There are a variety of definitions for positive psychology. According to the University of Pennsylvania, “positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” The International Association of Positive Psychology states that positive psychology “focuses on the study and practice of the positive emotions, strengths, and virtues that make individuals and institutions thrive.”
What is positive psychology?
Deana Murphy, Ph.D., states in her article “Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact, Performance and Help You Flourish in Work and Life,” that positive psychology is, ”the scientific study of what makes life most worth living—optimal functioning, performance, and wellbeing. It aims to build the best things in life and crystallizes the concepts of total well-being including happiness, engagement, grit, meaning, unique strengths and virtues, relationships, resilience, and optimism. In doing so, it explores the positive skills, experiences, characteristics, and practices that enable individuals, institutions, and communities to excel and flourish” At its core, positive psychology focuses on
Strengths (not weaknesses)
Opportunities (not setbacks)
Thriving and what it takes to thrive
Being the best possible version of yourself
5 factors of positive psychology: the PERMA model
Martin Seligman, an individual considered to be the founder of the positive psychology movement, outlined “five components that people pursue because they are intrinsically motivating and they contribute to wellbeing” now called the PERMA Model (Madeson, 2017). The PERMA Model stands for:
P: positive emotion
In a lecture published by ThinkersInResidnece, Dr. Martin Seligman makes a powerful statement:
“I want to make sure you don’t mistake positive psychology for the smiley face… it’s very important that you know that cheerfulness is normally distributed in the human population. And the second thing to know is that cheerfulness is strongly genetically based, it’s about 50% inheritable.” - Dr. Martin Seligman
So while positive emotion (cheerfulness) is a part of positive psychology, it is not a forced emotion of happiness overly pushed on clients or others. It is not the placement of a smiley face sticker over challenges or failures. Instead, Dr. Seligman explains that by using positive psychology, the level of positive emotions in others can be raised relative to their starting point per individual (Seligman, 2012).
Engagement is closely related to the concept of “flow” or “the loss of self-consciousness and complete absorption in an activity… living in the present moment and focusing entirely on the task at hand” (Madeson, 2017). Dr. Seligman explains that this is a question of “when time stops for you, when you are one with the music, when you are in flow.” This state of engagement or “flow” occurs when an individual's “highest strengths are just matched with the highest challenges that come [their] way” (Seligman, 2012). In short, engagement is when you are at your best, your peak performance, accomplishing the most that you can with a current skillset.
Good relationships are the third factor of the PERMA model. In his presentation, Dr. Seligman shares that “good relationships are a skill” and that the skills necessary to build good relationships can be taught to others (Seligman, 2012). These good relationships help individuals feel “supported, loved, and valued by others” (Madeson, 2017).
To find or have meaning is to belong to or serve “something that is bigger than the self” (Seligman, 2012). This sense of meaning can help “individuals focus on what is really important in the face of significant challenge or adversity” (Madeson, 2017).
Accomplishment is also known as “achievement, mastery, or competence.” Essentially, it is achieving your goals and increasing your confidence via this achievement (Madeson, 2017).
The history of positive psychology
The field of positive psychology was founded in 1998 (IPPA, n.d.) by Martin Seligman, commonly referred to as “the father of contemporary positive psychology” (Taher, 2015). However, the journey to positive psychology began long before 1998. The tragedies of WWII had a massive impact on the focus of psychologists in the post-WWII era. A 2019 article from Istanbul University, argues that “the ‘golden age’ of social psychology was driven by the traumas of fascism” and that “emerged as a response to humans’ violation of different rationality norms” (Yilmaz & Bahçekapili, 2019). As a result, post-WWII psychologists were focused on “treating abnormal behaviors and the resulting mental illnesses” (Taher, 2015). Later on “humanist psychologists” such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm became “dissatisfied with this approach” and started turning the tide towards the future of positive psychology (Taher, 2015). Taher of PositivePsychology.com outlines 3 waves of psychology that had to take place before positive psychology could be created.
The disease model
Much like post-WWII psychologists, psychologists from the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century were “concerned with curing mental disorders and human complexes of various kinds.” Psychologists under the “disease model” were concerned with the diagnosis and curing of those with mental illnesses (Taher, 2015).
Behaviorism was founded by B.F. Skinner who “believed that free will was an illusion and human behavior was largely dependent on the consequences of our previous actions”. This model of psychology focuses on reward systems and the “why” behind human behavior (Taher, 2015).
