Integrating Mindfulness and Character Strengths
August 18, 2015 by VIA Institute on Character ·
-What is mindfulness?
-What are character strengths?
-Why integrate mindfulness and character strengths?
-How do you practice with mindfulness and character strengths?
What is mindfulness?
The scientific definition of mindfulness is (1) the self-regulation of attention to immediate experience, with (2) an orientation of curiosity, openness, and acceptance (Bishop et al., 2004). This means that when we are being mindful we are taking control of what we focus on – we are controlling our attention. As we attend to our present moment – whether this be to an emotion, a thought, a belief, an impulse, a sensation, or to something in our surrounding environment – we need to approach that “thing” with a curious, open, and accepting attitude (Niemiec, 2014).
Character strengths are capacities for thinking, feeling, volition, and behaving. They are viewed as the pathways to the great virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), and as the basic building blocks of goodness that are at the core of who we are (our positive identity).
Various rationale put forth by Niemiec (2014) and Niemiec, Rashid, and Spinella (2012):
-Offers individuals who practice mindfulness a way to deal with obstacles and barriers that naturally emerge during mindfulness practices.
-Gives mindfulness practitioners concrete tools to widen perspective and deepen practice.
-Provides mindfulness practitioners a language to capture positive states and traits, many of which are organic outcomes of mindfulness.
-Elicits a greater awareness of the positive potential within us, and, taken a step further, offers a pathway to explore and develop character strengths.
-Creates a positive synergy of mutual benefit that can foster a virtuous circle of positive impact. Mindful awareness boosts strengths use which, in turn, enlivens mindfulness. This synergy might be what underlies successful positive interventions. After finding success in boosting well-being with nine positive psychology interventions that involve character strengths, Gander et al. (2012a) hypothesize that this success might be attributed to mindfulness and the broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 2001).
-Fosters individuals’ ability to respond appropriately and successfully in different contexts; that is, the integration may promote psychological flexibility (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010), help individuals find balance and practical wisdom in situations (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006), and engender a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006; Louis, 2011).
-Facilitates increased self-awareness and potential for change activation by bringing one’s character strengths more clearly into view. As Carlson (2013) describes, mindfulness serves as a path to see oneself as one really is.
-Offers an anchor to the practice of character strengths as individuals often are uncertain what direction to take and how to work with strengths.
-Motivates individuals to use their signature strengths more, which is particularly relevant since some research has found that only 1/3 of individuals have a meaningful awareness of their strengths (reported in Linley, 2008); and for those that are aware, there may be the issue of strengths blindness (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011); that is, taking one’s strengths for granted and downplaying them as ordinary. Mindfulness may be the ideal approach for remedying the “taking-strengths-for-granted” effect.
-Provides a pathway for balanced character strength expression and a way to practice bringing them to fruition. Mindfulness can serve as a way for individuals to attend to the golden mean of character strengths (Chapter 2) and therefore manage strengths overuse and underuse.
-Helps individuals counter the habitual nature of adaptation (i.e., hedonic treadmill), which states that humans quickly adapt to the good or bad that is experienced in life.
-Gives a direct and indirect boost to many strengths at once. The character strengths “inter-are,” meaning that, in reality, one strength cannot be expressed without using other strengths. For example, how can a person practice cultivating gratitude without employing the strengths of perspective (e.g., reflecting back on their day with a wider lens when counting one’s blessings) or bravery (e.g., using courage to deliver a gratitude letter to someone)? Each strength has elements of the others within it, and moreover, each strength requires the use of other strengths to deploy it. Thus, mindfulness focused on boosting one strength is automatically assisting other strengths to some degree.
-Offers a counterbalance to the human tendency to focus on and become impacted by what’s wrong or bad (i.e., “bad is stronger than good”; see Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenaeuer, & Vohs, 2001)
The first formal character strengths practice program, Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), offers a unique integration of these universal phenomena and emphasizes the use of mindfulness to uncover and boost what is best in individuals.
MBSP is an 8-session program that brings the practice of mindfulness and the practice of character strengths together. It includes discussions, meditations, strengths practices, lecture/input, and homework exercises. There are two general categories of integration:
- Strong mindfulness: improving mindfulness practices by weaving in character strengths.
- Mindful strengths use: improving character strength use by weaving in mindfulness.
MBSP teaches individuals to engage more deeply with life. Emphasis is placed on exercises that are discussed and practiced each week. This course teaches the basics of mindfulness and of character strengths, and offers more advanced, practical ways to integrate the two. It presents a unique angle to living one’s best life, re-discovering happiness, achieving goals, finding deeper meaning and life engagement, and coping with problems. MBSP has been piloted in six countries across four continents. Session-by-session details and instructor’s manual can be found in Mindfulness and Character Strengths (Niemiec, 2014).