“We can look at virtually any crisis and recount how character strengths came forth to not only help ourselves weather the storm, but also to reach out and help others. The tools are in our hands, and the time is now, to build the fulcrum around which humanity can begin tipping toward its highest promise.”[i]
—Dr. Neal H. Mayerson, VIA Institute on Character
We are at a critical tipping point in history as our technological advances outpace our collective psychological maturity. A symptom of this “danger gap” is that the World Health Organization calls stress the epidemic of the 21st century—pointing to an alarming rise in depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction and violence. People need accessible tools to build resilience, well-being and sustainable solutions in these rapidly changing and turbulent times. The empowering new science of character strengths may very well be a catalyst for fulfilling our hopes of a better future.
An Urgent Call to Action
In his recent article, The Character Strengths Response: An Urgent Call to Action,[ii] Dr. Neal H. Mayerson, Chairman of the VIA Institute on Character, affirms that character strengths “hold great promise…to simultaneously enable good lives for ourselves and others, help prevent excessive violence and escapism, and help us successfully parent next generations.”He goes on to address unprecedented advances in technology, some of which are negatively impacting our well-being and the planet’s future, what he calls the “danger gap.” According to Mayerson, this “danger gap” refers to “the rate of growth in psychological knowledge lagging far behind…our physical science knowledge, and that this ever-growing differential defines an emerging “danger gap” worthy of our immediate attention.” In other words, this “danger gap” is mounting evidence that our knowledge of technology is growing exponentially faster than our understanding of our very own selves. Mayerson expounds, “Because we are living in a world in which we have ever-increasing technological powers that require wise decision-making, focusing on character strengths science takes on an immediate urgency. Certain errors in judgment as to the application of our technologies can have devastatingly negative impacts. We stand on a precipice that is only getting more and more unstable as time marches on, and advancing our collective psychological maturity is an imperative.”[iii]
Reflect for a moment on how in a relatively short time we’ve become obsessed with technology. Just one example of this phenomenon is the manipulative component in social media, that left unchecked, competes for our own sense of autonomy.[iv] [v] Even worse, this growing obsession with how many “likes” we get on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter derides our sense of self-worth in a subtle, yet corrosive way. In her book, The Future of Happiness, author Amy Blankson offers insights, “Technology, at least in theory, is improving our productivity, efficiency, and communication. The one thing it’s not doing is making us happier… knowing that technology is here to stay and will continue to evolve in form and function, we need to know how to navigate the future to achieve a better balance between technology, productivity, and well-being… By rethinking when, where, why, and how you use technology, you will not only influence your own well-being but also help shape the future of your community.”[vi]
An Empowering Approach
Positive psychology (the science that encompasses character strengths) doesn’t pretend that mental and emotional issues don’t exist. However, this fundamental, expansive, and exciting science focuses tremendous time and energy on the wholeness, highest and best within people. This is a new and much needed empowering focus on how to live a thriving life.
Many people carry a deficit perspective of themselves and of others. As a result, they aren’t aware of how it affects their own well-being, and their relationships in their personal lives, at school, at work, in their communities, and the world at large. Science has shown that what is observed, comes to the forefront. So why don’t we learn to see ourselves through the lens of our character strengths instead, discovering our own goodness and wholeness within?
Positive Contagion vs Psychic Pollution
Have you ever walked into a room of people and even before you looked around, you could feel the tension and negativity, then you experienced it infected your mood as well? The reverse is also true—by bringing positivity into our surroundings we can create a “positive contagion.” If we are emanating hopeful, collaborative, uplifting thoughts and emotions, we can counteract fearful, malicious thoughts and emotions—impacting not only ourselves, but others as well.[vii] Ultimately, we are responsible for our own inner world, which influences our outer world.[viii]
Positivity begets more positivity, and research proves it’s contagious.[ix] Over 100 global research studies have shown that when people are exposed to positivity, they see more solutions in puzzles, score higher on cognitive tests, and recall more information, among myriad other benefits.[x] And when you are positive with another person, he or she is more likely to react in kind.
Acknowledging the best in others creates an upward spiral, leading to higher achievement, positive emotional states, and deeper connections. The key is to become the spark that puts the upward spiral into action. As Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar puts it: “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”[xi] And our character strengths are perhaps the most important aspect of ourselves that we want noticed and appreciated.
What are character strengths?
Character strengths are who we are at our best –the qualities that, when nurtured, lead to positive contributions and life satisfaction. Developing an awareness of character strengths helps people focus on “what’s strong,” instead of “what’s wrong.” Scientists have identified 24 strengths—basic building blocks defining our psychological makeup—such as hope, kindness, teamwork, fairness, leadership, love, honesty, perspective, bravery, forgiveness, etc. We each possess all 24 in different degrees/combinations. They lead us to positive feelings, relationships, and engaging, meaningful life activities where we flourish. Hundreds of studies have revealed that people who express their character strengths experience greater resilience, achievement, happiness, fulfillment and more. Moreover, Dr. Ryan Niemiec’s recent research shows that “character strengths offer an important role in buffering, reinterpreting, managing, and transforming the adversities and problems of life,” asserting that 24 strengths have been linked scientifically at some point with resilience.”[xii]
It’s About Focus
Dr. David Cooperrider is at the forefront of new research that shows that what you focus on literally grows. His work in the field of Appreciative Inquiry is being used to bring about the best in people around the world. He has even worked to create understanding between countries that have been at war for years.[xiii] Dr. Cooperrider defines “positive organizations or communities” as having developed the ability to:
