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.
And on and on my thinking would go.
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?
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.
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.
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
I enjoy bringing my strengths to my work. I express my curiosity as I open up each new e-mail message, I express hope as I help clients work through struggles, and I express love (warmth and genuineness) with my colleagues as we discuss new ideas and process daily work happenings. This fills me with a greater passion and commitment to my work.
How about you? Do you express your highest character strengths each day at your job?
The research has been clear:
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.