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date: 21 November 2019

Character Strengths and Mindfulness

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of character strengths and mindfulness. Character strengths are specific psychological processes that define broader virtues, which are core characteristics that have been identified and valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers throughout time. The chapter focuses on the contributions of the VIA Inventory of Strengths to research and assessment in character strengths, and the application of this framework to further strengths-based approaches to disability. Mindfulness has been described not only as a practice, but also as a state, a trait, a process, and an outcome. The chapter examines research, practice, and the application of mindfulness to disability contexts. A discussion of areas of connectivity between character strengths and mindfulness and a look at future directions for research and practice in character strengths and mindfulness in disability conclude the chapter.

Keywords: Character strengths, mindfulness, VIA Inventory of Strengths, meditation, assessment, positive mindfulness

Character Strengths and Mindfulness

This chapter will provide an overview of character strengths and mindfulness, providing information about key concepts, research, and interventions in each area, as well as the work being done on the integration of these constructs. We will also explore the relationship of character strengths and mindfulness practices in the field of positive psychology, especially as an emerging application for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Character Strengths

While researchers and scholars have discussed the role of character in the lives of children, youth, and adults throughout history, it was not until the early 2000s that researchers began to focus on operationalizing frameworks to define, assess, and build on character strengths in a systematic way. This focus emerged as the field of positive psychology was defined and grew into its own subdiscipline within psychology. Researchers have defined character strengths as positive, trait-like capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit oneself and others (Niemiec, 2014a), and as a “family of positive characteristics … each of which exists in degrees” (Park & Peterson, 2009, p. 3). Character strengths are viewed as specific psychological processes that define broader virtues, which are core characteristics that have been identified and valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers throughout time (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

The catalyst for this emerging science of character was a three-year project involving 55 scientists devoted to understanding the ingredients of a “good” life. This project of the VIA Institute on Character culminated in a cross-cultural, universal classification system of character strengths and virtues, referred to as the VIA Classification of Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) (formerly referred to as the “Values in Action Classification”). The VIA Classification of Strengths defines 24 character strengths that are organized into six overarching virtues, as outlined and defined in Table 1. Assessment and intervention approaches linked to these six virtues and 24 character strengths have been developed, as will be described in the sections herein.

Table 1 The VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues

  • Wisdom—cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge

    •  - Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it

    •  - Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering

    •  - Judgment [open-mindedness; critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one's mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly

    •  - Love of Learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one's own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows

    •  - Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself/others

  • Courage—emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal

    •  - Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what’s right even if there’s opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it

    •  - Perseverance [persistence, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persevering in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks

    •  - Honesty [authenticity, integrity]: Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one's feelings and actions

    •  - Zest [vitality, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated

  • Humanity—interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others

    •  - Love (capacity to love and be loved): Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people

    •  - Kindness [generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, "niceness"]: Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them

    •  - Social Intelligence [emotional intelligence, personal intelligence]: Being aware of the motives/feelings of others and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick

  • Justice—civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

    •  - Teamwork [citizenship, social responsibility, loyalty]: Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group; doing one's share

    •  - Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting feelings bias decisions about others; giving everyone a fair chance

    •  - Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same time maintain good relations within the group; organizing group activities and seeing that they happen

  • Temperance—strengths that protect against excess

    •  - Forgiveness [mercy]: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful

    •  - Humility [modesty]: Letting one's accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is

    •  - Prudence: Being careful about one's choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted

    •  - Self-Regulation [self-control]: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one's appetites and emotions

  • Transcendence—strengths that forge connections to the universe and provide meaning

    •  - Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life; from nature, to art, to mathematics, to science, to everyday experience

    •  - Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks

    •  - Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about

    •  - Humor [playfulness]: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes

    •  - Spirituality [religiousness, faith, purpose]: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort

Copyright 2004–2017, VIA Institute on Character. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. www.viacharacter.org

Assessing Character Strengths

Assessment tools, including the VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) and the VIA Inventory of Strengths—Youth Version (VIA-Youth) (www.viacharacter.org), have been developed and studied across cultures (McGrath, 2014; Park & Peterson, 2006b; Shryack, Steger, Krueger, & Kallie, 2010; Singh & Choubisa, 2010; van Eeden, Wissing, Dreyer, Park, & Peterson, 2008). Both are self-report measures of the 24 character strengths and six virtues described in Table 1. Each tool was designed to be a self-report measure, enabling youth and adults to report on the degree to which they embody the characteristics, given the acknowledged importance and value of self-perceptions of strengths in informing character strength assessment and interventions. The VIA-IS was developed for adults aged 18 and over, and the VIA-Youth for children ages 10–17 years.

