Research Paper By Rebecca Johnson
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Positive psychology is a relatively new – yet proven – practice in the field of psychology. When it is applied to coaching, it can add a sense of authenticity to a field that has not yet been entirely embraced or understood by the community. This research essay will review just how positive psychology is implemented into the practice of coaching.
The first section of this research essay will define coaching, what a coach does, and how the practice of coaching originated. Following that, this essay will review positive psychology, how it originated, and how positive psychology is different from traditional theories of psychology.
The second section of this research essay will discuss the benefits of utilizing positive psychology principles within the coaching relationship. This essay will show how positive psychology gives coaches a sound theoretical background based on solid research. Also explained will be how this theory enhances resilience and increases goal attainment and a sense of well-being. Later, this essay will explore the areas where this theory is being practiced, such as life coaching, schools, and even mental health facilities.
In the third section, this essay will discuss the limitations of practicing positive psychology principles in a coaching setting. Factors such as necessary research, applicability, and the need for trained professionals will be examined. Finally, this essay will end discussing the implications of future research as it pertains to the use of positive psychology in coaching.
What is coaching? Experts in the field suggest that coaches are professionals who help their clients get from where they are in their work, life, relationships, etc (Collins, 2009; Williams & Menendez, 2007). to where they want to be in those areas. A coach does not serve as an expert in the area that the client may be working on (Collins, 2009). The coach, on the other hand, does serve as an expert in supporting the client in determining their individual goals so that he or she can reach them. Linley, Woolston, and Biswas-Diener (2009) suggest that coaching is focused on solution and assumes that individuals have the natural tendencies to advance into their full potential when appropriately supported.
A coach helps their clients to determine the goals that they have for themselves (Collins, 2009). There are a myriad of ways that a coach can go about assisting the client with this discovery. The coach may have the client take assessments to determine strengths and weaknesses. The coach may also talk with the client using certain techniques, questions, and statements to learn more about the client and his or her goals, motivations, and skills. The coach then supports the client with finding ways to maximize their potential utilizing the skills that they have uncovered. In maximizing their potential, the coach assists the client in setting and reaching their goals in a planned and intentional manner.
Origins of Coaching
Coaching, at least talking about the professional aspect of coaching, is a relatively new phenomenon (Williams & Menendez, 2007). Prior to 1990, coaching existed primarily in the executive world of professionals. Organizations during this time brought in coaches to help the executive leaders learn how to better manage their time, resources, and employees. The goal was often to help that organization move beyond its current position in the corporate world. Since that time, professional coaching has grown to areas that are indistinct – such as finding happiness within one’s life – to areas that are more specific – such as organizing a scrapbook collection.
The underlying principles of coaching developed from a conglomerate of psychological theories (Williams & Menendez, 2007). Early pioneers in the field of coaching were typically trained psychologists or other professionals in the world of psychological health. These experts incorporated techniques learned during their training and experience as psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, and other similar career backgrounds. Utilizing theories developed by early social scientists such as Freud, Jung, Maslow, and Rogers, these professionals committed to providing a service that truly benefitted their clients.
So where is professional coaching truly being utilized in today’s society? Currently, there are three basic, broad-ranging umbrellas which coaching falls under: life coaching, executive coaching, and business or corporate coaching (Collins, 2009; Dunbar, 2010; Williams & Menendez, 2007). Life coaching is a fairly generic term used to describe any kind of individual coaching. In life coaching, the coach works with the clients to determine their personal goals and work towards realizing those goals. The niche areas of life coaching is highly varied, ranging from home organization to transition coaching, to marriage and divorce coaching. Executive coaching is much like life coaching in that it revolves around the individual’s goals, however, executive coaching focuses on the individual’s goals within the business environment. Similar to executive coaching, business coaching focuses within the business world, but instead also focuses on the goals of the business itself. While the field may be varied, clearly, there are many commonalities within the different areas of coaching.
