Character Strengths for Adults with ADHD: Integrating Interest with an Intention to Ignite Our Heart

ADHD Education

At the ADD Coach Academy (ADDCA), we have been referring to ADHD as a "challenge of interest" since the school's inception in 1998. Research has emerged to support that idea, including an important eight-year study released in September of 2009.

Dr. Nora Volkow, a renowned researcher and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, led a team that studied 53 adults with ADHD who had never been treated or medicated for the disorder. A control group consisted of 44 healthy people without ADHD. 

Over eight years, the team collected detailed brain images that showed how:

  • People with ADHD process the chemical dopamine differently than others
  • They display lower-than-normal levels of certain proteins essential for experiencing reward and motivation
  • They cannot generate the same degree of enthusiasm as other people for activities they don't automatically find appealing or interesting

Interest is defined as that which authentically engages your brain. ADHD is a deficit, or challenge, of interest.

Dr. Volkow's research revolutionized the way many people in the field thought about ADHD. But, many of us with ADHD already knew this last claim to be true; ADHD is not only a challenge of attention, but also a deficit of interest.

Understanding this interest-attention connection can help you better manage your attention and experience the forward momentum necessary to complete more tasks and assignments and, in the process, boost your self-esteem. When you know that interesting tasks will turn on your brain's engine, you can proactively shift your priorities, focusing first on those tasks that interest you, allowing you to later shift gears to tackle more challenging tasks.

However, interest is not enough for progress to occur. You also to need identify a purposeful intention, goal, or mission that provides your brain with a clear, positive pathway for your attention to be ignited by positive emotions of your heart. 

This will empower you to select realistic options that you can act on, which will also create forward momentum and, eventually, success.

The VIA character strengths are not only naturally imbued with interest; they also are a source of positive emotions and capacities, which are the core essence of who you are as a human being — regardless of your ADHD. Character strengths are inspiring, and have the ability to activate your brain so you can pursue important goals. They convey your authentic nature, and can establish a foundation for finding your sincere intention — a purpose full of passion.

For example, fairness, which is one of my signature character strengths, is intensely interesting to me and, therefore, automatically engages my attention. When someone is treated unfairly, it instantaneously recruits both my zest (character strength related to enthusiasm) and social intelligence (understanding what makes others “tick”), which accesses both my head and heart to convey an authentic, enthusiastic message which I believe is morally just. 

Put simply, the character strength of fairness instantly ignites strong emotions in my heart, which guide the balanced actions of social intelligence in my head, and guides an enthusiastic message of hope (an optimistic, realistic positive outcome).

When my entrepreneurial, executive and business owner clients with ADHD, focus on their top 5-7 signature strengths, they are consistently able to utilize their interest in activating their attention, and aligning it with an intention of what is best in them. It automatically triggers productive emotions in their heart, and cognitively aligns it with forward movement in their head to take specific, focused, productive action in many important areas of their lives.