Humanistic psychologists believed that behavior “is determined by our perception of the world around us and its meanings” and that humans by nature are “internally influenced and motivated to fulfill our human potential.” Psychologists using this model saw the human as greater than the sum of their parts and focused on topics such as consciousness, responsibility, meaning, and intentions.
The former waves of psychology built upon one another and led to the development of positive psychology. Through the former waves of psychology, a trend is evident: the continual increase in the focus on how to help instead of how to cure. As many great movements and advances in science, the foundation of positive psychology is the result of many years of study and many great minds. While Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the founder of positive psychology by many, there are a variety of other influential psychologists who played a role in its development such as William James, Abraham Maslow, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and Christopher Peterson (Taher, 2015). All of these great minds resulted in Seligman’s efforts to use his APA (American Psychological Association) presidency “to initiate a shift in psychology’s focus toward a more positive psychology” and to focus on “what was ‘right’ and worthy of replication, such as kindness” (Murch, 2020)
Positive psychology and coaching
With the definition of positive psychology in mind, how does positive psychology relate to executive coaching? There is one key and significant overlap between these two fields: the desire to help individuals achieve their best. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) states that coaching helps individuals “advance their careers and enhance their personal lives” (ICF, 2021). The primary goal of positive psychology is to help others learn how to thrive and achieve their best. While there are key differences such as a psychologist's ability to look into their client’s past and a coach's skill in looking to future potential, executive coaches and life coaches alike would be wise to consider insight from the positive psychology field.
Why implement positive psychology in your coaching
There are several reasons aside from the similarities between positive psychology and coaching that a coach should consider implementing insights and practices from the positive psychology field into their coaching practice. Consider the following research findings.
Establishing the helping relationship
In an article by Professor Gary R. Low and Richard D. Hammett, it was found that “a helping relationship with [a coaching] client is established easier and faster when the internal frame of the client is respective with a positive assessment” (2020). By acknowledging the strengths of a client, executive coaches reinforce their state of “non-judgment,” an essential component of an executive coaching practice. This has the potential to make a coaching client feel a greater sense of “psychological safety.” According to Michigan State University, this sense of psychological safety can encourage greater levels of “creativity and innovation.” At its core, coaching from a strengths-based perspective tells clients “I am here to help and support, not to judge or tear you down.”
Increasing positive outcomes and impacts
Furthermore, in an article from the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity, and Change, it was found that “social work and human services professionals can see great outcomes when they work with the inherent strengths of individuals, family groups, and organizations.” Essentially, a strengths-based approach in a helping profession (such as social work) helped individuals “pick up their bits and pieces and reconstruct hope for the future” (Pulla, 2017). A 2020 article from the Journal of Happiness Studies studied the impact of positive psychology, short-term, strengths-based coaching. They found that short-term and strengths-based coaching can “increase… work engagement and performance and promote optimal functioning in organizations” (Peláez, Coo, & Salanova, 2020). Additionally, Dr. Anthony Grant advocated for the use of solution-focused questions, a form of positive psychology in coaching, as opposed to problem-focused questions, due to their increased positive outcomes in coaching (Grant, 2014). Dr. Grant and colleague Michael Cavanagh also state that positive psychology can help coaches develop “new connections and new meanings and, ultimately, new patterns of actions” with coaching clients (Grant & Cavanagh, 2011).
Increase in the overall wellbeing of clients
Positive psychology exercises have the potential to increase overall well-being in coaching clients. For example, research from the Electronic Journal of Applied Psychology found that 3 out of 5 online positive psychology interventions increased the measured well-being of intervention participants. Additionally, when participants had “mild to moderate depression symptoms at baseline, there was significant symptom reduction” (Mitchell, Vella-Brodrick, & Klein, 2010). While executive and life coaches are not trained to work with mental illnesses such as depression, it is important to note the effects that positive psychology can have on mindset and overall well-being as indicated by this study.
Increasing the ability to see and seize opportunity
Positive psychology in coaching can also help clients practice seeing the opportunities available to them, as opposed to overly focusing on the challenges or fears that hold them back. Positive psychology exercises and strategies can help coaches think more positively. Instead of seeing failures as simply setbacks, positive psychology in coaching can acknowledge the strengths and learnings gained from these failures. Doing this can help clients use positive psychology in their own lives, helping them see opportunities in challenges ultimately becoming “more resilient and successful” (Stewart, 2014). By using positive psychology, coaches can help their clients see opportunities in challenges and the bright side of negative situations, creating room for growth in seasons of difficulty.