Researchers have found that scores on the VIA-IS have adequate reliability with adult populations in the United States (McGrath, 2014), with comparable reliability in translated versions of the scale (Littman-Ovadia & Lavy, 2012; Macdonald, Bore, & Munro, 2008; Ruch et al., 2010; Singh & Choubisa, 2010). The VIA-Youth was developed subsequent to the VIA-IS to extend the assessment of character strengths to children and youth, by modifying and writing age-appropriate items reflective of the 24 character strengths assessed on the VIA-IS. The items were developed to be relevant to the contexts navigated by young people, integrating feedback from youth, teachers, and parents (Steen, Kachorek, & Peterson, 2003). The initial version of the VIA-Youth included 198 items, but a short form with 96 items was also validated. The items for the short form were selected by identifying the four most psychologically robust items for each character strength, and reliability values were similar for the short and long forms. Subsequent research has found strong correlations between scores on the short and the long forms (VIA Institute on Character, n.d.), suggesting that both forms are assessing the same constructs. Researchers have also found scores on the VIA-Youth show strong correlations with teacher ratings of student character strengths, suggesting concurrent validity (Macdonald, Bore, & Munro, 2008; Park & Peterson, 2006a). Additionally, researchers have found that the VIA-Youth differs from other assessments of positive psychological constructs (e.g., personality characteristics, life satisfaction) contributing unique information to assessments of positive psychological constructs.

Intervening to Promote Character Strengths

One of the main purposes of assessing character strengths using tools like the VIA-IS and VIA-Youth is to understand, identify, and build on each person’s strengths. One use of the assessment results from the VIA has been to identify “signature strengths,” or strengths that are central to the person’s identity; are energizing; are natural and easy to use; and are highly endorsed by the individual. Knowing each person’s signature strengths provides a lens through which to focus on using and building on these strengths on a more frequent basis, with the assumption that building on strength enhances outcomes. For example, a widely researched strategy in the positive psychology and character strengths literature involves engaging people in using their signature strengths in a new way each day for one week. The purpose is to promote greater knowledge and use of character strengths. In randomized, controlled trials, this simple intervention of having adults take the VIA-IS, identify their signature strengths, and apply them in a new way every day for a week has led to increases in happiness and decreases in depression for six months (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2013; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). This intervention has subsequently been applied to diverse populations, including youth (Madden, Green, & Grant, 2011), older adults (Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2014), employees (Forest et al., 2012), and people with traumatic brain injuries (Andrewes, Walker, & O’Neill, 2014), to name a few. It has also been applied across various cultures, with similar impacts (Duan, Ho, Tang, Li, & Zhang, 2013; Mitchell, Stanimirovic, Klein, & Vella-Brodrick, 2009; Mongrain & Anselmo-Matthews, 2012). Another approach that has been examined in in the literature is focusing on a person’s lowest-rated strengths, instead of signature strengths, to enhance those areas (Proyer et al., 2015; Rust, Diessner, & Reade, 2009). For example, Rust et al. (2009) compared the impact of an intervention that targeted one’s highest-rated character strength on the VIA versus an intervention that targeted one’s lowest rated-strength, finding no differences in enhancements in life satisfaction, suggesting that working on relative weaknesses may also improve life satisfaction.

In addition to targeting signature strengths, researchers have also developed interventions to focus on specific character strengths. This can be particularly useful in specific contexts, such as schools or community programs. For example, researchers have developed exercises that focus on “counting kindness” (counting the number of kind acts performed each day), showing a relationship between engaging in these activities and increased happiness (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui, & Fredrickson, 2006). Other interventions have focused on asking people to help/support three people they would not have otherwise helped by giving the gift of their time each day, again linking this intervention with increased happiness (Gander et al., 2013). Other character strengths that have been targeted include increasing humor and gratitude by asking people to report three funny things that happen each day, or three things they are grateful for each day (Gander et al., 2013; Proyer et al., 2014; Seligman et al., 2005), leading to positive changes in self-reported happiness.

Instead of just focusing on character strengths in yourself, other interventions focus on spotting strengths in others as well as yourself to build greater awareness of the use of character strengths. “Strengths-spotting” involves the careful, intentional observation of character strengths within stories, interactions, and behaviors of yourself and others. Strengths-spotting occurs on two levels—oneself and others—and involves the labeling of the character strength(s) observed, and the offering of a rationale or evidence for how each strength was expressed (Niemiec, 2014a). This can be used to create additional instructional opportunities related to strengths, particularly for children, youth, and adults who are not familiar with character strengths or who have just completed character strengths assessment.

Another way to introduce character strengths immediately after someone takes the VIA-IS or VIA-Youth, or in preparation for taking the VIA-IS or VIA-Youth, is the Aware-Explore-Apply model (Niemiec, 2013; 2014a). In the first phase (Aware), practitioners begin to support the person to develop an awareness of character strengths. The next phase (Explore) involves supporting the person to recognize a connection between character strengths, previous experiences, and outcomes. The goal is that the person gains an understanding of how they use their character strengths in everyday life, and how this positively affects them. Finally, the third phase (Apply) involves supporting the person to begin to set goals to use their character strengths in ways that enable them to take action. This framework can be used on an ongoing basis to build and enhance the use of character strengths and support each person’s growth and development (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998).

Generally, the use of these interventions to enhance character strengths has been associated with multiple positive outcomes across studies (Harzer & Ruch, 2014; Vertilo & Gibson, 2014; Weber, Wagner, & Ruch, 2016). Character strengths have been found to predict academic achievement and social skills (Macdonald et al., 2008; et al., 2014) as well as well-being and happiness (Toner, Haslam, Robinson, & Williams, 2012). And, researchers have found specific patterns of relationships between selected character strengths and outcomes that can be used to target character strengths in different contexts. For example, researchers have found that academic achievement is predicted by temperance and perseverance. People who report higher zest for life, curiosity, and hope have reported greater life satisfaction and well-being (Park & Peterson, 2006b; Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). Overall, promoting character strengths has the potential to improve health and wellness outcomes as well as context-specific outcomes, such as academic achievement and engagement for children, youth, and adults. A practitioner’s guide to the research and practice of character strengths, including details on 65 character strengths interventions with a research base, can be found in Niemiec (2018).

