I discovered the power of Character Strengths in 2019 as an MSc student of Positive Psychology and Well Being in Liverpool John Moores University. The course was brand new and full of shiny faced, enthusiastic recruits from all walks of life: therapists, researchers, coaches, young graduates and educators like myself. Together we felt electrified. Our newfound knowledge would serve, not just to transform our own lives, but also ripple out to everyone we touched. We were to be the first ever Masters cohort to embark on the programme pioneered by Ryan Niemiec called Mindfulness- Based Strengths Practice. We took the free VIA course to discover our top strengths known as our signature strengths and each week in lectures, we focused on a new intervention in conjunction with our mindfulness practice, a process Neimiec termed, ‘Strong Mindfulness’.
It was thrilling to discover our hidden gold. It came as no surprise to me that curiosity and love of learning were high on my list. Nor was it a shock to find that self-regulation was at the bottom; often having emerged a bit bruised and battered from a skirmish with the biscuit tin! But having that knowledge validated by the VIA survey, made me regard myself with fresh eyes. Each week we would explore and develop our understanding of Character Strengths with various interventions and each week we grew in confidence, self-efficacy and self-awareness. I soon realised that little things like finding novel ways to use my signature strengths, for example, using curiosity to explore different routes to work or bravery to take myself off to the cinema to watch a film alone, contributed significantly to my well-being by disrupting the automatic nature of life. Participating in the study and the weekly interventions also helped shine a spotlight onto the essence of my humanity; my very sense of meaning and purpose. So simple; yet so powerful. As a result of my Character Strengths, I found the bravery to set up my own Positive Psychology group for teachers and students at work; to write blogs about Positive Psychology and to contribute to podcasts. I also found myself doubling down on my lower strengths like perseverance and self-regulation to juggle work demands and uni deadlines and still be present for my kids as a busy mum. And when Covid stopped life as we knew it? My inner gold only shone brighter and helped me to navigate the challenges that ensued.
So what exactly are Character Strengths and how have they become so important in the field of Positive Psychology? Simply put, Character Strengths Intervention is a strength-based model that focuses on finding and using your inner resources to enable you to flourish. It is employed across several areas from clinical settings to the workplace to education and concentrates on promoting and preserving well-being.
The founding father of Positive Psychology, Marty Seligman, believes that we should focus on what works well to enable flourishing in every person and community (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2014). Keyes’ definition of flourishing, which asserts that the absence of mental illness does not directly correspond with the presence of mental health, further reinforces this and he has put forward the idea of a mental health continuum from languishing to flourishing (Keyes, 2007). Character Strength advocates maintain that it is by becoming aware of and utilising our character strengths that we can ascend this scale and fulfil our true potential as human beings.
As the field of Positive Psychology has grown in the past twenty years, so too has the development of Character Strengths as an effective intervention with a range of research across different age groups in various settings and populations. Character Strengths emerged as a framework for Positive Psychology (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) in response to the ancient philosophical question more recently adopted by positive psychologists enquiring what is the ‘good life’? In an ambitious three year research study which spanned as far back as two and a half thousand years, fifty five researchers explored literature and empirical evidence across cultures, ages, traditions and religions to arrive at the basic elements of human identity: a model of twenty four character strengths known as the VIA (Values In Action) Character Strengths Framework. They discovered that it could be divided into six categories broadly defined as values.
These value categories are broken down under the headings:
Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence and within them can be found groupings of the separate strengths. So, for example, the wisdom bucket overflows with strengths like creativity, curiosity, love of learning, perspective and justice. Temperance houses humility, prudence, forgiveness and self-regulation. As for humanity, strengths like kindness, love and social intelligence can be found. While justice incorporates fairness, leadership, and teamwork. Courage includes zest, bravery, honesty and perseverance and transcendence is home to the strengths of appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, humour, hope and spirituality. And the wonderful thing is that they are not cast in stone. You can build on them to concentrate on expressing strengths that don’t necessarily feature in your top five and work on areas that might need more work.
The amazing findings emerging from strengths interventions boast that people who use their strengths in their day to day lives report greater self-confidence; increased happiness and satisfaction with life; more energy; higher self-esteem; improved relationships and less stress. In essence they hit every category in Seligman’s model for positive psychology PERMA: Positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
They reflect the real you- your authentic self. They also empower you. You have control of your happiness. You can channel your signature strengths into whatever aspect of your life you want. How liberating is that? To know that no matter what, this super power is buried deep within you? The more you use your strengths the greater the self-efficacy. The greater the self-efficacy, the more positive emotions like pride, joy, independence, you foster and we all know that that can only lead one way: an upward spiral of flourishing.
A large body of research evidences the efficacy of strengths integration in many domains. In fact over 700 studies on the VIA Classification published in the last 10 years with over 15 million surveys administered (VIA Institute, 2021) Fields such as social work, (Saleebey, 1996), counselling (Smith, 2006), psychotherapy, (Rashid &Seligman,2018) mindfulness, (Neimiec,2013) workplace related stress (Harzer & Ruch,2015), and education, (Linkins et al.,2015) have all been represented. Psychologists like Boniwell maintain that character strengths underpin the positive psychology paradigm because they link directly to the presence of psychological health as opposed to the mere absence of psychological illness. (2012) In fact, research supports this and a character strength study of 10,000 adults in 2015 revealed that participants were 9.5 times more likely to flourish psychologically when they were aware of their strengths and, even more encouragingly, 18 times more ability to flourish if they were taught to use their strengths. (Hone et al, 2015)
So what do you do if you’re interested in exploring your Character strengths? Well thanks to Peterson and Seligman and recent contributions from the likes of Niemiec and Mcgrath, there is wealth of information on the VIA website if you head over there. You can also join the 7 million strong and take the VIA survey to discover your own strengths. Books such as: ‘Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide To Flourishing’ by Ryan Niemac and ‘The Power of Character Strengths’ by Rob McGrath and Ryan Neimac are good starting points. As is ‘The Strength Switch’ by Lea Waters PHD which focuses solely on parenting.
The website can also furnish you with free, quick and actionable exercises to help hone your strengths. From there, check out one to one coaching sessions that specialise in character strengths interventions which are becoming incredibly popular and effective. According to Seligman, ‘the good life’ is using your signature strengths daily to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification. Ryan Neimic takes it a step further to embrace our wider relationships. Character Strengths, he maintains, are ‘positive personality traits that reflect our basic identity, produce positive outcomes for ourselves and others, and contribute to the collective good’ (2017 p26).
Personally, I like to think of them as my secret super power, my inner gold. Take the test for yourself and find yours. You might just be surprised by what you find.
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