So Positive Psychology brings together all the evidence on happiness, life satisfaction and well being; informing us about the characteristics and conditions that make a positive difference in people’s lives. Seligman’s most recent book ‘Flourish’ details the research based evidence and describes the learning and teaching that has evolved from this awareness. The whole focus of Positive Psychology is on empowering individuals and society to make changes so that they can increase their well being. I believe there are three major reasons for including aspects of Positive Psychology within the coaching process.
Positive Psychology Is Underpinned By Evidence.
Firstly, Positive Psychology is research based. The science behind it is robust and rigorous. This means that the findings that come from it are objective and reproducible. Since coaching is in itself a relatively new profession it does not have a large body of objective evidence to support its claims of bringing about change for its clients. The whole perspective of Positive Psychology is one of the individual’s potential for learning and development to enhance their lives. It could be said that Positive Psychology is the research based academic underpinning of coaching.
What Does This Mean For Coaching Practice?
Coaching can have a powerful impact on client’s lives. I know this from my own experience of being a client and from my work with clients. Alongside this knowledge is an awareness that as coaches we need to be able to demonstrate the evidence that we bring ‘added value’ to clients with our interventions. In addition we need to be able to show that this added value is sustained over time; that the work we do with clients makes a long-term difference to their lives and not just a feel good factor at the end of each session or the completed coaching relationship. Until this body of evidence exists alongside the evidence to support different types of interventions with clients; we need to ensure that we include evidence based intervention whenever we can within the coaching process. Positive Psychology is overflowing with evidence based techniques.
The ‘Set Point’ Of Positive Psychology.
The concept of ‘set point’ identified from Positive Psychology research is another very pertinent issue for coaching. ‘Set point’ is the normal level of happiness and satisfaction that each individual feels in relation to their lives. Research demonstrates that independent of what happens in people’s lives most people get used to most things. This applies to both good and bad things.
Many people believe that certain factors will make a substantial increase to their satisfaction with and happiness in life, the evidence show that it will for a while, then by 6 months (at the most) the individual will have returned to their ‘set point’ with no gain. So the achievement of whatever has been desired, while initially creating an increase in positive feelings, settles down through the passing of time. The message is that achievement of aspirations often doesn’t mean significant increase in happiness and fulfilment. Since many clients come to coaching with an aspiration for specific achievements, as coaches, we need to be aware that this may have limited long term impact on their lives.
Martin Seligman tells us that there are five factors that we need to attend to ensure well being in our lives and that working on these factors can permanently raise our ‘set point’. These are signalled in the letters PERMA and stand for: Positive Emotions; Engagement; Relationships; Meaning and Achievement.
- Positive emotions encompass emotions that make us feel good and connect us to others. While fear creates a response of flight or fight appropriate for a situation of danger, positive emotions allow us to reach out and connect with others in a loving and appreciative way so that we create an environment of expansion and creativity. There is evidence to suggest that positive emotions can undo negative emotions.
- Engagement is another way of describing being in a state of 'flow'; when one is unselfconsciously, completely immersed in a task that one feels challenged by and capable of achieving. In a state of flow one looses track of time and is involved in the activity because there is intrinsic reward.
- Relationships, positive ones that is, are fundamental to our well being. Positive relationships with friends, family, colleagues and community create an environment in which we can flourish. Of the five elements, this is the most important.
- Meaning is the result of feeling that our lives are significant in some way. It is not important how the meaning is achieved, just that it does give meaning to the person doing it.
- Achievement is the fifth factor that Seligman identified and his formula for this is: Achievement = Skill x Effort. Achievement was a later addition to Seligman's understanding of what helps people to flourish. As with 'meaning' the terms of the achievement are set intrinsically by individuals who will themselves judge as to whether they have achieved or not.
What Does This Mean For Coaching Practice?
This is an important finding for coaches and I believe that when we are working with clients who are aiming to improve their lives we need the keep the PERMA factors in mind. Clients enter coaching for a range of reasons and some with very specific visions and goals for themselves. As coaches we need to be aware if our client is focussing on the achievement of specific goals and believing that this will transform all aspects of their lives and that they will be happy for ever after as a result of this attainment. Such clients have a strong possibility of returning their ‘set point’ some months after achieving their goals. Sustained transformation requires clients to attend to all the PERMA areas.
Of course many coaches work very holistically with clients and may well intuitively cover all of these areas in their coaching work. It is still helpful to have awareness of these factors as a mental checklist to ensure that our clients are moving forward in a sustainable way. I also believe that it is important for clients to have this awareness themselves. It empowers them to make life choices that will enrich and satisfy them.
The third aspect of Positive Psychology which I believe is profoundly relevant to coaching is that of psychological resilience (resilience). Resilience is our capacity to deal with stress and adversity. If we are resilient we are able to deal with the challenges of life so that we stay flexible and find new ways forward despite difficult experiences. People who are resilient are said to ‘bounce back’ after traumatic and challenging events. We all need resilience since we all encounter situations in our lives that call on us to be able to move forward through adversity of some kind or another.
The research that has been carried out on resilience identifies seven skills that help to create resilience. These are grouped into two categories: ‘know thyself’ and ‘change’ skills. The ‘know thyself’ skills encompass: awareness that emotions and behaviour are dictated solely by how we interpret our events; thinking traps that narrow our understanding of the world and underlying beliefs that drive us without us realising. The ‘change’ skills compose of: challenging beliefs; putting in perspective; calming and focusing and changing counterproductive thoughts in the moment.
What Does This Mean For Coaching Practice?
Since coaching is often about sustaining our client through a process of change, resilience can play an important role in sustaining the clients energy and focus throughout this transition. This is particularly so if the goal the client is moving towards is a particularly challenging one to achieve; when the progress is slow and where there are substantial setbacks that have to be overcome. Resilience will also be an important resource to work on developing in our clients who may not able to achieved their goals. This is particularly so if the reasons for goal achievement are perceived to be out with the clients control.
While coaching encompasses many of the aspects identified in developing resilience, understanding resilience as a concept and coaching clients with the desire and insight to develop and increase resilience holds great power for the client’s future, both within the coaching relationship and after. Enabling the client to move forward in the face of adversity allows them to access the full potential of coaching.
Coaching is a young and vibrant profession. Anyone who has coached or been coached will testify to the power of coaching. Coaching taps into people’s potential and opens the way for them to move forward in a consciously constructive way. Since coaching is young the theory that supports it is also still in its infancy. It takes time, effort and substantial amounts of money to develop robust research which can generate theory grounded in evidence. Until the coaching profession has this research base on which to build, we owe it to our clients to use the understanding and insights from sources that is aligned to our philosophy. Positive Psychology fulfils this for coaching.
Positive Psychology offers a research base and identifies techniques and strategies that can easily be incorporated into coaching practice. These will help to develop fuller and more meaning full lives for our clients. Alongside the insights as to what gives people happier lives Positive Psychology teaches us what helps people to stay resilient through times of adversity. This adds an additional and profoundly powerful resource to our clients for their path forward in life.