Mindfulness

At the most basic level, mindfulness is about personal transformation, the inner journey that enhances our understanding of who we are and how we respond to the vicissitudes of life. It liberates us from the baggage of yesterday and the illusions of tomorrow, and non-judgmentally places our attention and awareness in the present moment.

The term mindfulness has been defined in many ways, depending on the source and context of the definition. Mindfulness has been known and practiced in many of the world’s wisdom traditions, but the source of current Western understanding has been derived from the Pali word Sati, a close relative of the Sanskrit word smriti, which is traditionally translated as “that which is remembered.” Although Sati has been loosely translated as the English word “mindfulness,” it is “a polysemous term … commonly used in meditative contexts to refer to the ability to remain focused on a chosen object without forgetfulness or distraction” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 831). Within the semantic range of sati, at its core and in the context of meditation, mindfulness encompasses the concept of “keeping in mind,” much in the sense of working memory. Thus, during meditation, mindfulness keeps the mind focused on the object of meditation (usually the breath) instead of wandering away to the past or future.

The most frequently used definition of mindfulness in Western science comes from Kabat-Zinn (1994, p. 4): “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” followed by a consensus, two-component definition by Bishop et al. (2004, p. 232):

The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

It is noteworthy to point out that two character strengths are at the core of this definition—self-regulation and curiosity. Definitions advanced by Buddhist scholar-monks are often simpler, but they pose measurement problems for Western science because of their generality. For example, Anālayo (2003) noted that mindfulness “entails an alert but receptive equanimous observation” (p. 61), and Bhikkhu Bodhi (2011) defined mindfulness as “the element of watchfulness, the lucid awareness of each event that presents itself on the successive occasions of experience” (p. 21).

Mindfulness has been described not only as a practice, but also as a state, a trait, a process, and an outcome (Singh, Lancioni, Wahler, Winton, & Singh, 2008), depending on the context in which it is used. Thus, mindfulness/mindful can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb. This makes it difficult to fully understand what is meant when one hears the use of the term “mindfulness” or “mindful” in everyday conversation (e.g., “Make sure you drive mindfully,” “Be mindful of the time”)—or in research papers, unless the concept is clearly defined.

A substantial amount of the basic experimental research is focused on state mindfulness—acute time-limited mindful presence; or dispositional (trait) mindfulness—mindful presence over time. Variations in dispositional mindfulness across people may be the result of a genetic or cultural predisposition, socialization, or training in mindfulness techniques. There are various rating scales used to measure mindfulness (Hill & Labbé, 2014), but it is questionable exactly what is being measured by these scales (Grossman, 2011), or even whether the mindfulness being measured is a unitary construct, as measured by the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (Brown & Ryan, 2003), or multifactorial, as measured by the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietemeyer, & Toney, 2006). Furthermore, some rating scales measure mindfulness in context, such as the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004), but others do not, such as the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale—Revised (Feldman, Hayes, Kumar, Greeson, & Laurenceau, 2007). Thus, what is measured under the umbrella term “mindfulness” may differ, depending on the theory, philosophy, and assessment scale or methodology used.

Recently, there has been a growing debate about the sacred and secular aspects of mindfulness instruction. In the West, there has been a concerted effort to teach mindfulness meditation in a secular manner, without the trappings of its Buddhist ancestry (i.e., Buddha-dharma), so that it can be made widely accessible to everyone regardless of their spiritual beliefs. This has given rise to concerns that the instructions are being taught in a spiritual vacuum, without full understanding of the roots of the practice, or its ethical dimensions. With regard to mindfulness-based interventions, the criticisms range from charges of diluting the practice to completely divorcing it from its Buddhist roots. Indeed, this has given rise to a second generation of mindfulness-based interventions that are broadly inclusive of the Dharma (Van Gordon, Shonin, & Griffiths, 2015). Regardless of how it is taught on the continuum of sacred to secular, mindfulness is a basic innate human trait that can be liberated from the delusions of our being through meditation. It is an inherent human capacity, and “we are all mindful, to one degree or another, moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, pp. 145–146).

Mindfulness and Character Strengths

There has been a recent surge in integrating mindfulness and character strengths in the extant research literature (Baer & Lykins, 2011; Ivtzan, Niemiec, & Briscoe, 2016; Niemiec, 2012; 2014a; Niemiec & Lissing, 2016; Niemiec, Rashid, & Spinella, 2012; Sharp, Niemiec, & Lawrence, 2016). For example, in the context of mindfulness and positive psychology generally, Baer and Lykins (2011) noted that while mindfulness may meet the defining characteristics of character strength, it is really “an attentional stance, or a way of relating to one’s present-moment experience, that probably cultivates a wide range of strengths and virtues” (p. 341). In this view, mindfulness enables the development of various strengths and virtues that are emphasized in positive psychology.

