Character Strengths in Practice
August 18, 2015 by VIA Institute on Character ·
Research on character strengths by Chris Peterson and colleagues has been monumental to the field of positive psychology and has ushered in a new science of character that involves a classification system (VIA Classification) and a scientific measurement tool (VIA Survey).
Over the last decade, this research has spurred a variety of practices in multiple professional domains. In this article, we discuss exciting developments in four domains that have strongly integrated character strengths – business, education, coaching, and psychotherapy/counseling. We conclude with a discussion of one area that crosses with each of these domains – mindfulness – and the integration of character strengths and mindfulness practices.
Engaged employees are involved, enthusiastic, and further their organization’s interests. Survey research finds that the majority of employees are disconnected or disengaged from their work. Disengagement leads to poor performance and lower productivity while employee engagement leads to higher performance and productivity. A 3-year analysis of employee engagement by Crabb (2011) found that one of the primary drivers of employee engagement in organizations is the deployment of character strengths. Crabb refers to the practice as focusing strengths and explains that the key strategies for employers are to assess employee strengths, have a conversation with the employee regarding their agreement or disagreement with the findings, find ways for the employee to use their strengths in the organization, and create ongoing support in the organization. Employers are encouraged to ask the question: “What opportunities are there within the employee’s job and the organization to foster his or her character strengths further?”
Other recent studies have found that workers who apply four or more of their signature strengths experience more positive experiences at work and are more likely to experience work as acalling, compared with those who use less than four of their signature strengths at work (Harzer & Ruch, 2012a). This echoes research by Littman-Ovadia and Steger (2010) who found that it is important for workers to not only endorse but also deploy strengths at work. These studies also support the practice of strengths alignment in which employees are encouraged to explore ways of aligning their signature strengths with current tasks and projects.
Business consultants and executive coaches can also consider these promising paths:
1. Target specific character strengths relating to well-being (referred to as “building up” strengths). Gander, Proyer, Ruch, and Wyss (2012) found that healthy and ambitious work behavior is predicted by the character strengths of zest, perseverance, hope, and curiosity. Peterson and colleagues (2009) also emphasize the strength of zest in terms of workplace satisfaction and the experience of work-as-a-calling. They suggest zest can be targeted in workers by enhancing their physical activity, optimism, and hope.
2. Boost existing signature strengths (referred to as “building upon” strengths). Harzer and Ruch (2012b) found that employees who apply their signature strengths to their unique work circumstances experience greater job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
Aristotle argued that “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The use of VIA character strengths in education provides a framework for “educating the heart” – a common language for students (and teachers) to understand and call forth what is best in themselves and others.
Five strands comprise the essential elements of character strengths-based interventions (Linkins, 2012):
1. Developing a character strengths language/lens
2. Recognizing and appreciating character strengths in others
3. Recognizing and appreciating one’s own character strengths
4. Applying/developing one’s own character strengths
5. Recognizing, celebrating, and applying group (e.g., classroom, school) character strengths
Character strengths content may be taught within the context of a stand-alone (self-contained) curriculum. The Strath Haven Positive Psychology Program, for example, includes lessons devoted to helping students identify and apply their signature strengths. This program for 9th grade students was evaluated in the first randomized controlled study of a classroom-based, positive psychology intervention. VIA-based lessons comprise nearly one-half of the course content. Students who participated in the program made significant gains in the following areas: increased engagement in learning, enjoyment of school, language arts achievement, and improved social skills. Most of these gains held through 11th grade, two years post-intervention (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009).
Character strengths concepts and skills may also be embedded within and across content areas (e.g., language arts, social studies, science). For instance, first-grade students at the Shanghai American School learn the language of character strengths (and identify their own top strengths) as they connect with characters in story-books (Pearlz & Morrison, 2012).
While many would argue that coaching has always been based on identifying and playing to strengths, the utilization of character strengths allows a coaching practitioner to take a more rigorous approach to strengths assessment, intervention, and the linkage of strengths to personal and professional goals.
