This is part of the series of interviews with experts. The people I interview are experts in fields such as Positive Psychology, NLP, Neuro Science and other disciplines that I draw from in my coaching and training work. Today’s expert is Dr Ryan Niemiec.
Ryan M. Niemiec, PsyD, is Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character, a global, nonprofit positive psychology organization that educates people about the latest science and practice of character strengths. He is a licensed psychologist, coach, international presenter, and is Adjunct Professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing, and co-author of a few other books including Positive Psychology at the Movies; and Movies and Mental Illness. ( links at the bottom of the post will take you to more information about these books via Amazon)
What is positive psychology? How is it different to ‘normal’ psychology?
Positive psychology is the science of well-being, more specifically it is the study of what is best in human beings and organizations. Psychology-as-usual has taken a skewed focus over the decades emphasizing what is wrong in human beings and finding ways to correct or manage psychopathology, illness, conflicts, trauma, abuse, and so forth. The same research and practice has not been applied, until recent years, toward what is best in human beings and the living of a fulfilled life: Happiness/well-being, positive relationships, meaning, kindness, teamwork, curiosity, love, hope, gratitude, virtue, positive organizations. These are topics that had not been given as much attention to. Positive psychology thus brings balance to psychosocial research. Positive psychologists are interested in both what is wrong and what is strong in human beings, including how to bring what is strong to assist in what is wrong.
Character strengths are positive core capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving that bring benefit to oneself and others. Character strengths are considered the backbone of positive psychology. Values live in our thinking and feeling. A person might “value” being with their family or they might “value” hard work, but neither of these tell us whether the person actually is a hard-worker or a family-oriented person. It is character and character strengths that put those values into action. Most people “value” kindness and courage, however, not everyone acts kindly and bravely; when we do bring forth kindness and bravery, we are deploying our character strengths.
If they are my strengths then I would be using them anyway wouldn’t I?
Maybe. Maybe not. We all express our character strengths without awareness in our daily life. It is the deliberate, mindful use of strengths that begins to make the difference for people. I’ve been particularly interested in this link between mindfulness and character strengths so I wrote a book on the topic (see Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing (see Amazon link at the bottom).
Survey research finds that 2/3 of people do not have a meaningful awareness of their strengths. This mindlessness toward our strengths is far more significant when we realize the considerable depth that goes with exploring our strengths of character. For example, we can become more aware and savvy of our signature strengths, phasic strengths, tonic strengths, lesser strengths, strengths of the heart and mind, interpersonal/intrapersonal strengths, frequency/duration/intensity of strengths use, strengths use across settings and situations, optimal strengths use with problems and stress, strengths overuse, strengths underuse, the golden mean of strengths, and on and on. Once a person goes down the “rabbit hole” of strengths work, there is a lifetime of interesting self-development that can be done. To learn more about character strengths, peruse my blog on Psychology Today.
What is different about this work in the last decade and a half is that it is a science. The work of the VIA Institute on Character, the global, nonprofit organization I work for, is “to bring strengths to the world.” What we mean by this is we attempt to learn about all of the strengths research going on in research labs and universities around the world and we then help people make sense of it and apply it to themselves, in their work with clients or students, or in their work with employees/managers. Thus, our focus is on distilling this knowledge into meaningful chunks for people.
This research is only possible because of groundbreaking work that occurred in the early 2000s when 55 scientists engaged in a 3-year project designed to understand what is best in human beings. They looked to the great philosophers, educators, world religions, virtue ethicists, and other prominent thinkers over the millennia that had written about virtue and strength. They found close parallels around these great works. Following extensive research, historical analysis, and applying various criteria, the VIA Classification of 24 universal character strengths was born (this is described in detail in the 800-page book Character Strengths and Virtues that came out in 2004. Link to amazon to view details of the book at end of this article). Next, the scientists developed a valid, measurement tool to assess these strengths; this is known as the VIA Survey or VIA Inventory of Strengths. The VIA Institute purposely decided to keep this measurement tool “free to all” in order to further the mission of bringing strengths to the world. This philosophy worked as in a short period of time over 2 million people have taken the survey. It has reached every country around the globe. It remains the only strengths survey in the world that is free, online, and psychometrically valid.
Research on character strengths then exploded. Click on this link here to see over 180 recent studies, summarized in 1-2 sentences each, and categorized across domains of strengths in business, education, health, and other categories. At the same time, does it feel good to talk about strengths, express appreciation for others’ strengths, and align strengths with one’s work tasks? Absolutely. When people say the phrase “touchy-feely,” I assume they mean superficial and trite. Clearly, this would not be accurate in describing the science of character strengths.
What difference does it make?
There have been many positive outcomes that come with being more aware of and using one’s character strengths. In general, this is linked with long-term positive effects on well-being/happiness and less depression. Benefits to self-esteem, hope, satisfaction of needs, achievement, positive emotions, and goal progress have also been shown. In the workplace, strengths use is connected with greater engagement, work satisfaction, and meaning, which in turn are linked with greater productivity. One study found that those workers who used 4 or more of their highest strengths (called “signature strengths”) at work had greater positive experiences at work and higher sense of “calling” in their work. This means that they felt a strong sense of connection and meaning to what they were doing. Isn’t this what we want for our organizations…to have happier, more engaged, more productive workers who really want to be there?
How do I get started with strengths?
There are many ways to move forward. The most common entry point is to take the VIA Survey of character strengths (free) which will give you immediate results of your rank order of strengths from 1 to 24. Go to www.viame.org
If you are hoping to build your knowledge of your character strengths, you can purchase a more detailed report at any time. The VIA Institute offers a VIA Pro report for professionals, especially those attempting to help others (e.g., helping coaches, employees, leaders, clients, etc.). This report offers in-depth information on strengths and includes a variety of graphs to give the user different ways for looking at strengths. There is also a VIA Me Pathways report for general consumers wanting a bit more information about strengths and some tips on using strengths.
The VIA Institute offers a variety of online training courses with character strengths. An emphasis in the courses is to include an interactive component, in addition to lecture and resources. In any given course, there is an average of 12-17 countries represented.
There is also a VIA Team Report which is designed for consultants working with teams and other individuals working with groups. This report offers an aggregate of the character strengths across the team to help the members get a better understanding of the team’s culture. This 40-page report includes a myriad of graphs and practical tips to help people understand team dynamics and improve team connectedness, performance, and engagement by working with character strengths. One example found in this report addresses “unique contributors” which is a concept that applies to the idea that in many cases there are strengths in which only one team member has elevated in their profile; this means that that person might be in an ideal position to bring forth that strength on the team since no one else has it represented strongly in their profile. A person high in creativity should be sure to bring forth their ideas at brainstorming sessions while a person high in prudence might assist in making sure meetings end on time and that the full agenda is covered.
You can take the free assessment right now using the links above and also check out more about how to leverage your strengths. Have a look now.
More about Ryan
In 2011, Ryan received the Distinguished Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association (Division 46).Ryan has led 2-day, 1-day, and online workshops around the globe. Here is a link to his online trainings offered through the VIA Institute. Ryan has been invited to present his work at the United States Air Force Academy, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University, Universidad Iberoamericana, International Positive Psychology Association, American Psychological Association, and European Positive Psychology Association.
He blogs for Psychology Today and Psych Central, and his work has been featured by a variety of sources including Dr. Oz, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Positive Psychology News Daily, and Greater Good.