Niemiec and Lissing (2016) have discussed a number of overlapping approaches to an integration of mindfulness and character strengths. We will consider three of these: indirect focus, single strength integration, and total strength integration. While it is not yet clear that mindfulness and character strengths can be fully integrated, it is likely that these two concepts are synergistic and inherent as human potential.

Indirect Focus

It is evident from the mindfulness-based training literature that some aspects of these programs indirectly target variables that can conceivably be thought of as character strengths. Within the standard mindfulness-based programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 1990) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013), there is a focus on such concepts as acceptance, letting go, patience, and openness that can be loosely correlated to character strengths such as self-regulation (acceptance, letting go, patience) and judgment (openness). With specific reference to participating in MBCT, Niemiec and Lissing (2016, p. 19) noted four outcomes and their possible character strengths correlates, as shown in Table 2. These outcomes and correlates are extrapolations, and will need verification in future research.

Table 2 MBCT Outcomes and Character Strengths Correlates (Niemiec & Lissing, 2016)

Observe negative thoughts with curiosity and kindness (curiosity, kindness, judgment/critical thinking, self-regulation)

To accept themselves and stop wishing things were different (forgiveness, perspective)

To let go of old habits and choose a different way of being (forgiveness, bravery, perseverance)

To be present in the moment and notice small beauties and pleasures in the world (curiosity, appreciation of beauty and excellence)

Single Strength Integration

There are a few mindfulness-based intervention programs that include characteristics of character strengths, although these interventions do not discuss this linkage in terms of character strengths specifically, or positive psychology generally. Examples of mindfulness-based and closely allied Buddhist-based programs that incorporate specific character strengths include compassion-focused therapy (Gilbert, 2010), mindful self-compassion programs (Neff & Germer, 2013), and mindfulness-based positive behavior support (Singh, Lancioni, Manikam, Latham, & Jackman, 2016). In addition, there are mindfulness studies or reviews that examine the association of mindfulness with character strengths, including creativity in the workplace (Colzato, Ozturk, & Hommel, 2012; Kudesia, 2015), curiosity (Kashdan, Afram, Brown, Birnbeck, & Drvoshanov, 2011), judgment and honesty (Ruedy & Schweitzer, 2010), love of learning (Singh et al., 2006), zest (Collins, Best, Stritzke, & Page, 2016), love (Giolzetti, 2012), teamwork (Singh et al., 2002), leadership (Sauer & Kohls, 2011), forgiveness (Webb, Phillips, Bumgarner, & Conway-Williams, 2013), humility (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), self-regulation (Vago & Silbersweig, 2012), gratitude (O’Leary & Dockray, 2015), hope (Malinowski & Lim, 2015), humor (Özyesil, Deniz, & Kesici, 2013), and spirituality (Feuille & Pargament, 2015). These studies indicate the keen interest mindfulness researchers have in traits that are strongly emphasized in positive psychology and suggest further alignment of the two approaches in future research.

Total Strength Integration

Two programs have been devised that specifically integrate mindfulness with positive psychology variables, including character strengths (Ivtzan, Niemiec, & Briscoe, 2016; Ivtzan, Young, et al., 2016; Niemiec, 2014a). Preliminary studies suggest that these programs may be effective in enhancing psychological well-being and character strengths.

Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP)

Baer (2015) discusses how many character strengths are encouraged in mindfulness programs but MBSP, an eight-week, manualized program, is the only intervention designed to explicitly cultivate both mindfulness and character strengths. Framed as a novel complement or enhancement to traditional mindfulness-based programs that essentially target a problem or disorder, MBSP uses strengths as the starting point to enhance well-being and manage life challenges. The MBSP program offers eight core themes and a variety of strengths-based practices and mindfulness meditations, each designed to simultaneously boost and practice strengths and mindfulness (see Table 3). MBSP emphasizes two general types of integration (Niemiec, 2014a):

  1. 1. Strong mindfulness: bringing character strengths to mindfulness practices and mindful living. The most common example of this is using one’s signature character strengths to overcome common obstacles in meditation practice, such as mind wandering, forgetting to practice, and claiming one does not have time to practice. Turning to naturally occurring, internal qualities such as perseverance to combat mind wandering, bravery to face challenging emotions, and prudence to structure one’s time optimally can transform one’s meditation practice. Character strengths can be woven in to invigorate one’s practice and take mindfulness to the next level, such as adding gratitude practice at the beginning of sitting meditation; turning to zest to engage in walking meditation; or deploying self-regulation while practicing mindful eating.

  2. 2. Mindful strengths use: bringing mindfulness to character strengths practices. This involves paying attention to one’s own character strengths and how they are expressed, thereby combating strength blindness, as well as fostering attentiveness to and appreciation for the best qualities in others. A careful mindful attention supports participants as they notice individual differences and the different degrees of strengths expression across contexts in their lives. Mindful strengths use also involves being balanced and wise with one’s character strengths expression, hence managing overuse and underuse of strengths, and moving in the direction of ancient concepts of optimal expression such as Aristotle’s “golden mean” or Buddha’s “middle way.”

Table 3 Outline of MBSP Core Topic Areas and One Central Practice for Each Week (Niemiec, 2014a)

Session

Core Topic

Description

Core Practice

Explanation

1

Mindfulness and autopilot

The autopilot mind is pervasive; insights and change opportunities start with mindful attention.

