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Rewiring Your Remote Control Builds Character

written by Sherri Fisher 4 January 2007

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Remote Control

Remote Control

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 (AHI).  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.

Saturday: 12.20.2008 (remote control> courtesy of Jesse757

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Jeff 5 January 2007 - 1:51 am

Congratulations on a quality blog. I enjoyed the few posts that are up very much and encourage everyone to keep going. Hopefully this blog will fill the vacuum left by http://www.reflectivehappiness.com’s decline.

Which brings me to my point: going the distance. I think the test of time is a fine way to gauge the impact of exercises, like the Using Your Signature Strengths in a New Way Exercise. If this exercise makes you feel good for a day, wonderful, but what about weeks, months, years, decades that follow? Do you have to be John Henry to practice it diligently and get its benefits? What is enough and not too much or too little?

I’d like to learn about behavioral optimism. Which exercises create outcomes that actually get real people to overcome obstacles and negative experiences to reach their goals? What is something that helps a Navy Seal get through training, for example? Seligman’s Three Blessings Exercise and Learned Optimism had promise as viral memes. They were exercises you could build into your life, that felt good to do and that highlighted your best character without don’t demanding too many resources. Although the Three Blessings and Learned Optimism exercises were effective, I don’t use them much. For me they have not yet gone the distance.

So here is my challenge, a riddle for the positive psychology superstars. Solve a persistent real world problem.

Here’s your homework: challenge yourselves to come up with pet theories on how to ethically get someone to consistently do something they strongly resist: such as getting a loved one to become more social long after grieving the loss of a spouse or getting a couch potato off the sofa and into the gym year after year or a reluctant high schooler to regularly contribute in class discussions. Guns to the head don’t count.

What is your exercise? The best answer I have seen to date is: to be grittier, be grittier. In other words how do you wear down resistance to beneficial goals and persevere through depression, lapses, foul moods, fatigue, disgust for doing the necessary steps? For full credit, provide evidential resources (I use this term loosely) including pop culture references, icons, paragons, stories, poetry, anything convincing that supports your line of reasoning.

To make it interesting, I’ll promise a hundred US dollars to the charity of your choice for coming up with an effective persistence exercise that I use regularly with significant results for one year. Effectiveness over time is, to me, the gold standard of effective intervention.

Sherri Fisher 5 January 2007 - 1:04 pm

Dear Jeff:

Thanks for offering Positive Psychology the opportunity to come up with an intervention which works for you. You will be interested to know that preliminary research by Silberman (2006) indicates that people are not good at choosing their own effective interventions, so asking for help is a good idea!!

Your question about whether an intervention has lasting effectiveness is something that we are still discovering. This depends first on what counts as an intervention. MAPP students catalogued over 1000 of them last year, but only a handful have been empirically tested in the new science of Positive Psychology. We do know, for example, that the character strengths of hope, zest, curiosity, love, and gratitude are significantly related to life satisfaction (Park, et al., 2004). Does that mean you should focus on interventions which build those strengths? To me it means that is worth a try. The key question for any intervention is, how will you measure effectiveness? Note that I suggested using the AHI as a way to get before and after measures.

You ask about the longevity of interventions. George Vaillant’s Aging Well looks at the impact of individual lifestyle choices on aging. It is based on 50 years of research which found strong positive correlations between generativity, tight social networks, spirituality and creativity, among other things, with positive aging. Is lifestyle choice a series of positive interventions? Should you be developing those traits and assets now? Will they help you be happier? The research says so, but it does not say that everyone will have the same benefit. Should you try it? It sounds like it is worth a try over the long haul.

You ask about persistence with interventions. If you are looking for a quick fix, then you are not trusting in the process, and you may have some “iceberg beliefs” (Reivich and Shatte, The Resilience Factor, 2002) that need to be addressed either in the context of the intervention, or perhaps before the intervention, so it will be effective. Note that I said to get an Aristotelian Friend or a coach to work with you. Positive Psychology is not about going it alone—Chris Peterson says it boils down to this: “Other People Matter.” You want an intervention that works but without demanding too many resources. Which are the resources you unwilling to use? Do you mean money? Time? Physical Energy? Consistency? Emotional risk? Are you actually looking to fail (the self-fulfilling prophecy is real!)?