1. Consistently see and engage human character strengths.
2. Create new alignments of strengths to make weaknesses irrelevant.
3. Refract human strengths such as compassion and wisdom out into society and the world.[xiv]
Because we are all connected, we can all contribute to the well-being of the whole. In the words of Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., who heads up the Interconnectivity Research Project, “I believe humanity is at a unique point in its evolutionary history of consciousness. We now have an opportunity and the intelligence to make more empowered choices to create a cooperative and harmoniously connected world.”[xv]
A Higher Path
We need tools rooted in character strengths to take the higher path in our human evolution. One tool I’ve created for my coaching clients is what I call a “mindset check.” Consider the mindset you bring to your relationships with yourself and others—are you creating what you really want in your life and in the world in which you live? Take a moment to do the mindset check below,[xvi] self-assessing where you currently are on the arrow—are you tuning into your inner coach or your inner critic?
|Inner Critic||Vs||Inner Coach|
|Weakness Focus||Character Strengths Focus|
|Threatened by differences||Values differences|
|Entrenched||Seek common ground|
|Afraid of change||Dynamic/Growing|
Mindset is everything. Some people still carry the outdated, misguided view that progress is about critiquing and correcting weaknesses, so that improvements can be made. But the research demonstrates that focusing on “what’s wrong” with a person, situation, or a relationship is demoralizing and deflating. In sharp contrast, focusing on “what’s strong” generates the best results and strengthens relationships. In other words, when you focus on yours and others’ character strengths you become a builder and a motivator.
An Urgent Call to Action
Back to Mayerson and his urgent call to action. He challenges us to imagine future generations that have been “inculcated each and every year with advancing knowledge about social and psychological resilience and well-being.”[xvii] He and others are sounding the alarm that impels humanity to develop psychological maturity by making character strengths science part of the core sciences and humanities curricula, furthering the advancement and application of human wisdom. Mayerson also makes a compelling plea for increased research funding to build upon the science of human character, which encompasses our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual maturity, narrowing the danger gap. Such funding, he points out, is far less expensive than physical science funding, and equally as important. He offers an optimistic solution, describing a new global culture harbored more safely in human character, “beyond schools, one can envision that organizations of all types will come to leverage the strengths of their employees and members.”[xviii] This urgent call to action is inspiring countless people to make a positive difference, and hopefully it will inspire you as well.
Disclaimer: Mental health issues, such as depression, substance abuse, abusive environments, etc., are best addressed with the help of a medical professional or licensed therapist. Please seek appropriate help.
[i] Mayerson, Neal H. “The Character Strengths Response: An Urgent Call to Action.” Frontiers
in Psychology. August 21, 2020.
[ii] Mayerson, Neal H. “The Character Strengths Response: An Urgent Call to Action.” Frontiers
in Psychology. August 21, 2020.
[iii] Mayerson, Neal H. “The Character Strengths Response: An Urgent Call to Action.” Frontiers
in Psychology. August 21, 2020.
[iv] Price, Catherine. “Trapped — The Secret Ways Social Media is Built to be Addictive (and
What You Can do to Fight Back.).” Science Focus. October 29, 2018. https://www.sciencefocus.com/fu- ture-technology/trapped-the-secret-ways-social-media-is-built-to-be-addictive-and-what-you-can- do-to-fight-back/.
[v] Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” May 1, 2018.
Harvard University. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/
[vi] Blankson, Amy. The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and
Well-Being in the Digital Era. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2017.
[viii] Abulela, Amy. “Wherever You are, be There Totally: An Excerpt from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.” New World Library. December 12, 2014.
[ix] Isen, A.M. Positive Affect, Cognitive Processes, and Social Behavior.” Advances in Experimental Psychology 20 (1987): 203-53.
[x] Fredrickson, Barbara L. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals The Upward Spiral that Will Change Your Life. Edinburgh: Harmony, 2009.
[xi] “Tal Ben Shahar.” Azquotes. Accessed June 8 2015. http://www. azquotes.com/quote/672859
[xii] Niemiec, R. (2019). “Six functions of character strengths for thriving at times of adversity and
opportunity: a theoretical perspective.” Appl. Res. Qual. Life 15, 551–572. doi:
[xiii] Drew, Emily. “Dr. David Cooperrider Works With Nepal’s President and Constitutional Assembly.” Weatherhead School of Management. December 1, 2009. Accessed September 8, 2019.https://weatherhead.case.edu/news/detail?idNews=1437
[xiv] Cooperrider, David. “The Three Circles of Strengths Revolution: Moving from the Micro to the Macro Magnification of Strengths via Appreciative Inquiry.” Presentation from VIA Institute on Character. n. d.
[xv] “We are all Connected!” HeartMath. Accessed September 8, 2019. https://www.heartmath.com/blog/articles/new-science-its-not-just-the-world-wide-web-that-connects-us/
[xvi] Coach vs. Critic Model, © 2014-2020, Authentic Strengths Advantage, LLC. (Inspired by:
Columbia University Coaching Certification Program Learner/Judger Model; Marilee C. Goldberg’s, The Art of the Question 1998 p. 161-178).
[xvii] Mayerson, Neal H. “The Character Strengths Response: An Urgent Call to Action.” Frontiers
in Psychology. August 21, 2020.
[xviii] Adler, S. (2008). “Global business as an agent of world benefit: new international business
perspectives leading positive change.” Handbook of Research on Global Citizenship, eds A. Scherer and G. Palazzo (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing).