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.