The Well-Being Theory is a construct of five elements Seligman summarizes with the acronym PERMA. This stands for Positive emotion (happiness and life satisfaction), Engagement (flow or being in the zone), Positive relationships (others), Meaning (belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self), and Achievement/ Accomplishment. His research shows that in order to experience positive mental health, one must not only be free of mental illness, one must cultivate positive emotions. He asserts that to enjoy full flourishing, a person needs to have positive experiences in all five of these areas. As professionals charged with helping people to be their best selves, we can implement a variety of proven measurements, exercises, and interventions so that flourishing can be achieved.
According to Carol Kauffman, founder of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School, the purpose of positive psychology is
to develop sound theories of optimal functioning and to find empirically supported ways to improve the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people.[iii]
Robert Biswas-Diener, a positive psychologist and mentor coach, published his take on the field and its direct application to coaching in Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching. He describes four key points about positive psychology:
1) “Positive psychology looks at what is right with people, focuses on when people are at their best, and attends to individual and group flourishing.
2) …Positive psychologists recognize negative emotions, failure, problems, and other unpleasantries as natural and important aspects of life.
3) Positive psychology is, first and foremost, a science…concerned with evidence, measurement, and testing…[and] that research results will lead to the creation of real-world interventions that will improve school, businesses, governments, and other aspect of individual and social life.
4) Interventions…are, by and large, positive interventions…where the focus is not on alleviating pain or restoring a person to normal functioning…but rather, on promoting superior functioning.”[iv]
The Intersection of Positive Psychology and Coaching
How do the fields of positive psychology and coaching intersect? Ilona Boniwell, PhD of the University of East London offers her concise explanation of their complementary roles by saying, “Positive psychology is the science of human functioning, well being, achieving human potential, and coaching is implementing this knowledge.” In other words, as coaches we can use the proven science behind positive psychology to choose the tools by which we can help our clients discover what is most important to them, realize their potential, and flourish. Boniwell takes her cue from Seligman, who also sees positive psychology as the underpinning of coaching and coaching as the vehicle by which positive psychology can be disseminated.
In contrast Biswas-Diener sees the practice of positive psychology as a sub-specialty for coaches. Much like an executive coach who has experience and training in the corporate world, or a health and wellness coach who often brings specific knowledge of nutrition, physiology, or medicine to their practice, a positive psychology coach should receive specific training in the modalities of the science.
Kauffman sees positive psychology’s usefulness in dispelling the therapeutic approach that some coaches — especially those coming from a psychology background – fall into. Both fields look at their client’s strengths and their vision of the future as opposed to examining their weakness, pathology and pain. This focus on the positive helps the professional to lay aside the tendency to diagnose and treat. In her words, they follow “the trail of dreams” instead of the trail of tears, by
shifting their attention from what causes and drives pain to what energizes and pulls people forward.[v]
Science – The Backbone of Coaching
Seligman asserts, and most others agree, “Coaching is in search of a backbone.” As a relatively new and unregulated profession, its credibility is often questioned. We all know that anyone can call him or herself a coach and charge money for their services. The authors surveyed for this paper agree that positive psychology can provide the scientific and theoretical foundation for coaching. Its evidence-based findings surrounding the promotion of well-being, happiness, and personal success give credence to a field that is described by some as more of an art than a science. In her article, Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching, Kauffman expresses the popular belief that ‘positive psychology provides a robust theoretical and empirical base for the artful practice of life and executive coaching.”[vi] She goes on to say that psychology began the 20th century developing tools to measure human pathology. Our current century is seeing the development of
assessment tools, interventions, research methods to study strengths and virtues.
Just as psychologists have devoted their careers to diagnosing mental illness, the new wave of practitioners of positive psychology are measuring
strengths, hope, optimism, and love reliably. Studies show them to be effective with sustainable impact.[vii]
Taming and Transforming the Industry
As stated earlier, there is widespread agreement that the scope of coaching is too broad. In Flourish, Seligman writes, “There are now more than fifty thousand professionals in America making their living as coaches: life coaches, executive coaches, and personal coaches. I fear that coaching has run wild…one of our aims is to tame and transform coaching.”[viii] His proposed method is simply put, training. Seligman is the founder of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program (or MAPP), at the University of Pennsylvania. About 20 percent of MAPP students are coaches. Seligman does not propose a specialized cadre of professional psychologist as the only disseminators of positive psychology. Instead he believes those with adequate training in coaching techniques (not necessarily credentialed), the theories of positive psychology, and the tools of measurement and intervention, as well as the knowledge of when to refer a client who they are not adequately trained to help, “will be…bona fide disseminators of positive psychology.”[ix] These parameters help to define the boundaries of the coaching profession, and practitioners will be more responsible, and better able to distinguish their work from related professions
such as clinical psychology, psychiatry, social work, and marriage and family counseling.[x]