Try thinking of someone you admire that has been uber successful in an area that you value. You could think about your favorite athlete, the CEO of your dream job, a world leader or famous peacemaker. How would you explain this person’s character? Maybe words like charismatic, full of zest, compassionate, humble or creative come to mind. Chances are, you would describe this person by their unique strengths and values. Character strengths have been a popular topic in Positive Psychology for the past decade and in the mPEAK program we offer a unique mindfulness-based perspective on how participants can best use their strengths to improve their performance and wellbeing.
According to strengths researcher, Chris Peterson, “Character strengths are viewed as capacities of cognition, conation, affect, and behavior—the psychological ingredients for displaying virtues or human goodness.”
The Center for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), defines strengths as “our pre-existing patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that are authentic, energizing, and which lead to our best performance”. What is meant by authentic is that the strength feels like “the real you”. These are qualities that come naturally to you, that you enjoy using and that are often related to your life purpose. When it’s said that strengths are energizing, it means that when you are using your strengths, there will be a sense of aliveness and excitement. People using their strengths tend to be more communicative, animated and enthusiastic. Using your strengths is associated with a long list of well-researched benefits including better performance and greater wellbeing. Utilizing your unique strengths enhances well-being because you’re doing what you naturally do best, which helps generate feelings of autonomy, competence, confidence, and self-esteem. Performance is enhanced because using strengths encourages the experience of “flow”, rather than struggling upriver against the currents of your natural capacities.
So where do your strengths come from? According to Positive Psychologist researcher, Robert Biswas Diener, strengths can be looked at as a product of evolution. That means that “certain qualities—those that are useful for individual and group functioning, such as leadership, creativity, and forgiveness—may actually have biological roots as well as be handed down to us through socialization.” Essentially, we each possess innate capacities or things that come naturally to us and we have likely continued to develop these because they came easier than other things and we were likely praised for them.
There are many ways to uncover your own top character strengths including several reputable online assessments. One place you might start is the VIA Character Institute, which will give you a free print out of your top 25 strengths in order. But an official questionnaire isn’t required to get a good sense of your strengths. In the UCSD mPEAK course we have participants simply reflect on an area of high performance and brainstorm a list of strengths they use most. When people get stuck in this exercise because of an “Inner Critic” that blocks access to acknowledging their strengths, or because they have an over dominant strength of “humility”, we ask them the question, “what would your friends, co-workers, coaches or teammates say if they were asked to describe who you are at your best? In just seconds, everyone’s pens are busy making lists.
The Strength for Mindfulness Practice
“The practice of mindfulness is strengths and the practice of strengths is mindfulness. They cannot be separated. To practice mindful breathing or walking is to exercise self-regulation. To express a curious and kindly openness to the present moment experience is to practice mindfulness. To deploy strengths in a mindful way is to strengthen mindfulness, and a strong mindfulness is a recipe for more balanced and mindful strengths use.” ~ Ryan Niemiec
Learning how to leverage your Character Strengths can directly support your mindfulness practice by energizing your meditations and helping you creatively overcome obstacles to practicing. Let’s take for example my top three strengths from the VIA Character survey: Love of Learning, Zest and Curiosity. When I first started meditating, I had a voracious appetite for the perennial teachings from all the major traditions and great masters. Driven by this deep Love of Learning, I was exposed to many different perspectives on various mindfulness teachings and was able to cognitively grasp deep philosophical concepts. This knowledge inspired me to meditate and to implement what I was learning into my life in the hopes that I would eventually gain real wisdom.
These strengths have also helped me work with the many inevitable hindrances to mindfulness practice. Anyone who’s committed several years to just sitting around watching their breath will tell you that there are dry periods of boredom, doubt and ambivalence along the path. During these times, Zest has provided the muscle to pull me out of the dark hole and again rise with new energy and commitment. Another strength, Curiosity has also been a great asset. Besides being classified as a strength, Curiosity is also one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Foundational Attitude of Mindfulness. When the sabotaging part of my brain says, “I don’t feel like meditating today,” rather than automatically throwing it all to the wind, my curiosity says, “oh, what’s that about?” It is this willingness to playfully explore the sometimes deep, hidden stressors or tricky resistance that keeps me on track.
Being Mindful of your Character Strengths
Using our personal strengths can enhance our mindfulness but mindfulness can also help us better use our strengths in life, work or sport. In the mPEAK program, participants become aware of how and when they are using their strengths and the results that they’re getting so that they can understand how to use them to the best effect.
The informal practice the mPEAK participants use is called “Strengths Spotting” which is the practice of purposefully bringing mindful attention to what strengths are working well in either their own performance or in the performance of others around them. When directed towards others, Strengths Spotting is a powerful practice for counteracting our evolutionarily inherited negativity bias and cultivating the ability to look for the positive rather than for what is annoying or broken.
