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Character Strengths in Difficult Times

written by Jenny Brennan November 3, 2020

Jenny Brennan, MAPP 2012, is an internationally recognized practitioner in the science of applied positive psychology. She is the founder of the social impact consulting firm Ardent Wellbeing and creator of ElectionZen.com. She is an elected member of the Council of Advisors to the International Positive Psychology Association. Jenny's articles are here.



The global COVID-19 pandemic, the fight for racial justice, and a divisive American election have left many people feeling stressed and uncertain. While this may be an appropriate reaction to what is happening, the fact that we all have powerful inner resources called character strengths can help us cope with adversity. Thus, strengths can be a source of hope.

Character strengths are ways of thinking and behaving that come naturally to people. Researchers have identified twenty-four strengths such as Social Intelligence, Bravery, Curiosity, and Honesty that represent the best human qualities and are valued across cultures and time.  When people use their strengths, they feel energized, competent, and in tune with their values.  Using character strengths can expand their ability to think and act in ways that buffer them from stress. 

Reframe Stress

Take a mindful moment.

One way that character strengths might support coping is by helping people reframe stress.  According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, the way people think about stress influences how it impacts their well-being. Stress can make people believe that there is a threat that they cannot handle. However, McGonigal suggests that if people instead think about stress as a motivating force that helps them protect the things they care about, then it can “awaken core human strengths involving courage, connection, and growth.”

But how do we do that?  First, we can become more aware of our beliefs about stress by using Self-regulation and Curiosity to practice mindfulness. When people are mindful, they observe their emotions without judgment.  For instance, instead of saying,  “I am so stressed!” a person might say, “I am noticing that I am so stressed.” This tiny change puts a little bit of distance between the person and the feeling.  It loosens the grip of stress.

One way to cultivate mindfulness is to practice a mindful pause. According to Ryan Niemiec, this entails pausing to feel your in-breath and out-breath for 10-15 seconds. Then we can ask ourselves, “Which of my character strengths will I bring forward right now?” We could practice taking a mindful pause every time we hear a candidate’s name mentioned.

Choose a New Response

Once we have created mindful space between ourselves and stress, we can use Judgment and Perspective to check our beliefs for accuracy. We could ask ourselves, “Is there really a threat that I can’t handle?”  From that vantage point, we can more easily choose a healthy response. McGonigal says that in addition to the well-known fight, flight, or freeze responses to perceived threat, people can also tap into the rise to the challenge response by marshaling resources to take action. Other healthy responses include the bigger than self response in which we connect with others for social support and the look for what I can learn response that facilitates growth.

Pandemic Chat

Character strengths can then provide us with tools to respond.  Let’s use the 6 categories of strengths shown in the figure above. The Courage strengths might be useful for the rise to the challenge approach. The Wisdom strengths might help us reappraise and evaluate situations for the look for what I can learn response. The Humanity and Justice strengths might help us connect with others in the bigger than self response. The Transcendence strengths could help us connect with something bigger than self and tap into the protective benefits of positive emotions. The Temperance strengths might help us avoid or de-escalate conflict and stressful situations.

Kindness in action

Support values
Another way to mitigate stress is to use character strengths to take meaningful action in support of personal values. If we are stressed out about the election, it may bring us a sense of comfort and control to consider that no matter what happens on November 3rd, no one can take away our ability to support the things that matter to us. For instance, if we value social justice, we could use our strengths of Kindness, Teamwork, and Social Intelligence to volunteer for nonprofit organizations. We could use Love of Learning and Perspective to explore how others have used Justice or Bravery to make changes in the past. We could use Creativity to create a piece of art that shines a light on an issue. 

I invite us all to take the time to consider how we can use our strengths to navigate the next few weeks and months. A great source of ideas is the recent paper by licensed clinical psychologist Tayyab Rashid and researcher Robert McGrath offering more than 100 suggestions for ways to use character strengths to cope during the pandemic. 

Perhaps by employing our strengths for coping and advocacy, we might uncover common values with others that help us transcend political and physical barriers and work together towards the future we would like to see.


References

Gustems-Carnicer, J., & Calderón, C. (2016). Virtues and character strengths related to approach coping strategies of college students. Social Psychology of Education, 19(1), 77-95. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-015-9305-y  

McGonigal, K. (2016). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. New York: Penguin Random House.

Niemiec, R.M. Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and opportunity: A theoretical perspective. Applied Research Quality Life 15, 551–572 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-018-9692-2. Abstract.

Niemiec, R. M. & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The Power of Character Strengths. VIA Institute on Character.

 Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009a). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of College and Character, 10 (4).

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rashid, T., & McGrath, R. E. (2020). Strengths-based actions to enhance wellbeing in the time of COVID-19. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(4), 113-132. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v10i4.1441

Tugade, M.M., Fredrickson, B.L. and Feldman Barrett, L. (2004), Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality, 72:6, 1161-1190. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00294.x

Image Credits

Mindful moment Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

Woman talking to granddaughter during pandemic @kiwitanya from Twenty20

Food courier @Maria_Sbytova from Twenty20

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