Positive psychology exercises and strategies
Below we outline several positive psychology exercises and strategies that executive coaches and others can use in their coaching practice to harness the benefits of positive psychology within their coaching practice.
The what went well exercise
In this exercise, coaching clients are instructed to write down 3 good things that went well and to reflect on why they went well before they go to sleep each night. Dr. Seligman explains that “it works because it changes your focus on the things that go wrong in life to things that you might take for granted that go well.” Dr. Seligman also states that doing this can “break up depression” and “increase happiness.” In doing this exercise, it is important to write down the reason these things went well to increase the detailed remembrance and reflection of the event (Seligman, 2009). When applying this to a coaching population, Regina Cook of ICF, found that her coaching clients who did this shared “that they were quicker to note smaller accomplishments throughout the day” and that doing this exercise “enhanced their engagement in activities.” They additionally shared that it was “easier to immerse themselves in their daily tasks without getting distracted” (Cook, 2018).
The goal of this exercise is to “help clients cultivate positive emotions through savoring,” also known as “the awareness of pleasure and the ability to acknowledge, appreciate, and enhance positive experiences” (Houston, 2019). This exercise instructs clients to review a previous event that “evokes positive emotions” and to visualize that even in as much detail as possible. Research from The International Journal of Aging and Human Development has found that savoring (or reflecting on positive experiences) was associated with a “higher life satisfaction” regardless of the physical health of the study participants (Smith & Bryan, 2016). Additionally, research from Frontiers in Psychology has found that savoring can increase resilience in the face of “social-evaluative hassles” or stressful situations. After experiencing a stressful social event, participants who were given a savoring intervention reported: “higher levels of positive emotions” (Klibert et al., 2022). This indicates that positive reminiscence can help individuals increase their resilience against stressful events.
From the same research article in the Frontiers in Psychology, it was found that positive anticipation was also associated with increased levels of positive emotions after stressful events (Klibert et al., 2022). In Klibert et al.’s research, they had participants anticipate a positive event by planning “the vacation of your dreams.” They were instructed to imagine what they will “hear, see, smell, taste, and feel,” and who would join them and “how their presence may contribute to [their] sense of joy and excitement.” Doing this increased participants' “positive emotions” after a stressful social event (Klibert et al., 2022). Executive coaches can use this strategy in their coaching by encouraging clients to reflect on future positive outcomes and possibilities. Asking questions that encourage reflection on future goal attainment and opportunities for success can be a way that executive coaches can encourage positive anticipation.
Finding the lessons within failures
Another exercise that can be used with coaching clients helps clients identify the learnings and insights gained from past failures or challenges. The primary goal of this exercise is to “help clients focus on the positive characteristics of negative life events” (Houston, 2019). It’s important to remember that executive coaches are obligated to provide references to mental health professionals for discussions regarding past traumatic experiences or mental health challenges. When using this strategy within executive coaching, executive coaches can ask questions such as “what is a valuable failure you have learned from in your career journey?” This strategy can also be used in the present tense when discussing current business challenges by asking “what might you learn in this experience?” “how can this help you or your business?” or “what have you learned so far from this experience?”
Questions that apply the PERMA Model
Executive coaches can also acknowledge the PERMA Model within their question asking and discussions with clients. Using the previously discussed PERMA Model, here are several powerful questions that relate to each section of the PERMA Model.
P: positive emotions
What is a powerful learning you gained from this experience?
What are three things that you have accomplished or learned since our last meeting?
What is a strength of yours? How can you use this strength in this challenge?
What are you grateful for?
What fills you with joy? Why?
When are you in your “flow” state? Describe what you were doing and how you felt.
When are you at the “top of your game”?
What helps you increase your focus?
Is there a specific time of day when you are in your “flow” state?
How are your relationships with your managers and employees?
What relationships in your business and life are you grateful for?
What mentors and role models do you have in your life?
What is your “why”?
Where do you see yourself in 10, 20, 30+ years?
What is your ultimate goal?
Share a time when you felt especially accomplished this week.
What accomplishment makes you the proudest?
What goals have you recently accomplished?
Do you have daily goals? If so, how do you feel after accomplishing these?
The main takeaway
Positive psychology is the result of many years of growth and development within the field of psychology and is a great source of knowledge and insight for executive coaches and other coaches alike. There are a variety of benefits to positive psychology exercises such as increased establishment of the helping relationship, increased positive outcomes and impacts, increases in overall wellbeing, and an increase in the ability to see opportunities in challenges. Executive coaches can use a variety of techniques and questions to incorporate positive psychology into their coaching practice.
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