Raisin or water exercise

Eating one raisin or drinking water as if “for the first time”; consuming with all five senses.

2

Your signature strengths

Identify what is best in you; this can unlock the potential to engage more in work and relationships and reach higher personal potential.

Strengths-spotting

In pairs or triads, participants share recent positive experiences and practice steps involving the spotting of strengths.

3

Obstacles are opportunities

The practice of mindfulness and of strengths exploration leads immediately to two things—obstacles/barriers to the practice and a wider appreciation for the little things in life.

Statue meditation

Participants engage in a challenge involving holding up their arms and facing the mental and physical obstacles and using mindfulness and strengths to manage the discomforts that ensue.

4

Strengthening mindfulness in everyday life

Mindfulness helps us attend to and nourish the best, innermost qualities in ourselves and others, while reducing negative judgments of self and others; conscious use of strengths can help us deepen and maintain a mindfulness practice.

Mindful walking/movement

Practicing standing and walking meditation, and spotting strengths that arise and that are used during walking.

5

Valuing your relationships

Mindful attending can nourish two types of relationships: relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves. Our relationship with ourselves contributes to self-growth and can have an immediate impact on our connection with others.

Loving-kindness meditation (targeting strengths)

Practice of traditional meditation focused on cultivating warmth and compassion; followed by an open meditation on a strength of the participants’ choosing.

6

Mindfulness of the golden mean

Mindfulness helps us focus on problems directly and character strengths help us understand and/or reframe different perspectives not immediately apparent.

Character strengths 360 exercise

Review of feedback of a 2–5-minute survey in which participants receive feedback from several people on their character strengths.

Optional Retreat

MBSP half-day retreat

Mindful living and character strengths apply not only to good meditation practice but also to daily conversation, eating, walking, sitting, reflecting, and the nuances therein (e.g., opening the refrigerator door, turning a doorknob, creating a smile). This day is therefore, a practice day.

Mindfulness and character strengths use within routines

Application of integration of character strengths and mindfulness in listening to oneself and others; and in eating, walking, and other behaviors in daily living.

7

Authenticity and goodness

It takes character (e.g., courage) to be a more authentic “you,” and it takes character (e.g., hope) to create a strong future that benefits both oneself and others. Set mindfulness and character strengths goals with authenticity and goodness in the forefront of your mind.

Best possible self and defining moments exercise

Structured exercises involving a choice of envisioning a future best self or reflecting on a defining moment, and relating these to personal goals.

8

Your engagement with life

Stick with the practices that have been working well and watch for the mind’s tendency to revert to automatic habits that are deficit-based, unproductive, or that prioritize what’s wrong in you and others. Engage in an approach that fosters awareness and celebration of what is strongest in you and others.

Golden nuggets

Sharing key insights and long-term practices.

Table 4 offers examples of these two types of integration, specific practices, and the research base for each.

Table 4 A Sampling of Five Integration Activities in MBSP (Niemiec, 2014; Niemiec & Lissing, 2016)

Name of Practice

Description

Type of Integration

Research Base or Source

Signature strengths use

Bring attention to the use of one of your highest strengths in a new way each day.

Mindful strengths use

Gander et al. (2013); Seligman et al. (2005).

Strengths appreciation

Share the value and impact that someone else’s strengths expression had upon you.

Mindful strengths use

Adler & Fagley (2005); Algoe, Gable, & Maisel (2010); Bao & Lyubomirsky (2013).

Facing meditation obstacles

Name one barrier to your meditation practice (e.g., mind wandering; noises; scheduling; discomfort), and describe how each of your top strengths could help you face or overcome it.

Strong mindfulness

Lomas et al. (2014); Niemiec, Rashid, & Spinella (2012).

Bring strengths to mindful living

Identify one area of routine that you could bring mindfulness to (e.g., driving, eating, listening, walking). Notice the strengths that are already present in the experience. How might the experience be invigorated with additional strengths?

Strong mindfulness

Nhat Hanh (1979); Nhat Hanh (1993); Niemiec (2013).

Positive reappraisal with strengths

Skillful use of mindful listening and speaking to reframe challenges with character strengths language.

Both strong mindfulness and mindful strengths use

Garland, Gaylord, & Fredrickson (2011); Garland, Gaylord, & Park (2009).

Niemiec (2014a) conducted a feasibility and initial pilot study comparing MBSP with a non-randomized control group. A subsequent pilot evaluation, Ivtzan, Niemiec, and Briscoe (2016) compared well-being and flourishing in 19 participants who completed the eight-week MBSP program (experimental group) against 20 participants who did not receive any intervention (no-intervention control group). Other than age (18 years or older), there was no entry criterion for the participants. The experimental group was recruited online from the general public, and the control group was a convenience sample recruited directly from the general public in the United Kingdom. Both groups completed four pre- and post-intervention self-reported measures—Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing Scale, Engagement, and Signature Strengths. Web-based training was provided to the experimental group, and the participants completed the pre- and post-intervention self-report measures via email. Each two-hour weekly session of MBSP was structured as follows: an opening meditation, character strengths breathing space, dyads or group discussion reviewing the practice of mindfulness and strengths, a review of previous sessions (what went well) and set homework exercises, introduction to new material, an experiential mindfulness-based character strengths exercise, a “virtue circle” (or debrief) discussion emphasizing mindful speech and mindful listening, suggested homework exercises for the next session, and finally, closing with a character strengths meditation (Ivtzan, Niemiec, & Briscoe, 2016, p. 7). Of the 19 experimental group participants, 13 completed the program, five completed all but one session, and one completed all but two sessions.

