Following the bombings in Boston, people rallied in bunches, offering support and care. The Red Cross received so much help they had to turn people away. Stories of bravery and kindness flooded the news and social media. Such expression of character is not an isolated event. People similarly rallied after 9/11, after recent natural disasters, and after tragic mass shootings.
Said another way, people are touched by the suffering of others and then take action. This action involves the expression of their own character strengths (e.g., kindness, leadership, bravery) to bring benefit to others.
Research has documented how tragedy seems to elevate what is best in us. Following the September 11th (2001) attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, seven character strengths were elevated in people in the United States who took the VIA Survey before 9/11 and two months after 9/11:
These strengths showed significant increases whereas these strengths did not increase in a European sample. In addition, these seven strengths still showed some elevation 10 months later. As you review these strengths you can see they are clearly heart-oriented, other-oriented, or both. By heart-oriented I mean strengths such as gratitude and love which involve warmth and care and often involve deep feelings and genuineness. By other-oriented, I mean strengths that are interpersonal and can be used very easily expressed to bring benefit to others; clearly strengths like teamwork and kindness can be expressed this way when people are in need.
Research has also found that the more traumatic events an individual reports, the higher their character strength scores are.
Therefore, tragedy has a way of waking us from our autopilot slumber. Even for most of us who are simply passively witnessing tragic events reported by the news networks, it knocks us off our daily routine. It gives us a flash of mindfulness for a moment or two. This (hopefully) leads us to reflect on our lives and what matters most. We express sorrow for those who are suffering, hope for their well-being, and gratitude that it wasn’t us or our family members who were killed or injured. But our perspective strength reminds us that perhaps next time, it will be us. Thus, the time to act is now. The time to express our strengths to help others is now. If not now, then when?
When we express our character strengths, we participate in what it means to be human. We engage life. Such engagement brings benefit to others, as well as ourselves.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23, 603–619.
Peterson, C., Park, N., Pole, N., D’Andrea, W., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2008). Strengths of character and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21, 214-217.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science, 14, 381-384.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Learn more about the VIA Institute on Character.
Take the VIA Survey of strengths (this free, validated survey is now only half as long!)
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Last reviewed: 19 Apr 2013