A Research Paper By Flo Cheever, Personal Relationships and Life Mastery Coach, UNITED STATES
Martin Seligman’s “The Father of Positive Psychology”
I first came upon Positive Psychology in a University psychology class in 2010. The whole focus on the benefits of positive affect on life rang true. I admired the work of Martin Seligman, “the Father of Positive Psychology” and his focus on building positives, rather than focusing on psychopathology. His extensive work at the University of Pennsylvania showed how depression or pessimistic behaviors can be created and intensified through circumstances and triggers as a kind of learned helplessness. The factors that influence these cognitive processes are valuable in understanding human behavior. Behavior can also be modified, which is the correlation between the science of Positive Psychology and transformation in the field of Coaching. The most fascinating and powerful aspect I noted about Dr. Seligman’s work was the individual’s ability to change, grow, and take control of their behavior and future. It gives hope to a person who has pessimistic ideation and offers a proven path and set of tools to strengthen their positive abilities. This data, available to Coaches, is valuable in understanding how positive psychology can provide leverage for change and strengthen their clients as the Coach partners with the Client to open awareness, challenge disempowering perspectives, and embraces positive practices to build well-being.
Positive Psychology is relatively new as a field unto itself. We can gain an appreciation of the process of acquiring data and confirmation of successful techniques as we observe the history of Positive Psychology. In much of the early review of the positive psychology movement, researchers and commentators wrote that it was merely focused on the positive, and more studies were necessary to find if Positive Psychology did indeed merit a designation of a “field” of psychology and have any credence. It was early in the practice of Positive Psychology when Michael J. Lambert and David M. Erekson critiqued in their 2008 research article, “The positive psychology movement with its emphasis on giving preference to positive emotions seems misguided in a clinical context.”1 Early critic of the Positive Psychology movement acknowledged studies and data derived but called for this viewpoint to be fully integrated into the field of Psychology, as Alex M. Wood and Nicholas Tarrier declared, “we do not suggest the study of positive functioning as a separate field of clinical psychology, but rather that clinical psychology itself changes to become a more integrative discipline.”2 Though Positive Psychology was slow to gain recognition as a separate field of psychology, Seligman and others continued their research and gathered data that shows the value of Positive Psychology in improving life.
In Seligman’s early studies, he found that lab animals (dogs) who were exposed to electric shock without an avenue of escape would remain in their enclosure even after an exit was presented. The psychologists involved in that research found that the subjects were immersed in a state of “learned helplessness”—no matter what they did it was futile and they had no control over their condition. They had developed such a level of hopelessness that it became their mindset and their behavior was passive.3 In the field of psychotherapy, this level of depression in humans would require clinical therapy, rather than coaching methodology but there is value and understanding in the data acquired here that is applicable in Coaching. Our vocation as coaches does not direct nor consult but we can use this scientific knowledge in addition to our awareness of the information we discern in the coaching session in uncovering underlying beliefs and build new awareness or Hope. According to Seligman, the “key to this process” of overcoming failure is Hope. 4
In Martin Seligman’s early work on Positive Psychology, as discussed in his book “Learned Optimism,” his studies showed that subjects who were prone to lower scores in optimism assessment, less success, and more problems in health, relationships, and career, had a set of values and perspectives that were “personal, pervasive, and permanent.” 5 These traits caused the subjects that trailed behind in success to view events they encountered with a pessimistic eye. The “personal” view festers with the thought that the situation was targeting them, it was a direct affront, something that happened to them with a negative purpose, or “they” are the factor that lacks the ability to achieve success. The “pervasive” perspective is an “all or nothing view.” If this project failed, all projects would fail. There is no use in trying, there is no bright side. The “permanence” view causes declining aspiration for achievement, in that “this always happens to me, I will never be able to overcome negative outcomes, that is just the way my life is.” When a person realizes that these are just cognitive dialogues, they can change their outlook; they can change their behaviors; they can change their future.
As coaches, we partner with our clients to discover themselves, what are their drivers? What are their underlying beliefs? What are their fears, perceptions, and assumptions? Part of the Coaching structure is to work toward the Client’s desired goal and uncover the measure of success that confirms that achievement. This movement is created by increasing awareness, and challenging old disempowering beliefs and behaviors. Applying Positive Psychology data and techniques, Coaches can recognize areas that weaken the client’s resolve, create barriers to successful achievement, or obscure goals that build well-being.
As the field of Positive Psychology developed, Dr. Seligman studied the aspects of Happiness following the path of life satisfaction. He later revised that avenue as he shared in his book, Flourish, concluding that happiness in and of itself was not the end game of well-being. Seligman’s research in positive psychology has developed the Well-Being Theory, which measures Positive emotion, Engagement, Meaning, Positive Relationships, and Accomplishment–PERMA. The measure of these factors provides strong predictors for success in academics, career, relationships, suicide, and life satisfaction.6
“Positive emotion, joy, happiness, security, appreciation, is still a cornerstone of the Well-Being theory…. but no longer the goal of Seligman’s body of work. The revised goal is to “increase flourishing by increasing positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment—PERMA.” Engagement involves seeking and experiencing subjective well-being variables, e.g., comfort, pleasure, ecstasy, and warmth. Positive emotion and Engagement are sought after for their own sake, unlike the deeper significance of the remaining measures.7 Relationships are a part of well-being, most situations of well-being occur in a relationship, rather than when a person is solitary.8 Meaning is also subjective; it is beyond the “self” and stands the test of enduring value over time. What gives meaning to our lives enriches our lives to a higher level. Achievement of goals can be measured by factors of self-discipline and determination that can predict success.9
The Use of PERMA in Coaching
Positive Emotions – As Coaches, we can raise awareness of PERMA with our clients by exploring their emotions. Helping our clients to acknowledge or find their way to experience positive emotions, heightens gratitude, confidence, and a sense of well-being.
