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!?
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?
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”:
Then, consider one way you will bring greater mindfulness to the habit or vice and one way you will use one of your strengths with it.
Finally, apply the strength and mindfulness to your autopilot mind as you do the activity.
This exercise is called “From Mindless to Mindful”
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.
Audiences are already familiar with Superman’s exemplary physical strength and superhuman powers but it is the non-physical strengths he displays that are most interesting. Superman (referred to as Clark Kent and Kal-El in the film) displays significant psychological strength (character strength). If he were to take the VIA Survey of strengths, it is likely his signature strengths would be
Part of the answer to both questions can be found in findings drawn from the science of positive psychology. This scientific domain examines the research behind what makes us happy, strong, healthy, and successful. The Voice does an exemplary job at bringing some of the research findings to life. Here are four examples:
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.
What are your strengths?
What is best about you?
What qualities make up who you are?
Too many times in my work as a clinical psychologist these questions would be met by blank stares from the person in front of me. And, when the question was answered at all, the response was something vague like “I like baseball” or “I’m good at cooking.” This is consistent with survey research that has found that 2/3 of people do not have a meaningful awareness of their strengths.