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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Building and applying strength

In relation to leading a meaningful life in correspondence with one’s values and identity, positive psychological research shows that we have the best change of engaging, learning and developing - leading to success and reducing the risk of stress - when we focus on and utilize our strengths rather than our weaknesses in our everyday life.

Based on research, the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has developed the PERMA model combining five elements that help people achieve greater performance, stronger relations, work satisfaction and more meaningful lives. Some call the model the recipe for happiness.

Perma model

The five elements are:

1. Positive emotions (P) - not only do positive emotions feel good, they help us be creative in our problem solving as well as establish and maintain positive relations. A positive outlook on life is vital for happiness.

2. Engagement (E) - when we feel fully engaged in a situation, a task or a project, we experience being in flow. Flow happens when the level of challenge over time is just right; not too much leading to stress, and not too little leading to apathy.

3. Relationships (R) - humans are social beings and depend on community for survival; good relations are key to our sense of wellbeing.

4. Meaning (M) - to feel satisfied in life, we all need a sense of purpose higher than ourselves; for example, making a difference in other people’s lives.

5. Achievements (A) - most people have ambitions of developing and succeeding, e.g. in relation to mastering a field or winning a competition.

Many expat spouses experience a lack of meaningful activities once the children, if any, are settled in their ways and the honeymoon phase is over. Often there has been flow in planning and executing the move abroad; but once normal routine sets in, it becomes obvious if the accompanying spouse is bored and unhappy with the new circumstances.

Working doesn’t have to be the only way to create a sense of achievement, but for many people, our work place is where we develop our skills, experience achievements as well as create relationships. For many, work becomes their main identity. When in a foreign country and without one’s usual network, not working can become isolating leading to frustration, loneliness, depression and anxiety. It’s easy to see how this situation will affect all the elements in the PERMA-model creating a vicious circle. Some may not be used to working outside their home, but in Denmark where most people go to work, it can be a challenging and lonely experience to be a home maker.

In my practice, I see expat spouses who feel at a loss not being able to fulfill their ambitions and dreams, and as such begin to feel worthless. They feel as if they are wasting valuable time and develop a fear of not being good enough. Some don’t know what to do with their time and come to detest the move and being depended on their working spouse, for money and social contact. Some fear not gathering any valuable, appropriate experience whilst away from home as well as a fear of not being able to re-enter the job market once back home again.

One’s identity depends on one’s values and as these often have strong links to one’s strengths, it becomes important to acquire self-awareness around these. Research shows that everyone possesses 24 different character strengths in varying degree, and that we all have 5 top strengths around which we can create lives in flow. Lives which are successful, developing and meaningful. Knowing your strengths and skillfully applying them to your life situation can help you enhance the overall quality of your life and relationships.

Some of the work we will do in the personal empowerment groups evolve around identity; and in connection to this work, we will determine and explore the participants’ strengths and values and work on developing these to create meaningful lives. With a plan in hand, you will be able to embrace the relevant challenges of expat life with a positive outlook on life and be empowered to take charge and start creating a meaningful expat life for yourself.

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