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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022]

Sgt Frank Hudec

Sailors run on the flight deck of HMCS Winnipeg in the Gulf of Oman. Crewmembers of the frigate are required to maintain a high level of physical fitness and there are numerous facilities onboard for this purpose.

Dr. Lobna Chérif is a faculty member in the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership, and the Chair in Resilience, at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. She has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Laval University, is a Certified Positive Psychology Practitioner and Resiliency Trainer, and a Certified Professional Coach. Dr. Cherif has received multiple awards for her resilience work, including the RMC-Saint Jean’s Commandant Coin in 2019, and RMC Kingston’s 2021 MacArthur Leadership Award.

Dr. Valerie Wood has a Ph.D. in Social Psychology, and also completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship, from Queen’s University. Her research focused on adult romantic relationships, a critical component of resilience. She has received multiple awards, including a 3-year Tri-Council doctoral award, and the 2019 Colonel Russell Mann Military Family Health Research Award at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum. She is an Instructional Designer and Curriculum Developer at Queen’s University, lending her expertise in developing the Antifragile curriculum. She is also a 360 evaluation coach for the Royal Military College of Canada.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
~ Viktor E. Frankl

In the academic literature, resilience is typically defined as the ability to successfully bounce back from adversity, and to successfully adapt to the obstacles or difficult situations that life continuously presents. However, beyond resilience, is the concept of antifragility. According to Taleb (2012), “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Antifragility is about bouncing back better and stronger than before the experience of adversity. It is about thriving and growing when exposed to stressors, volatility, and uncertainty.

We propose one tool for promoting antifragility: the ability to create S.P.A.C.E., a five-step strategy that combines approaches from both character strengths and mindfulness practice which are inextricably linked with resilience and human flourishing. It is meant to prompt individuals to interrupt negative thought and emotional responses and instead leverage mindfulness practices and character strengths use.

Character strengths are the positive parts of our personality that impact how we think, feel, and behave, that are associated with human flourishing, and that contribute to “good life, for oneself and for others” (Niemiec, 2019; Peterson and Seligman 2004, p. 17). These 24 character strengths can be treated as continuous dimensions, which each of us possessing varying levels of each, and all of which are ubiquitously recognized and valued across cultures (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). These 24 strengths can be grouped into six larger virtues which reflect core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers (see Table 1 for more information). The first virtue is wisdom, which captures cognitive abilities such as the acquisition and use of knowledge for purposes of good, and includes the strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective. The second virtue is courage, reflecting one’s disposition to perform the right act in the face of external or internal opposition, despite resistance and a high risk of loss. Courage is comprised of the more specific strengths of bravery, perseverance, honesty, and zest. The third virtue is humanity, which reflects interpersonal strengths such as attending to and befriending others and taking part in acts of generosity and kindness that inspire others. Related character strengths include love, kindness, and social intelligence. The fourth virtue, justice, captures civic strengths that underlie healthy community life and accentuate a sense of fairness between people and their larger society. Character strengths included in this virtue are teamwork, fairness, and leadership. The fifth virtue is temperance, which consists of having control over excess and having the strengths that protect against it. This virtue is demonstrated through the character strengths of forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation. Finally, transcendence is the sixth virtue, which refers to the extent to which one reflects on life’s meaning, and that one is connected to the larger universe. Related character strengths are appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.

