When my son was hospitalized a couple months ago for a respiratory problem, he was seen by many nurses and doctors. As my wife and I witnessed the medical personnel parade in and out of the room, the typical comments and advice was passed along.
But then, after a couple days, a trio of doctors came in and one of them did something different: With her Irish dialect she offered some observations of my son over the days. Amidst a handful of statements she made describing him, I caught the words: “vibrant,” “hard-working,” and “inquisitive.” Her exact words. My mind immediately went to the thought that she seemed to be spotting his character strengths. I was hearing particular character traits like “zest,” “perseverance,” and “curiosity
I asked her to explain her view of each observation. She readily did. She explained how he is full of energy and is always moving his arms and legs and turning his body with force (i.e., zest). She noted how he is quick to look around in the room, albeit a limited space, in an exploratory way, and is ready to interact with people when they approach him (i.e., curiosity). And, she added, he works hard at whatever challenge he is given whether it’s to reach a toy, sit up, or finish eating and that his congestion and wires hooked up to his body do not get in his way (i.e., perseverance).
Even though she was not aware of it, she was offering strengths-spotting. And this had an immediate positive effect on my mood. I felt lighter and happier. My perception of her, a physician looking at all aspects of my son and not just his illness, widened and strengthened. I will never forget that physician, or her Irish accent.
Oh, did I mention that at that time my son was only 8-months-old? Strengths-spotting can …
You’ll be glad you spent 8 minutes watching this movie on YouTube here.
These are questions asked by humans throughout history. You might be asking these questions yourself. Following the groundbreaking scientific VIA Classification of human strengths (which some call “The Periodic Table of Character Strengths”), there is now a framework for discussing these questions.
And, what would be a better way to explore character strengths than to watch a movie about it!?
It is probably not useful to ask the age-old question whether our core strengths of character are more a product of our genes or our environment. When it comes to our personality, the answer is almost always – “both are important.” And, some scientists believe that with the advancements in epigenetics and the study of the interaction of our gene and environment, that the nature/nurture question becomes rhetorical and fruitless, similar to the question: What contributes more to the area of a rectangle – the height or the width?
Instead of viewing which is “more,” we can attempt to learn from both sides and make this immediately practical.
When it comes to creating more happiness in life, experts usually tell us to add more things—get a dog, build a friendship, add a gratitude list, etc. But, what about taking things away? Subtraction. Could that make us happier?
And on and on my thinking would go.
The science of positive psychology has revealed several character strengths that are particularly connected with higher levels of happiness. Over and over again studies show these five strengths might be considered “the happiness strengths”:
Sometimes people in the world of strengths make this comment: “I already use my strengths. Why should I bother to use them more?” Here’s a story to explain why:
Last week, I sat down and watched my mother and my wife express love to my 2-month old son who had not yet expressed verbal coos. The love they expressed was so genuine and pure. Warmth and care radiated from them as they passed this warmth on to my son. They cupped their hands behind his little head and placed their face about a foot from his face and gave him full attention. They talked to him, made noises, and encouraged him. He returned their gaze, offered an original smile, and began to coo.
This is extraordinary, actually, as he hadn’t been cooing the prior 2 months. These simple loving expressions seemed to catalyze his interaction. He cooed (i.e., talked) back. They continued this process, over and over. Emanating joy and love. Suddenly, a conversation emerged! Words to coos, coos to words, words to coos. Back and forth.
I watched this and felt inspired to use my strength of love more. Interestingly, love is perhaps my highest signature strength (signature strengths, you might recall, are those character strengths that are most core to who you are). I use my strength of love all the time, especially with my two boys. But, this doesn’t mean I use it enough. It doesn’t mean I don’t have strength “blind spots.” And, it doesn’t mean I can’t continue to improve this signature strength.
As I observe this strength of love in action, I feel inspired to mimic the behavior. Observing this love in action tunes me in more mindfully to my strengths. This leads me to then want to imitate the behavior I’m observing – or, at the very least, to tap into one of my strengths of character. As the father of observational learning, Albert Bandura has said, “Most of what we learn is through observation.”
What emerges is what I call a virtuous circle:
This mindful …
I learned an important lesson about character strengths this week. I was reminded that one of the core messages about strengths is this: unleash who you are by emitting your strengths out into the world.
While watching free movies about people with developmental disabilities online, I came across a 2.5 minute video that floored me. It is a music video of the pop rock band, Rudely Interrupted, from Australia. The band formed out of a music therapy group, led by band manager, Rohan Brooks. The band, now wildly popular, tours Australia and several other countries.
Take a listen to some of their music here.
What is it that I find most inspiring?
When I am at play with my 2-year-old son, I realize how precious time is and so I attempt to be as present and mindful as possible in each activity. This mindfulness spurs my strength of curiosity as I await each word and reaction from him. Curiosity brings me to want to express other strengths such as humor/playfulness to make him laugh. Not wanting to overdo my goofy humor over and over, my mindfulness increases to tune in closely to him and the other possible character strengths that might benefit him, such as love as I provide him with positive feedback, teamwork as we work together on building blocks, or zest as we jump into an upbeat activity together.
Hence, round and round mindfulness and character strengths go – each influencing the other in a positive way. This is a virtuous circle.
Until recently, mindfulness and strengths have been treated as separate areas of practice and research. My argument is that these robust areas of well-being are inseparable.
What follows is my rationale for why it is beneficial to integrate these areas.
Of course not. But as viewers we don’t get to see what happens next in these formulaic Hollywood films. There are exceptions.
Enter Before Midnight, a new romance-drama starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and directed by auteur filmmaker, Richard Linklater. This is the third installment of films made about 10 years apart and follow two characters, Jesse and Celine, after their original chance encounter on a train heading to Vienna (see Before Sunrise and Before Sunset).
These films are known for engaging dialogue. Conversations that are “real,” poignant, and interesting. Characters share themselves, their ideas, and their opinions openly. They attack, praise, cajole, and surprise one another. We are carried through love and intimacy, thoughts about their relationship origins and life philosophies, the fruits and challenges of long-term commitment, and tense arguments.
Before Midnight is a quintessential “dialogue film.” This helps it be an outstanding “teacher” of positive relationships.