God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
(Niebuhr, 1987, p. 251)
The Serenity Prayer is the common name for an originally untitled prayer, most commonly attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. This prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. There are three strengths mentioned in this prayer, two of which qualify as virtues as well. The VIA-IS Classification of Strengths acknowledges courage as a virtue with its subsequent strengths of bravery, persistence, honesty and zest. It also delineates wisdom and knowledge as a virtue with the subset of strengths that include: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning and wisdom or perspective. It would follow, then, that serenity (or tranquility/peacefulness) would qualify as the twenty-fifth strength.
What is Serenity?
Serenity is the state or quality of being serene, calm, or tranquil. The import of the historical use of this word is highlighted by its past usage. It has been used as a title of honor, respect, or reverence, used in speaking of or to certain members of royalty. Even more interesting in terms of character strengths is the second definition of serenity: calmness of mind; evenness of temper; undisturbed state; coolness; composure. Serenity gives us the ability to have ‘grace under pressure.’ It is this definition of evenness of temper that qualifies serenity to be the twenty-fifth strength.
Serenity and the Criteria for Strengths
Serenity (or tranquility/peacefulness) seems to follow the many different criteria that are true for character strengths (Peterson, 2006, p. 141-142). It is ubiquitous and fulfilling, it is morally valued and it does not diminish others. An antonym for serenity would be anxiety. It seems likely that serenity is also distinct, trait-like and measurable in nature. It might be a challenge to find a two-year old who is a prodigy in serenity, but I would guess that there are some lucky parents who have them. I could name a number of paragons of serenity including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. Likewise, there are some individuals where serenity is absent (Jim Kramer or Jim Carrey). And serenity is nurtured by societal norms and phrases (“calm down”, “the calm in the storm”).
Institutions that exist to promote serenity and/or peace are numerous and varied: i.e. the Nobel Peace Prize, UN Peacekeeping Forces, and the Japanese Peace Bell. Serenity may be seen as an internal characteristic – having serenity within oneself – whereas its synonym peace can also be defined as dealing with external forces. Serenity may then be more closely linked to the concept of inner peace. But Mahatma Gandhi‘s conception of peace was not as an end, but as a means: “There is no way to peace; peace is the way” (retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace, on March 6, 2009). There are other institutions that exist to foster serenity including mindfulness meditation, massage, Reiki and other healing arts.
In addition, it is possible to have too little and much of a good thing. As I mentioned above too little serenity is anxiety. While not all anxiety causes harm to others, it has been shown to occur in some forms of mental disturbances which cause stress to the person experiencing it. Too much serenity could lead to extreme passivity, apathy or inactivity. An image that comes to mind is the stereotypical California hippie who has smoked too much marijuana and “just wants to be, man.” In this case, our hippie friend isn’t harming anyone but he also isn’t doing himself much good. Also, serenity in the face of injustice would seem to be misplaced. So, context is an important factor in judging how much or how little serenity is needed in a certain situation.
When I looked at the circumplex of strengths (Peterson, 2006, p. 158) I realized that there was a gap in the quadrant that focuses on the self/heart which currently houses curiosity, hope and zest. As this is one of the lesser populated quadrants of the circumplex I began to think that the twenty-fifth strength would belong here. Serenity can lead to calmness of the mind, but it is not just cerebral in nature. And as discussed above, while its synonym of peacefulness can allude to interactions with others, serenity is self-focused. It also seems that serenity is quite distinct from curiosity, hope and zest. While these latter three strengths have a very strong outward-looking focus, the main tenet of serenity is calm within oneself. This calm can have a positive effect on others, but the strength is clearly internally focused.
I think it would not be difficult to test serenity. If I were to add it to the VIA-IS I might include statements like: Even when things are stressful, I keep my head about me; People tell me I have a calming effect on them; and I rarely get agitated or anxious. Despite these suggestions for testing, there needs to be further empirical examination to determine what will really test serenity. Serenity protects against excess stress and anxiety, and for that reason I would categorize it in the strengths of temperance. Like prudence and self-regulation, serenity is about controlling excess emotion and mental distress. Without a certain degree of serenity it would be difficult to get ourselves through a day or interact effectively with others.
Is Serenity Distinct from Other Strengths?
Serenity is not culture bound. While some cultures that have a strong focus on meditation or contemplation may be better at achieving serenity than others, it is not specific to a certain culture the way competition is specific to America or other western cultures. In addition, serenity is a component of other strengths, but it is not a complex blend of basic strengths. As a component of strengths we see serenity in a number of the 24 VIA strengths. It would be difficult to have wisdom without a modicum of serenity. Can you imagine someone constantly twirling their hair or incessantly tapping their toes trying to give you sage advice? It would make communicating their words quite difficult. The sister strengths in temperance all have an aspect of serenity to them. Self-regulation, prudence, humility and forgiveness all require an inward focus and sense of tranquility in order to be effective. In addition fairness, integrity and appreciation of beauty and excellence all have an aspect of serenity without completely overlapping with it.
Spirituality and serenity are also inextricably linked. Many images from religious tradition show figures in calm or serene poses even when put in extraordinarily stressful circumstances: i.e. Jesus on the cross and Buddha emaciated and meditating under a tree. There are numerous religious prayers for easing anxiety and promoting serenity as well:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? ….Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-30 King James Version)
While serenity may be an aspect and aid in the successfulness of these other strengths, its qualities are distinct. Freedom from worry aids in the ability to capitalize on all other strengths. If one is caught up in worry then one cannot utilize any of the other focused strengths because the focus will always be looking inward. Alternatively, for the self focused strengths, perseverance is the one that necessitates serenity the most. In fact, the only place where one could argue that serenity is a combination of other strengths is with perseverance. Perseverance could be seen as serenity combined with zest.
Searching for Serenity
If research is ‘me-search’ (Prof. Duckworth, in communication, October 25, 2008) then, in the interest of full disclosure, this paper is the search for the twenty-fifth strength that I frequently lack. When I was in graduate school ten years ago, I had an Alexander Technique teacher that told me I had “too many doors in my brain open.” She also likened me to a circus tent – calm on the outside but with many rings and activities going on underneath the big top. I took her observations to heart and while it took me a number of years to achieve success at closing a few of those doors in my brain I have discovered a number of ways to do that. The Alexander Technique and exercise were both somatic interventions that calmed my anxiety which frequently wreaked havoc in my personal and professional lives. I have also recently begun to meditate. While I am far from being Jon Kabat-Zinn, I have seen the positive repercussions in my ability to take on the stress of working and going to school and my ability to let go of the ‘things I cannot change’.
For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
(Retrieved at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer on March 7, 2009)
Positive psychology has long advocated that one can improve ones life circumstances. Seligman (2007) espouses the effectiveness of relaxation, meditation, psychoanalysis and cognitive therapies in the treatment of anxiety, which, along with depression and anger, he claims, can largely be controlled by disciplined effort. Ironically, one can work at achieving serenity so that you then have the ability to accept the things you cannot change.
Niebuhr, R. (1987). The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Perrault, C. (2007). Tales of mother goose. New York: LeClue.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). What you can change and what you can’t: The complete guide to successful self improvement. New York: Vintage Press.