Virtue Strength Description
Wisdom Creativity Original & Adaptive, Clever, A problem solver, Sees and does things in different ways
Curiosity Interested, Explores new things, Open to new ideas
Judgement A critical thinker, Thinks things through, Open minded
Love of Learning Masters new skills & topics, Systematically adds to knowledge
Perspective Wise, Provides wise counsel, Takes the big picture view
Courage Bravery Shows valor, Doesn’t shrink from fear, Speaks up for what’s right
Perseverance Persistent, Industrious, Finishes what one starts
Honesty Authentic, Trustworthy, Sincere
Zest Enthusiastic, Energetic, Doesn’t do things half-heartedly
Humanity Love Warm and genuine, Values close relationships
Kindness Generous, Nurturing, Caring, Compassionate, Altruistic
Social Intelligence Aware of the motives and feelings of others, Knows what makes others tick
Justice Teamwork Team player, Socially responsible, Loyal
Fairness Just, Doesn’t let feelings bias decisions about others
Leadership Organizes group activities, Encourages a group to get things done
Forgiveness Merciful, Accepts others’ shortcomings, Gives people a second chance
Humility Modest, Lets one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
Prudence Careful, Cautious, Doesn’t take undue risk
Self-Regulation Self-controlled, Manages impulses and emotions
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence Feels awe & wonder in beauty, Inspired by goodness of others
Gratitude Thankful for the good, Expresses thanks, Feels blessed
Hope Optimistic, Future-minded
Humor Playful, Brings smiles to others, Lighthearted
Spirituality Searches for meaning, Feels a sense of purpose, Senses a relationship with the sacred

Credit: © Copyright 2004-2022, VIA Institute on Character. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Table 1: The VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues

According to Peterson and Seligman (2004), each person has a truly unique character profile, comprised of different degrees of each of these 24 strengths, and it is assumed that having knowledge about someone’s character strengths provides us with insight into their thoughts, beliefs, values, emotions, motivations, and behaviour. In fact, we each have a set of core strengths, called our signature strengths, that are well developed for which expressing them comes quite naturally to us. Some, on the other hand are our lesser strengths that are more dormant, that have not received much of our deliberate attention over the years. Just as we all have a unique set of signature strengths, and overall strengths profiles, the ways that we express our strengths varies. For example, love might be expressed through romantic gestures or thoughtful acts, compassionate listening, or devoting our time to loved ones. Humour can be expressed through joke telling, laughter and appreciation of others’ humour, witty banter, or goofy behaviour. However we express our strengths, they are an important part of our identity. Indeed, our signature strengths are thought to be essential to who we are, are effortless and natural to express, and we like we are living our authentic selves when expressing these strengths, which energize and uplifts us.

Research on Peterson and Seligman’s character strengths taxonomy has flourished in recent years, and largely shows that by tapping into our character strengths, we can experience enhanced subjective well being, resilience, organizational effectiveness, and interpersonal closeness or connectedness (e.g., Niemiec, 2013; Niemiec & Pearce, 2021 for overviews). Indeed, by leveraging our character strengths, we can experience improved life satisfaction, relationship quality, positive affectivity, and workplace productivity and job satisfaction. In times of crisis, character strengths as a foundation can aid in our efforts to cope with stress, can buffer against the ill effects of stress, and can have energizing effects when resources are low or depleted (e.g., Harzer and Ruch, 2015). Martinez-Marti and colleagues (2020) evaluated the relationships among scores on the 24 character strengths and resilience over a period of one month during the COVID-19 pandemic (between March and May of 2020). These authors found the presence of five strengths factors (so strengths that tended to ‘hang together’ to meaningfully predict outcomes) which included fortitudegoodnessintellectualinterpersonal, and restraint. They found that all strengths factors predicted later resilience, and that fortitude strengths (spirituality, bravery, persistence, hope, leadership, and vitality) were the most predictive of later resilience during the pandemic.

However, what makes character strengths useful in times of duress? In 2018, Niemiec outlined the six functions by which character strengths help us to thrive in the face of adversity. They include prompting and preparing us for strengths awareness and use, mindfulness, appreciation such that strengths use expresses value or meaning for what has occurred, buffering or preventing problems from arising, reappraisal of negative events, and helping us to bounce back from stressors (resilience).

Thus, mindfulness seems to be one such mechanism that explains how character strengths supports resilience. Indeed, mindfulness is strongly correlated with resilience, well-being, and workplace performance (e.g., Lomas et al., 2017) and consists of these two core mechanisms: a) the self-regulation of attention and b) adopting the mindsets of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. These components of mindfulness complement the VIA strengths taxonomy well, specifically aligning with at least character strengths (namely, self-regulation and curiosity). Indeed, there has been much resilience on the association between character strengths and mindfulness. For example, Hendriks and colleagues (2021) studied the relationship between character strengths and meditation in a group of practitioners of Sahaja Yoga and found that the practitioners (compared with non-meditators) were higher in spirituality, forgiveness, gratitude, self-regulation, teamwork, appreciation of beauty and excellence, and hope. Similarly, Pang and Ruch (2019b) investigated the association between mindfulness and character strengths and found that they mutually impact one another and that when used as practices (mindfulness-based strengths practice) this relationship strengthens. They found that meditators were higher in the following strengths than non-meditators: spirituality, gratitude, appreciation of beauty, love of learning, and curiosity. The study also found that the character strengths most highly correlated with mindfulness include hope, bravery, curiosity, social intelligence, and zest. Thus, many strengths appear to be meaningfully related to mindfulness.

