Coaching Positively #1: Applying Positive Psychology

It has been said that happiness is not the absence or avoidance of problems, but creating an environment within ourselves to deal with them. In coaching and mentoring, the conversation invariably starts with the framing of a problem of the very human kind, sometimes known, sometimes unknown, and almost always leading to questions of purpose, behaviour and self. So, how does Positive Psychology potentially help coach and coachee to sail in these sensitive waters? And what does it actually mean. And why might it work for you?

The principles of Positive Psychology are not based on an unwavering belief in ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘think yourself to success’ – an important point, that I explain in my blog; Positive Thinking ≠ Positive Psychology.

The roots of Positive Psychology are deep and cross disciplines, and can be seen within older philosophical traditions, such as stoicism (a disciplined knowledge of self), and Aristotelian and Platonic principles, centred around ‘Knowing Thyself’, appreciating character and virtues. Older Japanese influenced approaches to living productively and happy, recognise the importance of character and action too. In Morita Therapy, which combines elements of Zen, Gestalt and behaviourist principles, and which is central in the work of psychotherapist David Reynolds (1984), there is a focus on purposeful living, appreciating our intention and gaining a balance.

Japanese concepts of conscious living and purposeful action such as IKIGAI, contain elements
such as self knowledge and purpose that can be seen in Positive Psychology

Equally, the Japanese concept of IKIGAI, popularised by Garcia and Miralles (2017), stresses the value of knowing ourselves, and as with much of Positive Psychology, focusing intentionally upon strengths and purpose. This true sense of knowing ourselves is not based in hubris or selfishness, but rather in being grounded in character and being well placed to act, be it work, our interests, community or family. It resonates too in Stephen Covey’s Classic ‘7-Habits of Highly Effective People’, powerful still today, in its simple call for us to manage our private and public battles.

The modern principles and application of positive psychology is most strongly associated with the seminal works of Martin Seligman, and the late great, Mihali Csikszentmihalyi in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with their work and research focusing psychological attention on the individual’s positive human attributes, talents, development and activities, not psychoanalysis. Positive Psychology promotes the improvement of the human condition through an appreciation and amplification of positive emotions, experiences, influence and practice. It is built on a rational approach, encouraging the individual to accept and act on the basis of reality.

Its practioner roots can be seen too within the older and well-respected therapeutic traditions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT/REBT) – developed by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) – pioneered by Steven Hayes. So, Positive Psychology in coaching and mentoring focuses on helping the individual to rationally know and reflect upon themselves, to build actions, to be aware of their habits and to positively and resiliently manage the challenges and complexities of life.

PERMA is the modern theory of well-being

A useful starting point for a coaching conversation based on these principles, is found within the influential PERMA model developed by Martin Seligman, and based on his extensive career as a researcher and psychotherapist dealing with often highly traumatised and stressed people, outlined in his seminar texts, Authentic Happiness (2002) and Flourish (2011). At its heart, PERMA summarises Seligman’s belief that psychology should be helping create a modern theory of well-being and promoting people to live happily and with purpose. The PERMA mnemonic, provides the basis for supportive conversation led interventions, that focus the coachee upon developing; Positive (and rational) emotional base, to Engage in worthwhile activity, to nurture their important Relationships, to have a longer term Meaning or purpose, and to appreciate simple Achievements, and simple steps, in various aspects of our life. According to Seligman, and reflecting too the older philosophical approaches mentioned earlier, it is through understanding of our character, that determines our actions, and we should be focusing upon our positive attributes and strengths, over protracted re-playing of past traumas, so popular in more person centric forms of therapy, which may have a purpose but are often over-used. Recently, a colleague pointed out their gradual realisation that their ten years of therapy, was more about re-playing the therapists own play-book to uncover some perceived inner truth – over accepting what was past and focusing more on dealing with the reality of the present and their future behaviour. Of course, many more person centric therapies are valid and useful, and have their place but Positive Psychology, more than other approaches, is aware of the dangers of paralysis through analysis that can create what Seligman identified as ‘Learned Helplessness’, preventing action and change.

