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.
In Part 1, I talked about the leaders’ signature strengths. Today, I’ll focus on insights from leaders in our field about how the VIA Classification intersects with Martin Seligman’s original conceptualization of positive psychology during his address as President of the American Psychological Association: that it is the study of positive institutions, emotions, and traits.
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a 3-part series of Ryan’s highlights from interviewing 16 positive psychology leaders. Part 1. 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.
VIA and Positive Institutions
David Cooperrider is the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, a process for organizational development that’s widely used around the world. As I interviewed him for the VIA Intensives, David emphasized the need for positive institutions – namely businesses – to meet character strength to character strength: hope to hope, fairness to fairness, wisdom to wisdom, and so forth.
“Positive institutions are institutions that are able to consistently see and elevate human strengths, create new combinations and alignments of strengths, and the refraction of our highest human strengths out in the world and society.”
“For example, we often don’t think this way, but institutions can be vehicles for the magnification of human wisdom, vehicles for the magnification of love, care, and compassion in the world, and vehicles for the magnification of curiosity, science, and so on. In fact, that’s what an institution is – it’s to do things that no individual can do.”
Jennifer Fox Eades is devoted to creating positive schools. Few consultants have done the extensive work that she has done in UK schools. She is in the trenches teaching character strengths awareness and enhancement to children and adolescents from early childhood through high school.
On camera, she shared with me several of her methods for changing the culture of schools. She works to have all the students come to understand all 24 character strengths through:
* Oral storytelling (e.g., having children name the VIA strengths they hear in the Hanzel and Gretel story);
* Strengths-based exercises (e.g., create a “fairness superhero,” a “gratitude superhero,” and so on); and
* Strength-based festivals (e.g., hope festival; from Fox Eades’ book on celebrating strengths).
It was inspiring to hear Fox Eades talk about how children as young as four love to learn new strength words (e.g., persistence and prudence) and apply them in their daily lives. Interestingly, the only strength in the classification she changed was social intelligence (changed to friendship).
VIA and Positive Emotions
Another core domain of study in positive psychology is the study of positive emotions. Three of the giants in this field weighed in. In his interview, Ed Diener described the mutual relationship between positive emotions and positive character as “a two-way street” – for example, those with strengths of forgiveness and kindness are more likely to be happy, and those who have higher happiness levels are likely to be kind and forgiving.
Extrapolating on the “how” of this interrelationship, Barbara Fredrickson used her broaden and build theory of positive emotions as a basis for her finding that “people who experience more positive emotions more frequently are on a faster trajectory of growth in terms of developing their character strengths.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky agreed with the mutual benefit of these two domains of positive emotion and positive character, telling me that people who practice the behaviors associated with positive character are going to be happier. “You could say I study how people build positive traits or positive character,” she said.
VIA and Traits through the Practitioner
The expert practitioners I interviewed spoke about character strengths applications directly to the camera, as if the coaches and therapists they were addressing were right there with them.
Positive psychotherapy co-creator Tayyab Rashid talked about his work with VIA strengths in individual and group psychotherapy. One point he emphasized was that good practitioners find ways to give equal weight in assessment to a given client’s positive and negative experiences. This is not standard practice among traditional psychotherapists.
Donna Mayerson, co-owner of Hummingbird Coaching Services, spoke about the importance of coaches helping each client sift away all the baggage and life obstacles to drill down to one’s core strengths, and “celebrate one’s essence.”
Harvard psychologist Carol Kauffman encourages executives to use the VIA to brand themselves. She describes the process of formulating one’s signature strengths into a one-minute branding exercise that serves as a powerful introduction and makes a unique impact at a job interview.
The videos mentioned here will be shown at the VIA Intensive seminars.
Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1999). The president’s address. American Psychologist, 54, 559–562.
Building courtesy of David Niblack
Smiling girl (Free Happy Smiling Girl Holding Lucky Clover Creative Commons) courtesy of Pink Sherbet Photography