What is Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice?

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Among the more established mindfulness-based approaches that I have previously discussed, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), I have recently come across Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP). The novelty of this practice could explain why I only came across it a couple of weeks ago, but it captured my attention straight away. But what is MBSP? How does it differ from the more established mindfulness-based interventions? And what are its strengths?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has many definitions, but can be described as a willingness to be open to whatever unfolds in the present moment, and a compassionate curiosity that is free from judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Two key components have been identified as cornerstones of mindfulness: 1) the ability to regulate or control one’s attention, and 2) an orientation to one’s experience that is open, accepting, and curious (Bishop et al., 2004). Thus, at the core of mindfulness are (at least) two character strengths – self-regulation and curiosity (Niemiec, 2014).

What are character strengths?

Character strengths are the human capacities for “thinking, feeling, volition, and behaving”. They are viewed as the pathways to the great virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), as well as the basic building blocks of the goodness that is at the core of who we are. Already, the notion of character strengths and virtues makes us think of positive psychology, and this is the school of psychology from which they stem. We all possess these character strengths to various degrees, and strengthening them comes less from the purpose of fixing something, and more from the purpose of enhancing our (natural) health and wellbeing.

In its essence, strengths practice shares many similarities with mindfulness practice, at least in its original state. The goal of both is to enhance what is good, and not necessarily to prevent or cure something bad. There may even be a reciprocal relationship between the two, with mindful attention enhancing character strengths, and character strengths enhancing mindful attention (Niemiec, 2014; Niemiec et al., 2012). It is this natural symbiosis that led to the creation of Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP).

What makes MBSP different?

MBSP is an eight-week programme that integrates mindfulness and character strengths practice through meditation, exercises, and group discussions.

Although in Buddhist traditions, mindfulness was practiced through meditation, aimed at enhancing human life, modern mindfulness-based therapies, such as MBSR and MBCT, use mindfulness in order to solve a problem. In the case of MBSR, the problem targeted is stress, pain management or anxiety. In the case of MBCT, the problem targeted is depression. In the case of MB-EAT, the problem targeted is disordered eating. In these therapies, mindfulness is a solution – a way to balance out the negative. And this is probably the biggest difference between these traditional approaches to modern mindfulness-based treatment and the relatively new MBSP, which focuses on the positive.

The second difference of MBSP is the focus on strengths to emphasise mindfulness, and vice versa. MBSP courses typically include an equal amount of focus on mindfulness and character strengths, and there are two main ways mindfulness and character strengths seem to interact. Firstly, mindfulness is likely to encourage individuals to realise their strengths and to be able to focus on the good in themselves, rather than on the problematic thoughts that may come and go. Likewise, strengths practice is likely to encourage individuals to pursue mindfulness even when it seems difficult, or when they experience strong emotions as a result of their meditation practice. Secondly, mindfulness may help individuals to focus on their problems directly, while character strengths in turn help offer different (positive) perspectives that were not previously apparent (Niemiec & Lissing, 2016). In this sense, the relationship between mindfulness and character strengths is both reciprocal and complementary.

What are the “strengths” of MBSP?

More research is needed to examine the benefits and effectiveness of MBSP, in terms of its proposed aims of improving participants’ engagement with life, life meaning, relationships, coping, and well-being. At present, MBSP is offered as an online course and is therefore accessible to a wide audience. Additionally, although little is currently known about this practice, its emphasis on positive psychology and character strengths in combination with mindfulness may provide a novel approach for enhancing our mental health and wellbeing.

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