The field of Positive Psychology focuses entirely on what makes people flourish and lead fulfilling lives. Over the past decades, an abundance of research has been carried out to this effect. This is exciting for coaches as they can use the insights and tools for measurement and intervention within their coaching practice to help clients use their skills and potential.
A brief description of Positive Psychology and its history will be provided below, followed by a more in-depth exploration of the Positive Psychology coaching model and its significance to the coaching industry. A selection of tools derived from the research will be addressed and shown how these may be relevant to coaches in order to help clients reach their potential.
Positive Psychology Defined
For a long time, the field of psychology predominantly focused on psychopathology, or in other words: what is wrong with people. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, a model that is based on a self-development point of view which underpinned his assumption that people are basically healthy, resourceful and motivated to grow.
In the late nineties, Psychologist Martin Seligman took this idea further and instigated an extensive research framework to understand and predict human behaviour that leads to a fulfilling life. This became known as Positive Psychology. A now established and popular area of psychology, its focus is on what makes human beings prosper and lead happy and healthy lives.
Positive Psychology and Coaching
Coaching models differ in their views on how coaching should be performed. In an article published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, three dimensions of coaching were distinguished: directive versus nondirective, personal developmental versus goal focused and therapeutic versus performance driven coaching. Coaching models differ as to where they stand on each of the three dimensions.
Through Positive Psychology coaching, a coach takes into account the wider context of a client’s life and this style of coaching can be generally viewed as a directive, fostering a therapeutic setting and focusing on self-development. This view is acknowledged by Kauffmann, founder of the Institute of Coaching. She points out that the focus is on general life satisfaction. Goal setting is not always as highly tangible or concrete as other coaching approaches may be.
Tools for Positive Psychology Coaching
An important feature of Positive Psychology coaching is its use of measurements and interventions in coaching sessions, derived from psychological research. Researchers like Diener and Seligman have developed ways of measuring levels of well-being, life satisfaction and hope amongst others. A number of the tools available to coaches are described below.
Positive emotions have been found to influence a wide range of physiological and psychological behaviour. They help increase a person’s immune system, reduce stress responses, lower cholesterol and predict longevity. A small increase in positive emotions can help shift a person from tunnel vision to a wider focus and perspective, fostering creativity and flexibility.
Coaches can use these research findings by priming a client’s positive emotions to generate better solutions to life challenges. Keeping a gratitude journal can help a client shift the balance to a more positive state.
Raising happiness set point
Measured over a longer period of time, it is possible for people to increase their general happiness level. Research has shown that a small increase in positive emotion can lead to a significant change in the way people flourish. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi researched conditions that generate happiness and found that the experience of ‘flow’, where people are fully immersed in what they are doing, raises people’s happiness level.
This research can help coaches in a number of ways. By reframing life events and increasing positive emotions, a coach can help the client to raise their set point. Coaches can also help identify conditions where the client is likely to enter a state of flow. This involves looking at clients’ skills, motivation and sense of control or using mindfulness exercises to help access the present.
Hope plays an important role in people’s well-being. It increases health, personal effectiveness, emotional self-regulation and the ability to deal with life’s challenges. Without hope, a person will not be able to generate solutions or alternatives to problems and will not be motivated to make changes.
Coaches can help clients develop hope by using the SMART approach in order to set specific and realistic goals and by focusing on past successes. Positive affirmations and visualisation techniques have also been found to increase a person’s sense of what they can achieve.
An important tool in Positive Psychology to help people flourish is tapping into a person’s strengths. Bringing one’s strengths to a task or challenge can lead to an increase in motivation, performance and satisfaction.
A number of strength assessments have been created and researched and coaches can use these to get a more detailed profile of their client. Examples of these are Seligman’s ‘Values in Action’ questionnaire or the ‘strengthsfinder’ measure by Buckingham & Clifton. They can help understand what inspires and motivates the client and identify areas where the performance will most likely occur.
Positive Psychology is now a well-established field within psychology and focuses on people’s happiness, strengths and potential. At the same time, it promotes a realistic expectation of how people can flourish. Coaches can use this by helping clients shift from ruminating on problems to understanding where their skills lie and to uncover the areas that matter to them. With this information, the coach can work with the coachee to develop realistic and attainable goals. Due to the research that has been carried out, coaches can use a number of tools to enhance their client’s well being and quality of life. Gratitude journals, enhancing a state of flow, visualisation techniques and strength measurements are some of the techniques available to coaches.
However, it is important to note that the field of Positive Psychology is still evolving and further research is needed to test earlier findings. New evidence may overturn previous research findings so it is important for coaches to remain flexible and open-minded to other ideas and approaches to coaching.
- Biswas-Diener, Robert & Dean, Ben (2009) Positive Psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work for Your Clients. (1st ed.) New York: Wiley & Sons.
- Buckingham, Marcus & Clifton, Donald (2001) Now, Discover Your Strengths. (19th ed.) New York: The Free Press.