Positive Psychology Defined
Positive psychology is a broad field that utilizes a variety of techniques to help a person realize and develop positive aspects about their life and their selves (Harvard Medical School, 2008). Positive psychology can be described as the study of why people “excel, achieve and flourish” (Crabb, 2011, p. 27). According to many positive psychologists, the purpose of this practice is to help people find happiness (Harvard University, 2005). While some might think that happiness is a vague term that cannot be properly evaluated, many theorists believe that it can in fact be measured using different qualifying factors than typical in the psychological discipline.
Some experts believe that positive feelings factor around a natural, inherent set-point much like a person’s weight (Harvard University, 2005). By this theory, no matter how happy a person were to become at any given moment, that person would eventually gravitate back to their natural level of happiness. Positive psychologists assert, however, that while that may be true, people can in fact learn how to increase their natural level of happiness by utilizing the different techniques of positive psychology. One of the keys to this, suggest experts in positive psychology, is developing greater “mindfulness” (p. 4). Mindfulness is when a person can focus and become completely aware of the thoughts they are having and how those thoughts are impacting the way they are feeling about the present, past, or future.
Origins of Positive Psychology
The term positive psychology is relatively new to the discipline. Positive psychology can be described as “a strength-based psychology, founded on the assumption that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives” (Madden, Green & Grant, 2011, p. 71). An expert in the field of psychology recalls his early memories of graduate school, longing to help people find happiness and enjoyment in their lives (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007). It was not long after becoming a professional that he realized the focus of most psychologically-based interactions were less about finding happiness and more about healing pain.
It was not until the late 1990’s that the term positive psychology was shaped and set in history as a practicing discipline in the world of psychological health (Crabb, 2011). Seligman was one of the primary founders of positive psychology, and he saw that the current focus of psychological arena was the discovery of what was wrong with the attempt to heal what was broken (Madden et al., 2011). Seligman believed that when people could discover and improve upon their natural, inborn strengths, those people could realize a greater level of happiness and life satisfaction than they had ever thought possible (Crabb, 2011).
Positive Psychology Compared to Traditional Theories
Many might wonder how positive psychology is so different from traditional, more widely used principles of psychology. While the roots of this set of principles is based upon the same principles utilized in client-centered therapy, as well as many of the other theories, the application of the principles makes it very much unique (Harvard Medical School, 2008). One observer took notice of the fact that in his textbook utilized by psychologists and psychiatrists alike, there were nearly a million lines of text about different pathologies. He observed the repeated teachings about anxiety, depression, fear, guilt, and all of the other pathologies. He learned in great detail about the negative side of the human experience – yet there was very little about what people were actually longing for: hope, joy, love, or compassion.
The focus of positive psychology, as clearly stated in its name, is the brighter side of life. While it has proven useful in a variety of areas, experts also stress the importance of knowing that positive psychology does not and should not replace the more traditional methods of psychological healthcare (Harvard Medical School, 2008). These experts stress that positive psychology can “complement rather than replace traditional psychotherapy” (p. 1). If one realizes their strengths, however as experts suggest, they may be able to make the changes necessary to better overcome the emotional suffering that has merited the need for therapy (Linley et al., 2009).
Benefits of Utilizing Positive Psychology Principles in Coaching
Professional coaches pull from a number of resources to help their clients reach their goals (Williams & Menendez, 2007). Many of the techniques they utilize in their practices can be no more effective or research-based than the clients themselves reading a self-help book (Seligman, 2007). Today, the field of coaching is not regulated by any official governing board, therefore, there are a great deal of variances as to the quality of services offered by different coaches. Experts believe that when a professional coach implements a sound theory such as positive psychology into their practice, the services they offer can then be founded on principles that are proven highly effective when properly implemented.
This section will give a brief overview of the different benefits of implementing positive psychology into one’s coaching practice. Some of the benefits of this are outwardly focused as in the fact that positive psychology methods have been shown to be scientifically effective. Other benefits that will be reviewed are more client-focused, such as increasing one’s goal-attainment and feelings of well-being.
