What is Positive Psychology for Coaching?

Positive psychology (PP) has been referred to as the science of happiness and human potential. And for coaches this is of particular interest, as we tend to find that some form of feeling good or better lies behind every goal our clients bring into the coaching room. Most coaching clients want to be the best they can be.

Since the emergence of PP as a field of scientific study in 1999, we have learnt a lot about human strengths, positive emotions and generally what’s right with people. Rather than focusing on fixing people’s problems and getting them back to ‘normal’, positive psychologists have studied people at their best, exploring human potential and trying to establish what happiness and wellbeing consist of.

Experienced coaches know that the end goal of every client who seeks coaching (and, arguably, in general too) is some form of happiness, a sense of feeling good or better, whether that is to have more positive emotions on a daily basis or to experience a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life or career. This is where PP has a significant and apparent role to play in coaching.

While many of the field’s topics may not have reinvented the wheel, positive psychologists started using modern research methods in order to be able to test and expand these ideas, which has led to numerous exciting discoveries, as well as applications at the individual and group level. Researchers in the field have been creating evidence-based interventions and, consequently, a substantial amount of the research in coaching psychology has been generated by positive psychologists. Many coaches have hence benefited greatly from understanding more about the psychology of flourishing and human potential; the vast majority of practitioners now integrate aspects of PP into their work with clients.

Coaching psychology (the science behind coaching practice) and PP go hand in hand. Not only have positive psychologists provided a lot of the research that coaches use to better understand their client’s journey and potential, but it has also led to the emergence of a number of practical tools and techniques that can be used in the coaching room or between sessions. Consider the following quotes from some of the leading PP researchers and practitioners:

  • “Coaching is the natural choice for being the applied arm of Positive Psychology.” (Biswas-Diener, 2010, p.5)
  • “In spirit, […] coaching and positive psychology are natural partners. The goal of coaching has always been to maximise the potential of the client by building his or her strengths and skills.” (Kauffman & Scoular, 2004)
  • “As a science, positive psychology is well poised to inform the coaching profession and help elevate the standards and tools of practice. […] Mutual aim to help individuals and groups to perform better and live more satisfied lives.” (Biswas-Diener, 2010, p.5)
  • “Need for closer collaboration and integration between the two professions. […] Just as positive psychology is now striving to reclaim the study of people in their completeness, so too, we believe, is coaching psychology.” (Linley & Harrington, 2007)
  • “Coaching is the natural ally of positive psychology.” (Boniwell, 2006, p.99)
  • How might a positive psychology approach to coaching differ from other coaching approaches?

    As you will have learnt by now, the range of coaching approaches is broad and it is difficult to give coaching a single definition when there are so many existing niche approaches. While the basic nuts and bolts of coaching practice are shared and depend on how you plan to use PP in your coaching practice, there are a few ways in which PPC sets itself apart.

    PP is first and foremost a science and, as such, its applied arm (coaching) is always guided by scientific findings, evidence and peer-reviewed theories. A PPC would not use a tool or exercise with weak or conflicting evidence behind it. A PPC will keep up to date with scientific exploration and regularly check the tools and concepts that inform their practice against the latest publications. The second big advantage is that those who have studied PP will be able to distinguish between different forms of happiness and the pillars of wellbeing, and hence will have the vocabulary and understanding necessary to talk in more depth about the client’s goal. Assuming that the client’s end goal tends to be some form of feeling good or better about themselves, it is a strong skill to use to be able to distinguish between different forms of happiness and use these distinctions in the goal-setting stage.

    A PPC will also have a profound understanding of human motivation and potential as well as many of the things that are right with people. Applying the findings of PP builds natural defences, resilience and, generally, a strong foundation for a good life.

    Furthermore, the positive feel and outlook of a PPC session sets the mood for a more creative engagement with the coaching process. Experiencing positive emotions has been shown to have positive effects on problem solving and goal setting, as have setting goals that are related to happiness and making clear links between the goal at hand and happiness. These techniques tap into our motivational system in a powerful way.

    And while PPCs do not have to be more smiley and happy than other coaches, viewing the world through the lens of PP does often lead to practitioners with a more positive outlook.

    To find out about our Certificate in Positive Psychology for Coaching, go here.