I have been doing more interviews on this blog lately to get wisdom, cutting edge knowledge, and valuable insight from experts in the field of Positive Psychology, and this interview with Ryan Niemiec Psy.D. offers all of that and more.
Ryan is the Education Director at the VIA Institute on Character, and a fellow blogger here on PsychCentral who writes the blog Character Strengths.
He was kind enough to share his extensive knowledge about how we can use our character strengths to begin living life at our best.
I believe this is one of the most valuable topics in applied positive psychology so am truly grateful for his generosity.
I know the interview is long, but it’s certainly worth the read. I hope you enjoy!
Joe: For someone who may have no awareness of the history and idea of “character strengths,” describe a little about the overall concept, as well as how it became popularized?
Ryan: Thanks Joe. Character strengths have become popular lately because of groundbreaking work in the field of positive psychology. Pioneering educators, researchers,and practitioners in the field were realizing that there was no concrete answer to the following questions:
- What qualities make up a good and meaningful life?
- Where can we turn for a consensual language for describing what is best in people?
There were no answers. Therefore, 55 top scientists set forth on a three-year project to review the best writings on virtue and positive human qualities in philosophy, virtue ethics, moral education, psychology, and religion over the past 2500 years.
Six common themes (virtues) emerged from these great thinkers and sacred works – wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Then, 24 character strengths were derived that are the pathways to these six virtues. This came to be known as the VIA Classification of strengths and virtues.
Another reason for the popularity is that scientists then developed the VIA Survey, a tool to measure these universal strengths. Because this tool is free, online, and gives immediate results it has been taken by 1.5 million people from over 250 countries in a short period of time.
Joe: What are the main reasons people benefit from using their character strengths? What is the inherent value they offer?
Ryan: One of the values is to immediate experience – it’s easy to use strengths and it feels good. It makes us feel happy. It can also be empowering where we feel like we are accomplishing something of value and we are being our true selves. Some people talk about how it aligns with authentic living. Ultimately, when we are using our strengths we are engaged in the present moment, we are connecting with who we are, what we are doing, and who we are with.
When I am expressing my strength of curiosity, I am right here present in the moment asking questions and wondering about things. When I’m using my appreciation of beauty strength, I’m engaged and connected to the beauty around me and feel at peace. When we use our strengths, we connect.
Joe: What does the research reveal about the relationship between using strengths and enhancing well-being? How does incorporating strengths into daily life ultimately make us happier?
Ryan: Research is finding that certain strengths appear to be strongly connected to well-being, such as zest, hope, gratitude, and curiosity, to name a few. Another finding is that when individuals identify one of their highest strengths (called signature strengths) and use it in a new way each day, that this can give a boost to happiness and a decrease to depression for up to 6 months!
Researchers continue to study “why” our signature strengths are connected to happiness. In part, it can be explained by what I noted earlier about engaging and connecting. Also, when we use our strengths, researchers are finding that we are better able to reach our goals and to meet our basic psychological needs.
Joe: Do peoples’ strengths change as they mature and grow as a person, or are these more of a stable trait like personality? What can we do to continue cultivating and using strengths as we grow as people or transition into new periods of life?
Ryan: This is an interesting question. Nice use of curiosity by you to ask it, Joe!
Character strengths are part of our personality, thus function like stable traits that are consistent across situation and over time. That said, it is exciting to note that they can change. Since all of our character strengths are “capacities” within us, this means that there is innate potential for us to build them.
I’ve witnessed people make dramatic changes in their character strengths. Sometimes this can be caused by changes in our social role, for example, having children, and we therefore boost up our love strength. Other times, the experience of a traumatic event may lead the person to build up more bravery and perseverance to help in future situations.
Other people build strengths by consciously focusing on a strength that they want to build up or expand upon. I use the acronym ROAD-MAP to offer a framework of ideas for working with any strength. We can Reflect on past use, learn by Observing others, Appreciate and value the strengths of others, Discuss strengths, Monitor our own strength use closely, Ask others for feedback (like a 360 evaluation), and make a Plan of action.
Joe: What are some major misconceptions you think people should be aware of when it comes to their understanding of character strengths?
Ryan: Some people limit their focus to just their top strengths. While we believe a person’s top strengths are probably most important for happiness, reaching goals, and other purposes, it’s also important to know that all 24 strengths matter. We use all 24 of the strengths to a certain degree and we need them all in order to be at our best.
Also, strengths are not expressed individually, one at a time. Instead, they are expressed in clusters or as constellations. Rarely am I expressing just my prudence strength, rather it’s more likely that I’m expressing some self-regulation, perspective, perseverance, and hope, along with prudence.
Another big misconception, especially in educational programs in the U.S., is that some authority or institution (religious, political, or otherwise) will tell students or participants what strengths of character they should have and are most important (e.g., kindness, fairness, honesty, etc.) But, all 24 are good and matter, each connected with different outcomes. So rather than telling people how to “be,” a better approach might be to encourage students or participants to look within and discover their own personal strengths – their own uniqueness.
Joe: Tell the readers a little about the VIA Institute on Character and how they can connect and learn more?
Ryan: The VIA Institute on Character is the nonprofit, positive psychology organization in Cincinnati, Ohio that educates practitioners and others about the research and practice of character strengths. I’m privileged to be the Education Director who moves the education mission forward teaching consumers, coaches, counselors, educators, and businesspeople about best practices with strengths.
VIA leads online workshops to people around the world on strengths. In fact, our next course starts next week on May 9th. Your blog readers can go to this site here and register with this code – VIA1224 – to receive a special $25 discount off the course.
Joe: Lastly, give a little plug for your new blog called “Character Strengths” here on PsychCentral.com. What type of content and updates can we expect going forward?
Ryan: My 3 core areas are character strengths, mindfulness and movies. These are all topics I’m passionate about and have the most experience with. They’ve been the biggest focus in my previous writings and practice as a psychologist and coach. I enjoy exploring stories, ideas, research, and practices that are in those arenas. Also, I have some new articles and books I’ll be publishing on all of these topics in the not-so-distant future so will be happy to keep readers posted on that too.
Mostly, I try to write so that readers will find the blog to be “interesting” and “practical.” I say “interesting” because I want people to feel that their time was well-spent and I say “practical” because I want readers to have a “take-away” that is useful for their lives – perhaps it’s part of a story, or a tidbit of wisdom, or an exercise they might use to improve their life.