In a field that has been inundated by people with a range of skills from those who lack any professional training to former practicing psychologists, it is important that there be some sort of proven method by which these professionals operate (Seligman, 2007). Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and a practicing psychologist, discussed this very issue. Positive psychology is founded on proven research and empirical studies. Because it utilizes psychometrically established measurements to gauge the efficacy of certain techniques, Seligman believes that it is a great foundation for coaches to operate from.
Seligman (2007) trusts that those who are not licensed in the field can properly implement positive psychology techniques; therefore, he suggests that coaches can properly implement the theories regardless of what professional background they have. By basing their practice and techniques on the principles of positive psychology, coaches will be solidly grounded in a proven methodology.
Traditional psychotherapy methods focus on pathological states such as depression, anxiety, anger, etc. (Crabb, 2011; Harvard Medical School, 2008; Grant & Cavanaugh, 2007). This is a highly complex area that requires many years of education, training, and supervision to be able to work effectively with patients. Positive psychology on the other hand, does not focus on the dysfunction of the human condition (Crabb, 2011). Positive psychology focuses on why people do well in their lives. Positive psychology examines significance, positive emotion, and active engagement (Seligman, 2007).
Seligman (2007) believes that if a coach is properly trained to understand the dynamics of positive psychology and if they maintain their focus on the areas represented in the practice, it will provide a sort of boundary that will prevent them from attempting to work with a population that requires more training. Positive psychology can be increasingly beneficial when used as a supplement to traditional methods (Harvard Medical School, 2008), and coaches trained in the principles of positive psychology must know when the client needs to be referred to someone else – someone who is trained to work with pathologies (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007).
Increased Goal Attainment
Multiple studies have shown that when positive psychology principles are applied to the coaching practice, a person is better able to reach their goals (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007; Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009; Linley et al., 2009). One might think that this would be relatively simple to explain because if someone has another person helping them to reach the goals that they wanted for themselves, they would naturally be more likely to reach those goals. This may be true. However, in a study conducted on individuals who had external goals imposed on them, the individuals were still more likely to reach those goals with a coach (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009).
In this study, researchers gave employees of a company seven company-oriented goals to choose from (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009). The employees were coached using applied positive psychology techniques. At the end of the study, the employees were more likely to have reached their goals after they were coached than before they were coached. The utilization of positive psychology coaching in this study helped a company’s employees reach goals they had been trying to meet for over three years in a matter of weeks.
Another important outcome of utilizing positive psychology principles within a coaching relationship is enhanced resilience. Studies have shown that when a person is working with a coach trained in these methods, that person is better able to work through the challenges that they may face as they strive toward their goals (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007; Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009). This may be due to having someone help them see the positive benefits of their hard work. Having been coached under the umbrella of positive psychology principles, clients were more likely to overcome issues that typically would have hindered their progress towards their goals. Some of the issues that were overcome include negative self-talk, staying focused on long-term goals, and self-defeating behaviors (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009).
Alongside the many other benefits of utilizing proven positive psychology methods in one’s coaching practice, is the advantage of increasing one’s sense of well-being. Several studies show that individuals being coached with positive psychology principles exhibit a greater sense of well-being (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007; Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009; Madden et al., 2011). Participants in these studies have shown an increase in self-confidence and self-acceptance. This may be due to factors such as a person having reached goals that they have longed for or feeling valuable to an organization following the coaching sessions.
Impact on Stress and Depression
Another area that studies have shown can benefit from the use of positive psychology principles in coaching is a person’s level of stress or depression. While a coach utilizing true positive psychology methods should not approach the relationship with a goal of eliminating pathological conditions such as stress or depression, it appears that these conditions may benefit indirectly from positive psychology coaching (Grant & Cavanah, 2007). There are conflicting studies regarding this impact, however, so more research is needed (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009).
Benefits of Utilizing Positive Psychology Principles in Coaching Settings
Professional coaches work in a variety of areas within society. This section will review how positive psychology techniques are being used in some of the most common of these areas. One might expect that positive psychology principles would be beneficial in life coaching or executive coaching, but one might be surprised to learn that these principles are also being applied in a broad range of medical fields as well.