The outcome data were analyzed separately for the experimental and control groups because a comparative analysis was deemed inappropriate due to the lack of homogeneity of variance between the two groups. For the experimental group, there were statistically significant pre- to post-intervention changes on all four measures—Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing Scale, Engagement, and Signature Strengths. For the control group, the only statistically significant difference was on the Satisfaction with Life rating scale. The study has several limitations that preclude the drawing of general conclusions or implications. The obvious limitations are in the research design that precluded direct comparison between conditions, small sample size, self-selection of the participants, lack of fidelity data on the delivery of interventions as well as participant engagement in the interventions, and the use of only self-reported variables. Furthermore, given that there was no measure of mindfulness, and without a component analysis, we cannot determine the exact role of the mindfulness in the outcomes.

There are several additional studies of MBSP underway, including one comparing MBSP with the MBSR and a control group. The initial findings reveal that, while both programs improved mindfulness and reduced stress compared to controls, MBSP increased character strengths and trended in increasing work performance and work satisfaction; six-month follow-up is pending (Pang and Ruch, personal communication, October 31, 2016).

Central elements of MBSP are being applied to a variety of populations, such as gifted children (Sharp, Niemiec, & Lawrence, 2016), teachers and parents (Lottman, Zawaly, & Niemiec, 2017), organizations (Niemiec & Lissing, 2016), psychotherapists (Niemiec, 2015), physicians and medical students (Niemiec, 2014b), and students (Ivtzan, Niemiec, & Briscoe, 2016), as well as among additional topic areas such as integrated in the science of meaning (Littman-Ovadia & Niemiec, 2017).

Positive Mindfulness Program (PMP)

The Positive Mindfulness Program is an eight-week online program that integrates mindfulness with positive psychology interventions (PPIs) in a broad way and is intended to enhance well-being in the general population (Ivtzan, Young et al., 2016). The topics covered in successive weeks include: (1) self-awareness, (2) positive emotions, (3) self-compassion, (4) self-efficacy (strengths), (5) autonomy, (6) meaning, (7) positive relations with others, and (8) engagement (savoring). Given that mindfulness has been postulated to enhance both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007), each of the weekly topics covers both types of well-being.

A brief outline of the PMP program is presented in Table 3. Each week the participants view an 8–10-minute video that lays out the theoretical foundation for the week’s practice. They also receive a 12-minute audio file that contains a 10-minute daily guided-meditation and a 2-minute daily practice linked to the weekly topic. The daily practice requires the participants “to apply the insights, internal experiences and knowledge triggered by the daily meditations to their everyday lives” (Ivtzan, Young et al., 2016). The participants also receive transcripts of the meditations and daily activities for immediate reference without logging onto the PMP program. The PMP integrates the positive psychology and mindfulness components at the level of practice (e.g., expressing gratitude for positive situations; replacing internal criticism with statements of kindness).

The effects of the PMP on wellness in a general population were evaluated in a waiting-list controlled trial (Ivtzan, Young et al., 2016). Email invitations were sent to 455 recruits, and, following initial assessment, 15 were excluded because of severe levels of depression. Of the remaining 440 participants, 168 completed all required assessments, and 53 were included in the experimental group and 115 in the wait-list control group. The convenience sample of 168 participants was from 20 English-speaking countries, and consisted of educators (e.g., schoolteachers), office workers (e.g., people working for at least a seven-hour week in an office setting), and meditators (i.e., those who meditated at least one a week for no less than one year). The experimental and control groups completed all assessments (11 rating scales) on the same schedule. The control group was wait-listed for three months before beginning the PMP program. The participants completed the assessment prior to beginning the PMP program (pre-test), at the end of the eight-week PMP course (post-test), and at one-month follow-up.

The results showed that the experimental group exhibited statistically significant increases over the control group participants on nine variables: positive emotions, self-compassion, happiness, autonomy, mindfulness, self-efficacy, meaning, compassion to others, and savoring; as well as decreases in the remaining two variables, stress and depression. This study provided initial data for the effectiveness of PMP in decreasing stress and mild depression in a sample of participants from the general population, and in enhancing the strength of the positive variables, thus suggesting a link between mindfulness and character strength variables. The results could be explained in terms of transactional analysis of the key components of the program: the intentions of the positive psychology interventions enabled the development and expression of mindfulness, which in turn boosted the effects of the positive psychology interventions in a reciprocal manner. Limitations of the study included an imbalance in sample size in the experimental and control groups, self-section of the participants, reliance on self-reported data, applicability of the rating scales in populations not included in the original normative sample, and the effects of prior or current immersion in meditation and/or yoga practice. However, the study does indicate the utility of integrating mindfulness and positive psychology variables, such as character strengths, for increasing wellness in the general population.

