An interview With Ryan M. Niemiec
What is your title/affiliation/professional role?
I’m Education Director of the global, nonprofit organization VIA Institute on Character. This is a leading organization in positive psychology that has a very clear mission: advance the science and practice of character strengths. That is the focal point of my work/role. Since 2009, I’ve been connecting with thought leaders, researchers, and leading practitioners in the science of positive psychology, learning what’s new and forthcoming, catalyzing research ideas, distilling science into best practices, and disseminating that research into applications for practitioners who work one-on-one with people, in groups, in teaching, in business/management, in healthcare, and in other settings. To this end, I write popular books in positive psychology for practitioners, educators, and academics (for example, Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners; Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing; and Positive Psychology at the Movies 2: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being), peer-reviewed/invited articles, and user-friendly (blog) articles. My role involves creating (and/or delivering) resources for people to learn about character strengths, such as through individualized professional reports on character strengths, videos, on-demand and live courses, keynote addresses and workshops, handouts, and other online materials. In short, sometimes I refer to myself as part-educator, part-practitioner, part-researcher, and part-writer.
Why did you join the Positive Psychology Section of the American Psychological Association (APA)?
An important element of my work involves keeping my finger on the pulse of what is new, forthcoming, and happening in the science and practice of positive psychology. This section offers a good opportunity to stay connected, meet innovative and thoughtful professionals, and presents an outlet for sharing new findings in strengths. I value the people I have connected with thus far in this section and welcome meeting new people interested in this work.
How did you become interested in positive psychology?
I’ve been interested in the science of positive psychology and well-being since I was a graduate student in clinical psychology in the late 1990s. Despite my clinical training, I knew there was much more to the human being than simply their deficits, weaknesses, and problems that they were wanting help with. My approach was to use a biopsychosocial-spiritual model to assess and treat clients. As the science of well-being unfolded, new assessments and interventions became available. I was inspired to delve deep into the positive psychology research and begin teaching and writing about these concepts, research findings, and best practices.
What are your counseling, teaching, research, and/or otherapplied interests related to positive psychology?
My work (and areas of interest) are all-things-character strengths. While the science of character strengths in fields such as business/organizations, education/schools, and coaching/counseling is doing quite well, other areas are thriving to a lesser degree, such as character strengths in health, parenting, sport/performance, spirituality/religion, and disability. Our work at the VIA Institute is to encourage good science – to really advance the knowledge and best practices of these strengths that are best in us – so that means to study, catalyze, and distill the practices in both popular and less popular areas. Luckily, progress is now being made on all of these aforementioned fronts. One could say I am interested in each of these areas and more! I have a special interest in the integration of character strengths with other phenomena such as "the sacred," flourishing, mindfulness, savoring, flow states, trance states, morality, positive relationships, achievement, and meaning/purpose.
In what specific ways do you apply positive psychology to your personal life?
It is paramount to practice what we preach. Related to that is the concept of applying new ideas/interventions personally before trying them out with clients. I try to take this approach with positive interventions and assessments of character strengths, positive emotions, mindfulness, and savoring.
I treasure using savoring practices with my children, taking "mindful pauses" throughout my work-days, and deploying my signature strengths at work and home. My three children are quite young (all 6 and under) and I enjoy writing about moments I have with them, in addition to the unique things they do and say; I refer to this as my savoring log.
My signature strengths are love, hope, curiosity, fairness, honesty, and appreciation of beauty; hence there are virtually limitless opportunities for expressing these in a mindful way during my day. Our core team at the VIA Institute on Character has regular "walk the talk" meetings in which we try out new character strengths activities, conduct Character Strengths 360 evaluations of one another, and share positive experiences and strengths we’ve been using throughout the week at work.
Because it is my job to live and breathe this work, I am able to cue myself regularly about these topics of character strengths, mindfulness, savoring, and so forth. This opens me up to the opportunity to use them more and in new ways. Of course, this is all done imperfectly!
This interview was originally published on the APA Division 17 website. Used with permission.