Examining the world of life coaching, Seligman (2007) reveals how preposterous some of the scopes of practice are today. He discusses the seemingly borderless confines of life coaching: scrapbook preparation, inspiring a volleyball team, becoming more assertive, and fighting dark thought processes. Seligman then goes on to explain the realization that there are as many techniques utilized in coaching as there are areas being coached.
When positive psychology is implemented into the field of life coaching, it adds a theoretical base that has been proven in empirical studies (Seligman, 2007). In a field that is not regulated by any truly credentialed force, positive psychology techniques have given professionals guidelines and solid methods from which to ethically practice. Seligman claims that professionals do not need to have a deep education in psychology to become knowledgeable in the area of positive psychology. He says that with proper training, a life coach can become completely adept at practicing the principles laid forth in positive psychology and that these principles will enhance the credibility of the coach.
The principles of positive psychology are also being implemented in executive coaching as well. Crabb (2011) shows how executive coaching is being utilized with employees. The study that Crabb presents examined how coaching with positive psychology principles promoted employee engagement in the workplace. This study focused on determining and supporting the areas where individual employees had innate strengths.
In another study presented by Linley et al. (2009), researchers looked at the impact of coaching utilizing positive psychology principles with leaders in the corporate world. This study showed that managers who used a strength-based approach with their employees helped to improve employee performance by 36.4 percent. On the other hand, managers who focused primarily on the employees’ weaknesses actually helped to decrease their employees’ performance by 26.8 percent.
Crabb (2011) recognizes that it would be idealistic at best to believe that anyone could operate entirely from a strengths-only approach. Understanding that there will be times when employees must work in areas that do not fall into a category of strength for them, Crabb suggests that fully knowing one’s strengths can better prepare them for dealing with their weaknesses. When coaching is applied using positive psychology principles in an executive environment, it not only benefits the individual being coached, but Crabb suggests that it benefits the company as well.
Mental Health Facilities
One surprising area that positive psychology principles are being used under the guise of coaching is in mental health services (Oades, Crowe, & Nguyen, 2009). By standard uses of positive psychology coaching, one would not apply these techniques to those suffering from mental illnesses, but this study did just that. Oades et al. feel that the standard practices of the mental health system has in fact managed to make those suffering from mental illnesses continue to suffer even longer. They suggest that by diagnosing patients, professionals are in fact putting them in a mindset that is set upon living out that diagnosis. For example, a patient diagnosed with depression would not be able to fully heal from depression, but would be doomed to living a life under the control of depression. The best hope the patient would have would be to somehow learn to function at a somewhat normal level with the depression.
Oades et al. (2009) do not question the validity of the medical conditions described, but offers a different insight as to how the leaders in the medical facilities treat the patients with the conditions. These researchers reject the idea that positive psychology coaching principles cannot be used in clinical environments. When these principles are applied to both the professionals in the mental health facility and the patients (alongside clinical care), the staff shows an increased level of satisfaction and the patients show greater overall improvement. Oades et al. attribute this to the normalizing effect that positive psychology principles have on those coaching and being coached (2009).
Madden et al. (2011) conducted a study that evaluated coaching utilizing positive psychology principles with male students in primary school. During this study, researchers discovered that the methods implemented helped to promote the students’ strengths and encourage them in setting goals. The researchers understand the importance of problem-focused methodologies to education when trying to reduce challenge areas. Madden et al. suggest that the solution-oriented approach of coaching offers students a better opportunity to learn how to fully function and reach their potential in productive lives as adults.
Research has shown the direct benefits of utilizing positive psychology principles in coaching high school students (Grant et al., 2009; Madden et al., 2011). Some of these benefits include an increased attention, better mood, more holistic thinking, and more appropriate behavior. Students were also recorded to have greater creativity and thinking skills. Grant et al. (2009) also noted the tendencies of students to have a greater resilience after experiencing coaching.