Applications to Research and Practice in Disability

Character Strengths and Disability

There is a clear alignment between the movement toward assessing and intervening to promote character strengths in the field of positive psychology and the shift in the disability field from deficit-based models (Wehmeyer et al., 2008) to strengths-based approaches (Buntinx & Schalock, 2010). Strengths-based approaches emphasize understanding a person’s strengths, how to help people actualize strengths in their life, and what supports people need to utilize these strengths across contexts. Such an approach has the potential to enhance functioning and promote valued outcomes (Niemiec, Shogren, & Wehmeyer, 2017). Essentially, emerging models of disability emphasize the role of a strengths perspective that presumes competence and designs systems of supports that consider a person’s strengths, interests, preferences, and life goals in light of environmental demands (Buntinx, 2013).

Clearly, the science of character has much to contribute to this process. As deficit-based approaches dominate the field of disability and perceptions of people with disability, the need for strengths-based work is becoming increasingly apparent. The contribution of a “common language” of character strengths within all human beings provides an optimal starting point for people with disability and their parents, teachers, counselors, and support people; it offers a framework for communication and understanding of what is best in a person with a disability, as well as avenues for application (Niemiec, Shogren, & Wehmeyer, 2017). Moreover, while the disability literature is increasingly using the term “strengths,” the meaning of “strengths” is yet clearly defined. There are many “types” of strengths human beings have, including hard-wired talents and abilities (e.g., logical/mathematical ability), skills and proficiencies that can be developed (e.g., anger-management skills), interests (e.g., engaging in sports, artwork, dance, music, and hobbies), external resources (e.g., having supportive family and friends, neighborhood and community support, having a good job), and strengths of character (Niemiec, 2014a). While the disability field most commonly uses “strengths” to refer to the categories of interests and resources, new attention is now being given to the core identity of the person with a disability; i.e., their character strengths (see Niemiec et al., 2017, for various practical examples). A small body of literature has begun to explore the application of character strength assessment and intervention strategies to children, youth, and adults with disabilities. For example, Shogren, Wehmeyer, Lang, and Niemiec (in press) explored the use of the VIA-Youth with adolescents with disabilities, finding that the tool could be used in this population in meaningful and reliable ways. Some students needed additional supports to understand items, and a guide to support educators, family members and other support persons was developed (Shogren, Wehmeyer, Forber-Pratt, & Palmer, 2015). This work highlighted the importance of further research focused on utilizing results from the VIA-Youth and exploring the use of interventions, such as using signature strengths, strengths spotting, and Aware-Apply-Explore, as students with disabilities tended to score lower in their ratings of their character strengths than students without disabilities, highlighting, perhaps, less experience and exposure with the identification and use of character strengths.

Another assessment tool that was developed to examine character strengths is the Assessment Scale for Positive Character Traits—Developmental Disabilities (ASPeCT-DD; Woodard, 2009). This tool was developed to enable teachers, parents, and support providers to provide information on their perceptions of character strengths in people with disabilities who are unable to provide a self-report on character strengths on a tool like the VIA-IS or VIA-Youth. It assesses overlapping character strengths with the VIA Youth Survey, but was developed prior to this framework. It specifically looks at 10 character strengths identified through early reviews of the positive psychology literature. The ASPeCT-DD has shown strong psychometrics, and it can be used to identify and build on strengths in this population using input from others.

While interventions like using signature strengths, strengths spotting, and the Aware-Explore-Apply model have not systematically been examined in people with disabilities, there is no reason that such strategies could not be used. Further research is needed that examines the application of such interventions across contexts and needed supports and modifications. There is also overlap between these interventions and other interventions in the disability field, such as interventions to promote self-determination that target goal-setting (Shogren, Wehmeyer, Palmer, Rifenbark, & Little, 2015; Wehmeyer et al., 2012).

Researchers have examined character strengths’ over- and under-use in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). For example, Samson and Antonelli (2013) found, in a study of 33 people with ASD, that humor tended to be an under-used strength, with an average ranking of 16th out of 24, whereas in a matched group of people without ASD, it was 8th of 24. By using this information, specific interventions can be utilized to enhance the use of these strengths. For example, the intervention of identifying three funny things each day to enhance one’s awareness of and use of humor can be used to promote positive outcomes (Gander et al., 2013). A study of adults with autism without an intellectual disability found similar results; the adults were highest in judgment/critical thinking, creativity, and love of learning, all intellectual strengths, compared to a control group who was high in more emotional and interpersonal strengths such as humor, love, kindness, and fairness (Kirchner, Ruch, & Dziobek, 2016).

For adolescents with disabilities, there are also natural alignments between character strengths assessment and intervention and the requirements specified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); specifically, the requirement for children with disabilities aged 16 and over that transition planning take into account the “child’s strengths, preferences, and interests.” More broadly, in the context of education planning and developing individuals education programs (IEPs), a focus on strengths is required. Tools that can meaningfully identify strengths, such as the VIA, can play a useful role in providing concrete data on signature strengths and areas to target for intervention. This is also the case for adults with disabilities: when planning for systems of supports, a character strengths focus is needed that includes assessment tools providing guidance in useful interventions, and supports that build on strengths linked to positive quality of life outcomes. Overall, there are multiple areas in which there is potential alignment of assessment and intervention derived from the science of character and supports planning for people with disabilities. However, more work is needed to develop strategies to individualize interventions for people with disabilities, as well as align character strengths interventions with other areas, such as promoting mindfulness, described in the next section.

