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From Ashes to Beauty

written by Debbie Swick 21 February 2007

Debbie Swick, MBA, is the Associate Director of Education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached via email.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season in the Christian tradition. No doubt you have heard “I’m giving up (blank) for Lent.” (Insert favorite food, drink, activity, or other indulgent vice in the blank.) The focus of this season seems to be on self-sacrifice and self-control. These can be wonderful virtues to inculcate in our lives (see Maymin article 2-1-07), but, discipline is not easy or appealing for most people. In the Values In Action (VIA) classification, there are 24 strengths (Peterson, 2004). The strength of self-control is not the most prevalent strength when looking at the aggregate strengths of 500,000 who have taken the VIA survey. In fact, overall, it ranks 24th in the list of strengths. (You can take the VIA at here).

A college friend told me her practice for Lent was to give up something in the spirit of self-sacrifice, and to add something to her life. She would take up a new habit! This positive spin was appealing enough to get me to try and develop a new habit each year as Spring emerged. As I was thinking about what to sacrifice and what to add to my life this year, I started thinking more about habits.

According to the Oxford-English Dictionary, the most common definition of “habit” is A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way, esp. one acquired by frequent repetition of the same act until it becomes almost or quite involuntary; a settled practice, custom, usage; a customary way or manner of acting. (The most usual current sense. Properly said of living beings; in mod. use occasionally of inanimate things.)



But a little more research unveils that “habit” not only refers to actions, it also refers to appearance. For example, a religious habit can refer to the clothing a nun wears. A riding habit refers to riding clothes worn for a specific occasion. And, my favorite, the term used to describe the appearance or form of a crystal is “habit.”

Establishing a new habit can also be thought of as changing or taking on a new appearance. I can use the next 40 days to enhance one or more of my character strengths (from the VIA), and so enhance my appearance. Research has shown that using your signature strengths in a new way increases happiness.

Kindness is one of my signature strengths. Wouldn’t kindness be a wonderful attribute to adorn each day?

Love of learning has always been #1 or #2 on my list of strengths. I would love to learn a new language and increase my communication skills.

Spirituality has also been at the very top of my list. My connection with God – connecting with something larger than myself – brings awe and wonder and peace and hope. I know I’m attracted to these attributes in others and I would love to wear them on a more consistent basis.

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the season where one can go from ashes to beauty. What will you be wearing this Spring?


Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life (Positive Psychology News). Positive Psychology News. (Added later)

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

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Editor S.M. 21 February 2007 - 1:46 am

You have written the INAUGURAL piece by a Guest Author on Positive Psychology News Daily. Thank you, Debbie!

Giselle 21 February 2007 - 2:00 am


What a fantastic topic for us to read today – we’re so lucky to finally get to read something that you’ve written! I think that your friend’s habit of choosing something to subtract and something to add to her life is a wonderful way to balance religious tradition with the power of positive psychology. For those who dont participate in Lent, this is also a wonderful opportunity to develop a new habit and to refocus on getting more of what we want in our lives instead of focusing on what we don’t want.
Thanks for contributing, Debbie!

PS I don’t think you could enhance your character strength of kindness much more even if you wanted to – you’re maxed out!

Sherri Fisher 21 February 2007 - 7:43 am

Hi, Debbie!

It’s so nice to have you writing with us!

The first line of an old hymn (the date in the hymnal says 1600’s) reads:
“Deck thyself my soul with gladness, leave the gloomy haunts of sadness.” As a child I imagined you actually put on this gladness like an item of clothing which was why we dressed up for church and got to smile at everyone. It was a habit of both costume and behavior. While Lent is often thought of as a time for giving up, the idea of “taking on” or facing your challenges is a more positive approach. What someone sacrifices (gives!) in time, talent or treasure could very well result in greater gladness. What a perfect connection to the ideas of using your strengths in new ways. 🙂

Dave Shearon 21 February 2007 - 11:12 am

Great piece, Debbie! I never knew the use of “habit” with regard to crystal! You just hit my “love of learning” button!

Debbie 22 February 2007 - 12:10 pm


You know I think the 25th strength should be “balance”!

daves 24 February 2007 - 4:16 am

Nice job, sis! Oh, and HB! “Right on time” as usual. 😉


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