Engagement – The coaching session can explore the client’s behavior and how they engage with their world. What are their interests, strengths, and undeveloped talents? What holds them back, challenges them? As coaches shining the light on a client’s strengths can encourage them and help them become aware of new strategies to use those proficiencies. Helping the client to see a potential strength that they can take steps to develop builds their scope and range of Engagement with their world.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a co-founder of the field of positive psychology. Best known for his concept of “Flow,” he worked with Martin Seligman, who described Flow as using our highest strengths to meet our challenges and he also equates it with “Engagement” in the Well-Being formula, PERMA.10 In the field of Coaching this application could be extremely valuable and transformative when we assist our clients to identify their strengths and design ways to partner these attributes with challenges and thereby experience Flow. Considering some of the examples that Dr. Seligman used in his presentations, I identified some similar experiences in my life. One example is when I was assigned to be a chorister for a children’s organization. I had great anxiety every week as I led them in singing and taught them a list of songs for an upcoming presentation. Singing in front of an audience was my greatest concern and dread, as that is definitely not one of my talents. In preparing the teaching materials for the children to learn several new songs, I found that it drew out my passion for visual arts. The assignment became an art project for me, drew out my strengths, and put me at ease. I truly felt the experience of being in “Flow” and how it transformed a dreaded experience into a positive, successful achievement.
Relationship – A Coach‘s role in partnering with their client is one important Relationship that enhances the Client’s well-being. It fosters a safe, secure environment that builds their positive perspective, and explores how they engage with their world. The coaching session can help the client to strengthen the Client’s other relationships. PERMA measures show that healthy relationships are an important factor in an individual’s well-being. Good relationships foster happiness, security, safety, better health, and longevity.
Meaning – As the Coach works with the Client, finding what is meaningful to them is a pathway to deeper shifts in the client’s awareness, and builds purpose into their action plan. Feeling value in our actions, service to others, and involvement in something “bigger than ourselves” has been shown to give deep satisfaction, relieve depression, and increase the well-being–of the individual and those associated.
Achievement – The “goal” is an integral part of the coaching session. The PERMA factor, ‘Achievement,” is found to be part of the human drive. We want to accomplish our goals, make improvements, solve problems, and leave a legacy. Achievement gives a sense of well-being that transcends happiness or comfort. As coaches, we can add great satisfaction to our clients’ lives and provide a key role as we partner with them to dig deeper into establishing and accomplishing more meaningful goals. We help our clients to find attachment to the motivators driving their goals, visualize what needs to happen to accomplish their objective, design a strong support structure for their plan, and make them aware of their own accountability. Building on this PERMA factor will build well-being in our clients.
The scope of positive psychology can have a broad effect and contribution to the individual, relationships, organizations, and indeed, the world. This is evidenced in Seligman’s work with education, his work as President of the American Psychologists’ Association, his worldwide collaboration, e.g., the Happiness & Its Causes, ICC Sydney, 2012, and the mandate for 1.1 million U.S. Army personnel to receive his Resilience Training program, having great success in suicide prevention and increasing well-being. 10
Seligman’s website, www.authentichappiness.org, offers a wealth of resources for continuing education, information, and testing. It offers a strengths test as a free public service: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires/brief-strengths-test. In Seligman’s book, Flourish, he tells of a transformative case study of a young woman who had been abused from infancy to adulthood, in “every possible way.” Her concept of identity was very negative and hopeless, her self-assessment was described as “pond scum.” Dr. Seligman gave the young woman an assignment to take his strength test and write about her attributes. She came back to her next session with two pages of hand-written notes and a broad smile that he had rarely seen. Dr. Seligman cried the entire time he read her new realizations of “who she is at her core,” what she has been endowed with and has to offer, and the steps she is willing to take to develop her strengths.11 Positive perspective is powerful. As coaches, we can help clients to uncover their abilities, assets, and successes, partner with them to utilize their growing awareness, and celebrate with them as they experience greater well-being
In the Coaching field, we can take this knowledge forward in our powerful questions to awaken the awareness of our clients to their Optimistic or Pessimistic perspectives. Changing the inner dialog from Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent to a confident, self-acknowledging, capable assessment empowers them as they transform and accomplish their goals. Helping clients acknowledge their strengths, the wisdom of their strategies, and build upon the Well-being markers, PERMA, will enhance their success and life satisfaction. According to the data and the evidence of large organizations and governments implementing these programs, we can join the movement and build well-being among our clients. We can understand the science behind the transformation.
“Positive Psychology and the Humanistic Tradition.” Original Research Article Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, Michael J. Lambert, David M. Erekson. Volume 18, Issue 2, June 2008, Pages 222-232
“Positive Clinical Psychology: A new vision and strategy for integrated research and practice.” Alex M. Wood and Nicholas Tarriera.
Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., p. 23.
Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., p. 76.
Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., p. 128
Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman, p. 12
Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman, p. 16-18
Martin Seligman Flourishing - a new understanding of wellbeing' at Happiness & Its Causes 2012
Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman, p. 16-18
Martin Seligman 'Flourishing - a new understanding of wellbeing' at Happiness & Its Causes 2012
Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman, p. 36-37
Flourish with Martin Seligman,” Jul 21, 2011.
Posted with Coaching Model (R.I.S.E.) October 6, 2022
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