I particularly like your question about Navy Seal Training. Peterson and Park (2006) have been looking at the unique positive profiles of institutions. The US Military Academy at West Point, for example, has a top strength of Love. Fisher and Shearon (2006) found that an actual school district has a unique institutional strengths set which is different than the virtual one that can be found within Authentic Happiness data. Environment matters. Hall (2006) looked at the strengths of numerous occupations within the AH data set. It seems that certain professions are correlated with certain strength sets. An intuitive finding? Perhaps. Some people may be predisposed to certain life work. Your question is, what makes them stick it out? More than one thing, I’ll wager. It’s a strengths set. Chances are that most of the people in any group have at least some strengths overlap. At the Positive Psychology Summit in 2005, I sat in a room of perhaps 150 people, all but one of whom was an “NF” on the Myers Briggs. That’s a statistical anomaly that might be attributable to their interest in helping professions. Navy Seals? They have a strength set, too. They also have physical capabilities and a strong desire to complete training that would make most people cower in fear. Strengths are both individual and corporate. Other people matter—the Navy Seals do not go it alone.

Among other things I do, I am an educational management coach for families and students. Your question about getting middle schoolers to participate in class is about more than just positive interventions. Do you know if the student has memory or language formulation difficulties? Social difficulties? Trouble at home? Do they eat breakfast? There are any number of questions about academic, social, family, physical health and more global wellness that come to mind. You can’t just choose interventions and apply them to an individual because you want to help them. You do need to know what you are trying to affect.

This brings up the question of ethics. In education, for example, there are folks who believe that no studies should ever be conducted in a school setting since you might be withholding something good for a group to find that it works with another one. Instead they make wide scale curriculum changes that affect everyone, find that the changes are counterproductive, and do the same thing over again.

So your gold standard question—Does it work over time?—may not be all there is to the question of effectiveness in positive interventions. I don’t know how old you are, or if you have changed (evolved?) at all in your life. I assume that you have. How many of the desirable changes were the result of ad hoc positive interventions? What were they?

Thanks for writing.

Sherri Fisher

Jeff 6 January 2007 - 9:21 pm


I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of a reply that addresses your well-thought out answer.


Jeff 6 January 2007 - 10:44 pm


You write so well! I think you hit upon the main points in a very thought provoking and reflective manner. So thank you.

Let me focus my question into a specific problem. Vigorous physical training for me is like eating a worm sandwich. How do you get yourself to eat a worm sandwich? I want the health benefits but not to do the steps to get those benefits. Often its just too comfortable not to go out and do the work.

Do you see the problem here? Surfing the net is more powerful than my desire to get out there and train. This doesn’t just affect my PT but also is a broadly recurring problem. I tend to be a procrastinator and sometimes skate past the hard parts of life. Work in this area of living would probably improve the other areas, too.

Another way to frame this problem is that my weaknesses are in self-regulation or self discipline, optimism and persistence. My strengths are in creativity, judgment, EQ, fairness and gratitude.

Is there a strengths set which undergirds persistence and self-regulation or self discipline? What activities are most beneficial in building persistence?
If the science isn’t there, what is your best guess? Are there ways to use my current strengths to compensate for my deficits?

Are there cognitive, social and behavioral steps I can take to get out there day after day and accomplish my desired ends? This question is for me, but also for my friends and family who struggle with persistence problems as well. I see this issue as widespread and affecting the health and wellness of the public, too.

By the way, I’m 29 and have matured a wee bit. The best interventions or changes I have observed came from Prozac, practicing cognitive techniques and maturity. That and 9 happy years of marriage to a very stubborn woman.


Nick 7 January 2007 - 1:19 am


To bluntly answer your question, not nearly as gingerly and eloquently as Sherri did, behavioral science does not yet have an answer for you. This is because there have not yet been enough studies done on interventions that have positive psychological bases. Work in this area is being done in education and social work as well, although not incorporating the VIA strengths.

We DO know, however, that people gain a greater sense of self-efficacy and well-being by using their top strengths. Perhaps you can create an intervention for yourself that will creatively use your top strengths to head towards what your mind desires, but your subconscious shies away from. This is the edge of behavioral science, my friend.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, has as one of its tenets that you keep trying different things until something works. So, from a behavioral science perspective perhaps we do have an answer for you: keep trying! And while you’re at it, take note of your outcomes, you just may have the seeds to new and effective interventions.


David J. Pollay 10 January 2007 - 9:14 pm

Hi Sherri,

I love the way you took a frustrating moment in your life and saw a chance to explore your strengths. Often we focus on exploring our strengths in our successes; you make us think about our strengths in our challenges too.

Thanks Sherri.



David J. Pollay 28 January 2007 - 1:22 am

Hi Jeff and Sherri,

Jeff, you ask great questions and you engage wonderfully with all the posts! Thanks!

And Sherri, your response to Jeff was fantastic – you covered a ton of ground toughtfully and cogently. Wow!

Warm Regards,



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