In this state, the individual sees no ability to control their own change, and this pessimism becomes ingrained in their habits and attitudes, which can become reinforced by others, even if their empathy is well intentioned. Optimism, can however become a learnt habit, which has proven benefits in well-being, recovery, health and happiness, and it requires the individual to rationally re-frame their self-talk, avoid catastrophising and take actions to engage with people and interests. Clearly, we have to balance our optimism, avoiding delusional or irrational and so self-reflection is important in building a rational view of self, that is based on reality.  A further strand in Positive Psychology that can be usefully applied within coaching and mentoring, is encouraging the coachee to appreciate that we develop ourselves through engaging in our interests and learning and facing challenges. The Flow Model, devised by Seligman’s colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, therefore provides another great pillar that can usefully stimulate coaching and mentoring conversations. Mirroring aspects of Vygotsky’s pioneering work in learning and development, which emphasised stretch and challenge, Flow explains that people are happier and productive, when engaged in activities that fit with skills and strengths and that provide meaningful challenge. For musicians, chefs, gamers and sports people, the flow state is an almost timeless space of being and sees a continuous process of change. For any of us, engaging in our true skills, interests and activity that stretches us, is a profound source of growth, change and self-knowledge, be it concentrated on our family, hobbies, our work or lifelong learning. 

The Flow model, acknowledges the importance of engagement and challenge

As Csikszentmihalyi famously says; ‘The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’

If we are over challenged without a skill and capabilities to match it, we face too much stress and anxiety and we are overwhelmed. And if we are not stretched, and have a well of untapped and unused skills, we can be frustrated, bored and demotivated. Both extremes lead to unhappiness. A balanced sense of flow, which allows the individual to grow based on who they are and their true skills and apply themselves in meaningful effort (whether at work or in other areas of our lives) – provides the basis for a more lived life, or as reflected in the Zen influenced ideas such as Morita Therapy and IKIGAI; purposeful living…

Whilst the research and deeper insights into psychodynamics may be complex, the essence of Positive Psychology is relatively simple, and based on principles that mirror our intuitive sense of what makes us more human and our aim for more purposeful living, based on who we are.

As noted by the Langley Group;

“Focus on what is working well and how it can work even better. Find ways to activate the potential for health, happiness and excellence within all people by guiding them to take positive actions and supporting them to succeed. Do this without being blind to weaknesses, the realities of negative experience and the full spectrum of human emotions.”

One clear commonality from the work of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, or later authors influenced by Positive Psychology, such as Carole Dweck (2017), Angela Duckworth (2006) or Charles Duhigg (2013), is the acceptance that it is our self-knowledge, and building habits and actions, not our wishes and desires that shape us and our world. For Dweck there is the emphasis on Growth Mindset, the understanding (based on substantial research and work in practice), that development is about seeing ourselves as a work in progress, able to change through habits, and building small incremental steps. For Duckworth, there is an emphasis on resilience – not, the ignorance of over working or excessive demands, but the understanding that we can all gain as much from our failures, as we can from our successes. Famously, her work shows that students who never have setbacks, and always are high performers, and individuals who have comfortable lives, often struggle when the inevitable ‘storms’ of life hit them later. Some form of challenge, the storms and rough seas of our studies, careers and lives, add to what it is to be human.

Coaching with an appreciation of Positive Psychology, therefore is not about recklessly promoting unrealistic wishful thinking, but grounded in the timeless insight, that there is great value in knowing our character, purpose and strengths. Its a principle of human development shared from ancient Greece to modern Japan, and in rational therapeutic models such as CBT, ACT. There is an appreciation of promoting anti-fragility and personal growth through change, by appreciating and engaging in our strengths, relationships, operating with a purpose and appreciating our successes.

To learn more about how we can apply a knowledge of strengths to successful coaching and mentoring, see Coaching Positively #2: The Value of Strengths. And for more on these topics, see Coaching Positively #3: The Value of Habits, and Coaching Positively #4: A Programme Explained.

To discuss how positive psychology and coaching programmes, can help you, your team or your business, contact Andrew Armour Benchstone Limited.

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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