabbi Yochanan’s students each offer an answer: a good eye, a good companion, a good neighbor, foresight, and a good heart (lev tov). Rabbi Yochanan prefers the last answer because a good heart incorporates the other traits as well. What does it mean to have a lev tov? Since it is a vague phrase, the commentaries present varied answers, such as being patient, or not being jealous. Perhaps we can add that lev tov could be understood not just as a good heart, but as a positive heart. The ultimate path to working on character, the meta-approach that will help with all other traits, is to accentuate the positive within us, augmenting our personal strengths.

If we want to continue improving ourselves, perhaps utilizing a personalized, strength-based approach is the best path to cling to. We can take the free online character strengths survey, which can help us identify our top strengths (www.viacharacter.org/survey). Afterwards, we can purposefully focus on using our own, positive, signature strengths in our daily lives. Research demonstrates that doing so will have many positive outcomes including boosting feelings of happiness and well-being. Utilizing this positive-heart approach will help us as we continue our journey of self-growth through Pirkei Avot and psychology.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an assistant professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, the assistant rabbi at Kingsway Jewish Center, and a licensed psychologist practicing in Brooklyn. He can be reached at PsychedForTorah@gmail.com and on social media @psychedfortorah.