Another unexpected area utilizing positive psychology within a coaching setting is with patients suffering from aphasia. Researchers attempt to define how coaching utilizing positive psychology principles can in fact increase the quality of life of patients following a stroke (Worrall, Brown, Cruice, Davidson, Hersh, Howe, & Sherratt, 2010).
Worrall et al. (2010) suggest that because coaching involves learning to successfully live with the life one has and uses positive principles, aphasia patients can in fact learn how to gradually fit into their new lifestyle. This would go against traditional behaviors to succumb to a life of depression that is a shadow of what their life once was. These researchers suggest that when these coaching methods are applied, aphasia patients can find joy in their new lives despite the circumstances they may be in.
Limitations of Positive Psychology Principles in Coaching
As with any other applied theory, there are limitations as to the reach of positive psychology principles being utilized with coaching clients. First of all, there seems to be a lack of solid research in the field. This may be in part because both positive psychology and coaching are relatively new phenomena. The research studies that were available were very short term – some lasting only a couple of weeks while others lasted as long as six months. There were no readily available longitudinal studies that implemented positive psychology principles into a coaching practice.
Another limitation in applying this theory is that the principles of positive psychology are not always applicable. While this research essay cited two separate clinical uses within a mental health facility and with patients suffering from aphasia, the evidence is still thin as to the long-term applicability of this theory inside those and other clinical arenas. The use of these somewhat simple principles could gloss over genuinely harmful situations if applied inappropriately. For this reason, it is important that whoever does use the principles of positive psychology in a coaching environment, that they understand psychological pathologies and are prepared to refer when necessary.
This brings about another challenge to implementing positive psychology principles in the coaching environment: there simply are not enough fully trained individuals to do so appropriately. One study suggests that only 14% of coaches have any formal training in psychology (Grant & Cavanah, 2007). Because of this factor, coaches may not be fully prepared to implement positive psychology into their practice, and those that would like to do so may not have access to the training necessary.
Coaching, being a relatively new profession, is still not completely understood by the entire community. Some might fear that it is in some way trying to imitate psychotherapy without having any credentials to do so. Others might see it as no more scientifically relevant than the thousands of self-help books on the shelves at the bookstore. This limitation could be quickly overcome, but it is more likely to have to take its course. As more research is developed and more professionals stand up sound practices, the field will likely gain greater understanding in the community as a whole, and thus the acceptance of the majority.
Implication On Future Research
Clearly, there needs to be more research in the area of applied positive psychology in coaching. Not only will this research help to qualify the profession as sound and valuable, but also it could help to scrutinize the various practices. This analyzing would benefit the field so that the practices that are not effective are eliminated while the ones that are helpful to the community can be developed even further.
Due to the nature of the way coaching is utilized, it may prove difficult to properly conduct research in the field. Coaching is typically one on one with clients who are mentally stable and generally doing well in their lives. Most, if not all, of the psychometrically sound tests gauge for mental instability. Because an individual is generally mentally stable upon their entrance into coaching, they are likely to still be mentally stable upon their completion. What might be better measured is their level of satisfaction within certain areas of their lives. Therein lies another problem. The individual going into coaching may not actually be dissatisfied with their life, so that would be another difficult assessment for change. In order for proper research to be conducted regarding the efficacy of different coaching techniques, different tests and standards of measurement may have to be developed.
Utilizing positive psychology principles in a coaching setting might add an increased level of authenticity to the relationship. Because the field is new, coaches must be cautious when implementing theory into their practice and should never perform techniques in which they are not fully trained. Realizing the possible benefits of using positive psychology, coaches who are willing to implement the theory into their practice should become fully trained and be willing to conduct solid research to perfect the proficiency of the field.
As the use of positive psychology principles in coaching expands to areas that may have previously been thought impractical – such as within mental health facilities or with patients suffering from aphasia – it will be interesting to learn the indirect benefits of the application. As quoted in the letter by Harvard Medical School, “After all, there are few risks involved when someone discovers his or her strengths or focuses on the positive side of life – and there may be added benefits” (2008, p. 3). Only time will tell how far reaching coaching will be when the principles of positive psychology are applied.
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