For this reason, we thought that these two approaches, mindfulness, and character strengths, can intersect in a meaningful way to enhance our antifragility. The steps of S.P.A.C.E are as follows.

Credit: Cherif & Wood 2022

Figure 1: S.P.A.C.E. icon outlining the five steps for building antifragility

Click to enlarge image
  1. Stop. Mindfully give yourself the mental space it needs to move forward. Pay attention to the present moment, and nothing else. This is an important component of mindfulness, in directing our attention and engaging our executive control networks (e.g., Sumantry & Stewart, 2021).
  2. Practice tactical breathing. Tactical or purposeful breathing helps to activate the rest-digest neurobiological system that calms us, decreases the stress response, and allows our bodies to recover. Breathing is so simple, but it’s immediate, and effective. It helps us to check, and manage, negative emotions and even has long term health benefits (Röttger et al., 2021). The four steps of tactical breathing include the following. Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four. Then, hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four. Finally, hold for a count of four. This sequence should be repeated 3-5 times, visualizing each number as you count.
  3. Acknowledge thoughts and emotions: Acknowledging both any emotions felt, and our perspective about a situation, gives us the opportunity to identify maladaptive responses, and then adapt and revise. Ask yourself, what am I thinking and how am I feeling? Do any thoughts reflect fact or opinion? Are these thoughts and emotions adaptive for me, or maladaptive? Researchers have known for some time that the simple act of putting feelings into words helps us to manage our negative emotional experiences like sadness, anxiety, and fear. However, Lieberman and colleagues (2007) have explained why this is the case (the mechanism). Using neuroimaging techniques (brain scanning), they found that labelling our emotions (compared to other forms of emotional processing or encoding) helped to decrease responses in the amygdala and other limbic regions when viewing negative emotional images. These regions play key roles in the subjective experience, and expression, of emotions (see Rolls, 2015). Affect labeling also was associated with more activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). This area of the brain is linked with regulation of emotions. Altogether, these findings tell us that encountering situations that elicit negative emotions feels less bad when we actively label the emotions that we experience. 
  4. Call on your character strengths: Remember, much of what you need, is already within you. Which of your character strengths can you tap into at this moment to help you navigate this situation? Call up a strength that you have chosen before that has worked or call up one of your signature strengths. Ask yourself what your role is in this situation, and how you can fulfill this role more fully (e.g., “How can I be the best co-worker/mom/brother/friend in this situation?”). By reflecting on and reminding ourselves of the current context, ways to use our strengths become more relevant, more context-specific. This allows us to think of specific strategies to use our strengths rather than simply priming the idea of these strengths. Our strengths expression becomes more easily actionable and role and context-appropriate (adapted from Niemiec, 2018).
  5. Empower yourself. Take the reins, identify what you can control, and keep an objective, goal-oriented mindset. Focus on what you can do (and not what you can’t), and how you can make the best of the situation. Express your thoughts and feelings eloquently, unapologetically, and respectfully. Indeed, feeling a sense of control, confidence, and optimism in our ability to manage our stressors is important for building and maintaining our resilience (e.g., Schwarzer & Warner, 2012).

We believe that through these five steps, individuals can lengthen that space between stimulus and response, an ability afforded to humans specifically. As a result, we will be better equipped to manage difficult and uncomfortable emotions, and grow from personal challenges. While the mindfulness-related components of this tool help us to remain calm and refocused in situations of challenge and stress, the component focusing on leverage our character strengths allows us to truly flourish and experience continued growth following adversity.

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