There are three main processes for working with character strengths in coaching:
1. Strengths knowledge: Understanding how character strengths are a core part of who a person is and has become; how they can be overused, underused, and combined together (Biswas-Diener, 2010).
2. Strengths use: Deploying signature strengths in a balanced way across contexts to meet goals (Gander et al., 2012; Linley et al., 2010; Seligman et al., 2005).
3. Strength-spotting: Naming the strength one sees in oneself and others and offering a rationale.
Accordingly, coachees need a “common language” of strengths to be able to build competency and self-efficacy in terms of their goal orientation. Then they can link strengths to goals which has been shown to increase not only goal attainment but well-being (Linley et al., 2010). When goal-setting, character strengths can pose as the means or the ends. Said another way, strengths might be the goal itself (e.g., “I want to build up my gratitude and creativity strengths”) or the pathway to reaching the goal (e.g., “I will use my bravery and perseverance strengths to help me reach my goal”). Finally, assisting the coachee to engage in active “strength-spotting” can assist in building positive relationships – the trump card of well-being!
The most systematic character strengths-based approach in psychotherapy is Positive Psychotherapy (PPT; Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006), where 60-70% of PPT involves character strengths theory and practice. The central premise of PPT is that systematically accentuating strengths of clients – in addition to treating symptoms – is efficacious. Character strengths serve clients best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult. PPT seeks to balance attention and resources by engaging clients in discussions about not only injustice but also recent acts of kindness; not only hubris but also humility; suffering and also growth (Rashid & Ostermann, 2009).
PPT focuses on character strengths to boost well-being, namely deploying strengths as core pathways toward positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA; Seligman, 2011). PPT has been empirically validated in a few independent studies with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, schizophrenia, and relationship issues (Meyer et al., 2012; Rashid & Anjum, 2007; Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).
Examples of strength-based practices embedded in PPT include the forgiveness letter, using one’s signature strengths to offer the gift of time, and the one door closes, another door opens strategy to boost the strength of hope. Another exercise, called dynamic assessment of strengths involves guiding clients through the following steps:
1. Share a positive introduction (without any mention of strengths);
2. Take the VIA Survey and have a family member or friend identify your top strengths;
3. Re-share a positive introduction, including the new perspectives on character strengths.
Peer-reviewed publications on mindfulness have increased twenty-fold since the year 2000. A seminal article authored by 11 leading scientists devised a two-part operational definition for mindfulness in order to put researchers and practitioners on the same page when studying this construct (Bishop et al., 2004). This consensual definition embodies two character strengths: Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
The integration of mindfulness and character strengths involves two main areas (Niemiec, 2013):
1. Strong Mindfulness: Using character strengths to boost mindfulness practices. For example:
-Dealing with obstacles to meditation by calling upon the strength of bravery to face inner discomfort while practicing meditation.
-Supercharging meditation by using curiosity, self-regulation, and perspective for each phase of the “3-minute breathing space” practice (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002).
-Using character strengths practices to support a lifestyle of healthy, mindful living. For 16 character strengths interventions for this, see Niemiec (2012)
2. Mindful Strengths Use: Using mindfulness to enhance the practice of character strengths. For example:
-Finding the golden mean by using mindfulness to discover the right combination of strengths that can be used to the right degree and in the right situation.
-Breaking strengths blindness through exercises such as the “Character Strengths 360” that helps participants gain insight into strengths they had discounted or let erode away.
Niemiec, Rashid, and Spinella (2012) suggest that this integration creates a synergy of mutual benefit that can foster a virtuous circle in which mindful awareness boosts strengths use which, in turn, enlivens mindfulness. This integration has been formalized into Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), an 8-week program that trains participants on both domains and the integration (Niemiec, 2013). Whereas traditional mindfulness programs direct mindfulness to manage stress, pain, depression, etc., MBSP uses mindfulness to explore, build, and apply what is best in oneself and others.
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