Mindfulness and Disability

There has been little systematic research on mindfulness in the context of disability, although several small studies have investigated aspects of mindfulness in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The main focus of this research has been on self-regulation, a character strength that is also a core component of mindfulness. Mindfulness, as a form of mental training, enhances the ability to consciously and effectively regulate one’s response to changing situational circumstances. Self-regulation is a critical character strength, because daily social interactions present situations that can result in either positive or negative outcomes for the participants, depending on how well they regulate their emotions.

In one series of studies, adolescents and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were taught the meditation on the soles of the feet (SoF) procedure to self-regulate their emotions when faced with situations that aroused their feelings of anger and, occasionally, verbal and physical aggression (Singh & Jackman, 2017). The SoF procedure is based on the components of Samatha (tranquillity) meditation—attention, awareness, and remembrance—for rapid self-regulation of emotional arousal. The individual pays attention to the situational context, becomes aware of the rising anger, and remembers to neutralize it by consciously redirecting attention away from the emotionally arousing situation to a neutral place, the soles of the feet. Self-regulation increases with practice until the individual is able to automatically engage in it as the occasion demands.

People with disabilities have used the SoF procedure in other contexts as well, and adjunctively with other procedures. For example, adult offenders with intellectual disability were assessed under three intervention conditions for self-regulating their deviant sexual arousal: behavioral self-control, SoF, and Mindful Observations of Thoughts (Singh et al., 2011a). The behavioral self-control was least successful when compared to the two mindfulness-based procedures, and most successful with the Mindful Observation of Thoughts procedure. Adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome have used the SoF procedure adjunctively in a multi-component mindfulness-based health and wellness program to effectively self-regulate their insatiable appetite due to a genetic disorder (Singh et al., 2011b). These adolescents were able to change their lifestyles and reduce their body mass index to within normal limits, even in the presence of their biologically driven eating disorder. Adults with intellectual disability with mild impairments can learn to self-regulate their smoking addiction by engaging in a mindfulness-based smoking cessation program, one component of which is the SoF procedure (Singh et al., 2014a).

People with mental illness can also use mindfulness-based procedures to self-regulate their anger and aggression. For example, individuals with long-standing anger management problems can effectively use two mindfulness meditations to self-regulate their rising anger (Singh et al., 2014b). The first meditation—shenpa—teaches them to recognize how their mind almost automatically and instantaneously reacts to some internal or external stimulus that hooks them into a negative emotion. Shenpa mindfulness practice enables the individuals to intuit this reaction without attachment or anger. This is followed by the practice of “compassionate abiding” that helps them effectively deal with the emotionally arousing feelings that may follow shenpa.

While this body of work suggests that mindfulness can be used to enhance self-regulation in people with disabilities, there is little mindfulness research that is focused on the other 23 character strengths that could enhance their social and spiritual well-being. Furthermore, there is a dearth of research with people across the broad spectrum of disabilities whose strengths can be enhanced through mindfulness-based procedures coupled with character strengths interventions.

Future Directions: Mindfulness and Character Strengths for Disability

The explicit integration of these constructs for people with intellectual and developmental disability has not been studied. While both mindfulness and character strengths separately have revealed initial benefits for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, programmatic research is needed to explore the synergies with this population. It is hypothesized that an abridged and adapted form of MBSP (Niemiec, 2014a) could be merged with the best of the existing research on mindfulness for people with disability (e.g., meditation on the soles of the feet; Singh et al., 2006). The integration would involve concrete mindfulness meditations such as those focused on the body, movement, and eating to foster awareness, calmness, curiosity, and focus. This mindful focus would set the stage for activities involving strengths-spotting in oneself and others, the exploration of signature strengths, and the use of signature strengths for important application areas such as finding a job, succeeding at a job, relationship-building, medication management, engagement in the community, and independent living skills.

Additional integration of these areas could be adjusted for parents, teachers, and caregivers who support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In this context, the integration of programs such as MBSP with mindfulness-based positive behavior support (MBPBS) offer a promising avenue for delivering the best findings across relevant constructs.

Conclusion

There are obvious linkages between mindfulness and character strengths. For example, research suggests that the character strength of self-regulation is one of the postulated mechanisms of mindfulness. When people are more mindful, they appear to be more curious and able to see more possibilities in life. Curiosity is a character strength that fosters openness and acceptance, and when it is linked to mindfulness, it is likely that this acceptance could increasingly be nonjudgmental. There is some research that suggests individual character strengths may be correlated with increased mindfulness, but, at best, these are speculations in search of hard data for such correlations. It is perhaps intuitive that character strengths would enhance mindful living, but whether they can do so without mindfulness meditation practice, or if character strengths interventions provides kindling for cognitive mindfulness remains to be investigated. There is some suggestion that mindfulness itself may enhance character strengths because a mindful person pays more attention and has increased awareness in the present moment, and this may enhance one’s social interactions, the experience of relationships, compassion, loving-kindness, and joy. Niemiec (2014a) has provided the initial theoretical and experiential bases for integrating mindfulness and character strengths, but much remains to be achieved, including additional focus on including people with disabilities in ongoing research on mindfulness and character strengths.

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