According to Strength Researcher Alex Lindley, when we are practicing strength spotting with our co-workers, teammates or family, we attempt to name or label what it is about a person that shines. This can be done in conversation with someone you know but it can also be done while observing the way people interact from a distance. It requires us to take a deep and non-judgmental look at the people around us and ask the question of ourselves, “what does that person do well?”. Test it out for yourself and see what happens when you hold people in what humanist psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” and choose to see them for their strengths rather than judge them for their weakness. Participants regularly report a greater sense of connection, empathy, compassion and report.
Bringing mindful awareness to our own strengths means paying closer attention to what we refer to in mPEAK as “PEAK Performance Events” and flow experiences. By waking up to the experiences of being "on" and then curiously mining those experiences for strengths, participants start learning how to further develop and refine their strengths as well as create more opportunities to use them.
According to the Center for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP), Realize 2 Assessment, my own highest realized strengths are Mission, Growth, Self Awareness, Empathic Connection, Spotlight, Enabler and Listener. Each of these strengths has a direct positive impact on my commitment to mindfulness practice as well as how I show up in relationships, how I perform at the gym and in my work as a Life Coach. Again, strengths represent who we are when we’re at our best and there’s value in learning to leverage them to increase performance.
However for many who are already “high achievers”, the real growth opportunity lies not in continuing to embellish strengths but rather mindfully marshalling their use.
Strengths out of Balance
We’ve all heard the phrase, “your greatest strengths can be your greatest weaknesses.” Has that ever been true for you? Let’s take a look at how strengths can be both an asset and a liability to your performance, depending on how you use them. Here’s the description of someone, like me, who wields the CAPP strength of Spotlight. “You enjoy being the centre of attention. Whether in a meeting or in a social gathering, you naturally speak up and hold the floor. You like holding people's interest and focus, and usually find this easy to do. You find that you can get people to listen to you and keep their attention - whatever else might be going on.”
With this strength I’ve been able to get up in front of teams and large organizations, facilitate workshops and give presentations to hundreds of skeptical strangers. Given that public speaking is generally a fear greater than death, I’d say this strength is generally serving me well. But it doesn’t always. There is a shadow side of being in the spotlight, as we know from the lives of movie stars and sports celebrities. Even at it's worst, my Spotlight is hardly paparazzi worthy, but it has gotten me in enough trouble to warrant continual mindful management.
In my 20’s when my need for the spotlight was the strongest, I was attracted to dating girls whose strengths naturally included being a good audience to the "Pete Show". With all the charisma of a frat guy with a new philosophy fetish, I would dominate conversation on double dates and woo the crowds at dinner parties. While telling tales of wild adventure, sharing esoteric theories and violently flaunting my charm, my date and all other poor bystanders were inevitably left in the dust. When my strength of Spotlight was out of balance, there was no room for anyone else to show up and be heard. In the end, I learned the hard way that this is NOT the best strategy for making real connections.
Even a seemingly noble, ethically grounded strengths can be dangerous when out of balance. My strength of Mission has been a North Star guiding my personal practice and professional path as a coach over the years. A “man on a mission” is usually a desirable trait and exactly what’s needed to make real change in the world. But when the strength of Mission is overplayed in my life, everything else that doesn’t perfectly align or directly contribute to furthering my vision is neglected. This includes family, friends, significant others, finances, fun and upkeep of the home. I’ve found that a myopic pursuit of meaning and purpose can lead to isolation and frustration, not the higher performance we're looking for.
In my many years as a coach I've worked with big hearted, compassionate animal lovers who's strength out of balance lead her to adopt so many stray creatures she could no longer house them, afford to feed them or ever even consider leaving the house for a vacation. I've coached a fitness enthusiasts who's self regulation out of balance constantly bordered on control freak, a single woman who's fierce independence closed her down to receiving any kind of support from men and an interior decorator who's attention to detail started showing up as OCD. With mindfulness, each of these people were able to become aware of what it felt like to use their strengths in and out of balance and gained the power to intentionally dial them up or dial them back to fit the circumstances...and this my friends is power.
Beginning to Work With Your Strengths
By now it’s pretty clear that mindfulness and strengths work together to enhance performance and create more opportunities for flow. If you’d like to explore how using strengths could support you along your path, follow these 4 steps:
1. Discover Your Strengths. There are several strength assessments including the CAPP Realize 2, VIA Character, and the Clifton Strength Finder 2.0. You can also choose to do a self-evaluation by brainstorming what you see as your strengths or by doing a strengths interview and asking others who know you well.
2. Practice Mindfulness of Strengths. Start intentionally becoming more aware of when and where you’re naturally using your strengths. Take note of the impact they have on your attitude and energy. You may also become aware of how they impact others around you.
3. Apply Your Strengths. Start intentionally using your top strengths at work, in your relationships, and toward your personal goals.
4. Manage Your Strengths. Mindfully monitor their use, making sure you don’t under or over play them.