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Judges and Character Strengths

When I turned 60, I became aware I was entering a new phase in my life. Those around me were discussing their plans to retire. Would I have enough money to retire? Would I need to stop working at a job I loved and had done most of my life?

Many people plan and look forward to retirement. But I knew in my gut it was not for me. My father never stopped working as a dentist, and my mentors are still working in their 70’s and 90’s. I did not even know if I could effectively retire, physically, mentally, and/or financially.

When my friends ask me how, after 30 years as a clinical psychologist, I don’t get bored or burdened by my work, my natural response is that each person has their unique story. I am fortunate that they choose to share their stories with me. As their lives are revealed, my curiosity and caring connects me to them. Even as a child, I enjoyed reading biographies, and now, every day, I professionally get to experience my client’s biographies. Hearing people's stories has been central to my life; I could not comprehend life without it in retirement.

Six years ago, I was approached by an appellate court judge involved with the process of transitioning judges into retirement. He referred to this stage as “stepping down from the bench” and noted that judges were having a hard time emotionally with this transition, as some of them were experiencing depression. My work with families acquaints me with courts, attorneys, and judges. For that reason, I was asked to help them cope with the difficulties they were now facing. I admit that it had never occurred to me that judges, people of status, would be finding this transition to be so difficult. The reduction of a loss of status, meaningfulness, structure, and daily routine was in fact a challenge for many of these accomplished professionals. While judges receive excellent pensions and health benefits, the emotional aspect of this transition was ignored and problematic for many of them. At first, I was surprised they needed my help. The judges have financial security and an option to work part-time. Why would they be experiencing the same questions I was?

So, each year, for the past six years, I have participated in a program organized by the Connecticut Judicial Branch for judges who are stepping down from the bench. I speak to them about coping with transitions. Initially, I focused on understanding the stages of transitions, and I relied on William Bridges’ book,Transitions, as a model for this process. In my time with them, I started to see how these problems are universal to all retiring Baby Boomers, and how

underserved we've been. I began to use the lessons I have learned recently, as I have focused on my interests in positive psychology and expanding my knowledge of French.

I first heard about the VIA character strengths survey while completing a Positive Psychology Master Class. We all were encouraged to take the VIA. Unsurprisingly, my top signature strength was love because love has been the driving force in how I live my life. My next strength was curiosity. A life informed by curiosity and love. Hmmm - How to appreciate the richness, interests, and opportunities? It has taken me some time to realize how my strengths can provide an opportunity to appreciate the tasks associated with everyday life and my own transitions.

Each year my presentation has included more information about how to use tools from positive psychology to cope with the transitions associated with retirement or a new status as a part-time judge. Every presentation took on more meaning for the judges, as well as myself. I found myself connecting more to the group and enjoying the experience to a greater degree. My top character strengths are love and curiosity, so it was natural that I was interested in each of the participants and genuinely cared about the challenges with this stage of life.

I am currently participating in a Master Class on Character Strengths. While I am familiar with the VIA strengths survey and use it in my private practice, this workshop has provided me with a richer appreciation for the application of the strengths model. For my latest presentation, I asked the judges to complete the VIA questionnaire prior to our meeting and bring the results to our get-together. I shared my signature strengths with them, and we discussed using strengths in daily living as a way of coping with transitions. I also led an exercise in strengths-spotting. We shared ways to use their signature strengths for approaching their fears and anxieties in dealing with the transition into retirement. The response from the group was energizing and gratifying for them and for me. The zest in the room was exciting. They enjoyed the process and related to their signature strengths as supporting their unique identities as they moved forward with the activities.

Once I identified my character strengths, I realized how useful these gifts are and that I could build another stage of my career. Using character strengths with a group of senior judges adjusting to the process of preparing for retirement was a gratifying and useful activity. It was meaningful for me as the presenter and for them as an audience. Actively preparing for my ongoing contacts with judges has helped me to plan what I want my next stage of life to be. It helped me realize that I can have a life which is bigger than my current life.

My love of others and curiosity led me to study positive psychology, and for the last three years, I have participated in a wonderful French immersion class in Aix en Provence. My current goal is to find others who want to join me in a retreat to the south of France to practice living positivity, learn some French, explore, and make use of strengths in a culture that I think embodies the principles of positive psychology. I invite you to contact me if you are interested!

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