What is Positive Psychology Coaching and how can it improve your life?
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology focusing upon positive psychological experiences. This includes the study of positive emotional experiences like Happiness, Joy, Compassion, Gratitude and Love. Positive Psychology is also interested in learning how we can manage our lives to enhance personal and social Wellbeing, creating a life that thrives and flourishes. Therefore, Positive psychology coaching is life coaching that emphasises building all of the above using the science of positive psychology.
Psychology and psychiatry have long been concerned with what can go wrong with us. The science of these fields has focused upon understanding our problems more – measuring and fixing things like anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Considerably less effort has focused upon what makes life good or even great. This scientific neglect of the positives of human experience was pointed out in 2000 by the two psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. They proposed a new area for psychological investigation for the new millennium. They wanted to direct the gaze of psychology to understand questions like “How can we be happier?”, “How can we learn to thrive and flourish in our lives?” and “How can we live the good life?”
The outcome of Seligman and Csikszentimalyi’s proposal has led to 20-year boom in understanding the science of Positive Psychology. A growing body of research has shown the specific techniques and strategies that can be employed to live happier, more fulfilling lives. In relation to life coaching, which has sometimes been criticised for not having a solid enough evidence base, Positive Psychology Coaching offers a robust academic basis upon which to allow coaching clients to genuinely thrive.
“Not just Happyology”
It goes without saying that it feels great when we are happy. However, quite early on in the development of Positive Psychology, researchers like Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson cautioned against Happiness as being the sole focus of the discipline. Fredrickson suggested that Happiness had too many broad connotations to be helpful in research. Seligman found that a life in pursuit of just a positive emotion like Happiness may limit other aspects of Wellbeing. For instance, eating a cream cake, drinking alcohol or doing a line of cocaine may make an individual feel happy for a while but are not the building blocks of positive Wellbeing over the longer term. Instead, Positive Psychology is interested in positive emotions and the aspects of our life that support accessing them, even when these aspects may not generate positive emotions at the time.
To understand this further we can consider one of the main distinctions in positive psychology: Hedonic and Eudaimonic Wellbeing. Hedonic Wellbeing refers to the feelings we experience directly from pleasurable experiences. Examples might be the buzz we get after competing in a race, the joy we get when we watch a loved one overcome a challenge or the sensory pleasure we experience in sex. Eudaimonic Wellbeing refers to the kinds of activities we engage in as part of a valued, virtuous life. Hedonic wellbeing experiences are typically short lived and episodic, while Eudaimonic wellbeing experiences are sustained over time. Positive Psychology coaches Lindsey G Oades and Jonathan Passmore suggest that Eudaimonic activities are like “our assets”, the foundations of our “cashflow” of Hedonic experience.
Applying the Hedonic and Eudaimonic distinctions to typical coaching objectives, we can consider the following illustrative examples:
You can see here that we want our client to engage with the positive emotional (hedonic) aspect as they develop that deeper meaning and connection (eudaimonic) with their desired coaching objectives.
Enhancing strengths in Positive Psychology coaching
Earlier, I mentioned Psychology’s historical focus upon psychological problems to the exclusion of positive factors. We have been drawn to the idea that we have to understand the deficits that underpin a problem to overcome it. Examples are all around us. When someone becomes disengaged from life, leading to perhaps problems in their relationships, hobbies or careers, we often look for what is wrong with them. Psychologists and psychiatrists may view the reason for their disengagement as being a deficit in serotonin, their attachment styles, negative thoughts or unhelpful behaviours. The belief that the solution to a psychological problem is to be found through understanding what is wrong with us is so embedded in our cultures that we often fail to question it. But what about the things that help us through the challenges of life? The attributes that not only get us through the adversities of life, but also enable us to grow above and beyond what we were before? What about our Strengths?
Positive Psychology coaching has a significant interest in understanding our strengths, precisely our Character Strengths. Character Strengths are the personal attributes that are positive, empowering and move us through the ups and downs of life in a meaningful, constructive way. The Values in Action (VIA) organisation identified 6 Virtues, consisting of 24 character strengths that, based upon research, contribute to positive psychological Wellbeing. Here’s their list:
List of VIA Character Strengths
For each of these Character strengths, there are a wealth of evidence-based techniques to enable you to develop each. Positive Psychology coaching will support you to identify your character strengths, put the stronger ones into action and develop the lesser ones. Imagine a life where we focus upon what strengths we are going to employ to deal with a challenge, rather than getting bogged down in where we are lacking. As we utilise Character strengths like Zest, self-regulation, Humour as Kindness as we progress towards our coaching goals, we move along with enthusiasm, motivation and vigour.
We’ve written more about Character Strengths here, and If you want to find out more about your own character strengths, then you can take the free questionnaire at VIA.org.
Overcoming your Negativity Bias
The Negativity Bias that runs through past psychological and psychiatric pursuits is echoed throughout humanity. In fact, there are reasons why we have evolved to pay more attention to things which are negative. Those of our ancestors who missed signs of predators, famine or extreme weather were less likely to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. As such, our ability to tend more to negative events is hardwired. To think, feel and act in more positive ways, we have to use techniques to overcome this bias.
Investigating the evolutionary basis for positive emotions, Positive Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that positive emotions led to increases in creativity, awareness and social connectedness. Based upon these experimental findings, she proposed the “Broaden and Build Theory”. The theory suggests that the cognitive effects of positive emotions lead individuals to engage in and explore the environment. In turn, this generates opportunities to experience new and potentially positive events, which leads to further positive emotion. In essence, we broaden our awareness and capacity to engage in our environment and then build upon the interaction.
In an evolutionary sense, we can suggest that positive emotions played an important role in our ancestors ability to evolve beyond mere surviving and into more complex realms of environmental interaction.
So, what does Broaden and Build mean for Positive Psychology Coaching?
Well, we can see here that just having access to positive emotional states heightens our awareness, creativity and ability to engage with our environment. Considering our coaching objective examples given earlier, (career development, parenting and improving performance), by simply increasing access to positive emotions we are improving the ability to think and engage with our objectives from a new perspective. Using interventions that boost positive emotion from the outset, we radically increase the momentum of a coaching experience.
Fredrickson further found that the key to Wellbeing was balancing negative events, thoughts, and experiences with positive ones at a ratio of 3:1. Three parts positive stuff, one part negative. Again, this idea makes sense for us when we consider our inherent bias towards negativity – we pay more attention to negative things which may pose a threat towards us, so to balance this out we need a greater ratio of positives. So, as part of your positive psychology coaching experience, you will be taught simple, but evidenced, interventions to boost your skills in using the positivity ratio.
Who is positive psychology coaching helpful for?
The evidence suggests that practically anyone who wants to improve their lives and overall Wellbeing can benefit from positive psychology coaching. Individuals often look for a coach for self-development, to reach a career, relationship, spiritual or health goal. Professionals and organisations in business often employ positive psychology coaches to maximise Wellbeing for individuals and teams, knowing that increased productivity and company engagement benefit throughout. Many studies also show how coaching using positive psychological interventions leads to improvements in self-esteem and performance in school, university and college students too.
Coaching is typically offered to non-clinical groups, that is people who do not have diagnosed clinical syndromes like depression, anxiety or trauma. However, clinical positive psychology, in which positive psychological techniques are used with clinical populations is also a rapidly developing field. However, our advice is that this goes beyond the remit of positive psychology coaching and should only really be provided by psychologists and psychotherapists with a background in clinical work (like us at Access CBT). If your coach is overstretching themselves into this area, then it may be harmful without appropriate supervision.
Interested in seeing what positive psychology coaching can do for you, your organisation or your business? Contact us today