Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
Articles by Ryan are here.
At the International Positive Psychology Association’s charter conference, I had the opportunity to simultaneously experience pleasure, engagement, and meaning when I sat down with 16 of the leading thought leaders, researchers, and practitioners in positive psychology today. A few of the leaders I spoke with were Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Barbara Fredrickson, and David Cooperrider. During our video interviews, we explored the lines of connection between their work and the VIA Classification of character strengths and virtues. With the opportunity to sit back, review the tapes and reflect, I’ve begun to see some themes or threads that I’ll share with you here. At the VIA Intensives, we’ll explore them to a greater depth.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a 3-part series of Ryan’s highlights from interviewing 16 positive psychology leaders. Part 2. Part 3. The video interviews will be shown at the VIA Intensives (two-day seminars offered this fall in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Sydney and Melbourne). Click here for more information about the VIA Intensives.
Top Character Strength of Positive Psychology Leaders
I asked each leader to share his or her top VIA character strengths. It may not surprise you that love of learning was the most endorsed strength. In fact, 10 of 16 leaders called it a signature strength, and most often cited it as a number one or two.
I explain it this way: As a strength of character, love of learning can be distinguished from curiosity in that it involves systematically building up knowledge and wisdom. Research, especially good scientific research, involves just that – systematic studies to gain new knowledge or new ways of understanding existing knowledge. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman write in the book Character Strengths and Virtues that those people with a signature strength of love of learning are confident about their ability to learn, enjoy the process of learning, and find that the act of learning is its own intrinsic reward.
A less obvious explanation is these great thinkers and researchers have found a personal and specific way to connect deeply with life. Love of learning is a core mechanism by which they engage. Researchers such as Ed Diener and Todd Kashdan thrive on being in the laboratory crunching data, curious about new discoveries, and eagerly pursuing new knowledge at any opportunity; both linked this work to an experience of engagement – focused, relaxed, yet goal-oriented.
As they described their experiences, both noted an alternation between a state of flow (automatic and absorbed experience) and savoring (consciously relishing the experience). These are two processes that foster learning. Indeed, the experiences of Diener and Kashdan are similar to what Csikszentmihalyi calls an autotelic experience in his book, Finding Flow. In an autotelic experience, there is a sense of losing sense of time merging with a sense of control in which the activity itself is rewarding.
Dyad Combinations of Strengths
At the VIA Institute, we have serious discussions about the dynamics, interactions, and effects of strength dyad combinations. Love of learning combines in a meaningful way with most of the character strengths, but the most frequent combination with love of learning among the leaders was the strength of curiosity. Curiosity acts as the grease for the motor mechanism of love of learning, that which keeps the motor functioning at the highest level. A few examples from the leaders exemplify love of learning strength dyads.
Jonathan Haidt, who researches appreciation of beauty and excellence, open-mindedness, and gratitude, shared that curiosity as it combines with love of learning allows him to experience an incredibly engaging role – the role of explorer. Like an ethnographer immersed in the study of a new culture, he explores territories in politics, morality, and character strengths not traversed by many, if any, social psychology researchers.
Tayyab Rashid, co-developer of “positive psychotherapy,” identified his top two strengths as love of learning and social intelligence. This merging of an interpersonal strength and a cognitive strength is a meaningful combination for practitioners pursuing knowledge of who their clients really are, and social intelligence provides a way to get there – the ability to succinctly query, name, and understand the feelings and motives of others.
Barbara Fredrickson, leading researcher on positive emotions, has combined signature strengths of love of learning and appreciation of beauty & excellence – which fits closely with the actual research she is interested in. This combination of strengths explains why she does research on positive emotions in that she pursues and gravitates toward learning more about the beauty of positive experiences.
Peterson and his colleagues have found that the character strength love of learning correlates strongly with the engaged life, more strongly than the pleasurable life or the meaningful life, making it a great strength for anyone wanting to deepen his or her sense of flow and connectedness in work, play, and relationships. Considering the endorsement of this character strength by many of positive psychology’s leaders, there is strong reason for optimism as we think about the future of positive psychology.
The videos mentioned here will be shown at the VIA Intensive seminars.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beermann, U., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 149-156.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Notturno courtesy of gualtiero.