by Ryan M. Niemiec

Picture this: Two, tall trees growing side by side as they branch out toward the limitless sky. With solid trunks that twist around each other, each tree has an extensive root system spreading several yards long and wide. Some of their roots intertwine and begin to depend on one another as they nourish one another, becoming one and the same; other roots go their separate ways, extending deeper and deeper. The trees are of similar height and are so close to one another that their branches interconnect. As time goes on, the branches from each tree weave in and around one another. This occurs so seamlessly that when the passerby gazes up at the trees, their tops have become one.

Mindfulness and character strengths are like these two great trees, separate but connected, independent yet interconnected, synergistic and mutually supportive. Their expression in the world is often viewed as though they are unique entities, yet there is a potential in each person to bring them together in a harmonious way that benefits oneself and others.

Each has a deep root system; some roots are shared and others distinct. Those who practice mindfulness and character strengths taste a unique fruit that positively impacts their health and well-being, and brings great benefit to those around them.

The process of this integration occurs both automatically as well as within our conscious control. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the emphasis is on changing the content of thoughts and, in interpersonal therapy, the emphasis is on understanding and finding new ways to relate to others; however, in mindfulness practices, the focus is on changing the relationship one has to one’s thoughts, body, and feelings. This is understood through the underlying mechanisms of mindfulness, which involve cognitive defusion (a term used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) or decentering (a term used in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), which refer to seeing thoughts as mental events passing through the mind rather than paying attention to the content of the thoughts. In addition, mindfulness involves taking a compassionate, gentle, and accepting approach toward one’s mind and body. This offers a new way of relating to oneself.

The integration of mindfulness with strengths practice allows for the individual to become more aware of not only negative/troubling thoughts and feelings but also to become more aware of positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP) offers a wide, biopsychosocial, whole-person focus in which all mental events and experiences are important rather than solely aspects of the self that are troubled. The mindful focus on one’s strengths, or active recall of one’s strengths, along with sustained attention in one’s moment-to-moment experiences, activates cognitive processes (e.g., reappraisals and metacognition) that help individuals accept negative experiences more adaptively. In this way, MBSP potentially aligns with all aspects of ourselves (positive and negative) coherently and meaningfully in our life narratives.

Put simply, mindfulness opens a door of awareness to who we are and character strengths are what is behind the door, since character strengths are who we are at our core. Mindfulness opens the door to potential self-improvement and growth while character strengths use is often the growth itself.

This post is excerpted from Ryan’s book Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing.

Find out about WBI’s Mindfulness and Character Strengths in Coaching, with Ryan Niemiec and Donna Mayerson, an eight-week course that runs from January 23 through March 17, 2017, with live classes held each Wednesday from 12:00 to 1:30 pm ET.

Ryan M. Niemiec PsyD, education director of the VIA Institute on Character, develops VIA’s courses, reports, and programs, and helps professionals around the world apply character strengths personally and professionally. He is the author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing (with 10-track CD) and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies and Mental Illness. Ryan is an award-winning psychologist, certified health coach, international workshop leader, and faculty member for Xavier University in Cincinnati and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP), the first structured program for building character strengths, and an adapted MBSP for a track on the web/app-based platform Happify, called “Awaken Your Potential.”