Positive psychology coaching in practice: Notes from the road

Positive psychology coaching in practice: Notes from the road

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25 January 2023

Sally Waters, who is one of the leads in our Coaching Psychology Special Interest Group, shares her thoughts and experience of using positive psychology coaching in practice.

I didn’t know much about positive psychology coaching until I was studying a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology at the University of East London. Yes, there seemed obvious and natural synergies between coaching and positive psychology, and I was keen to expand my understanding of both fields – hence the master’s. But I didn’t know much about how to bring them together in a coaching relationship, what research existed, or what other coaches were doing in practice. I was curious and started to explore.

What is positive psychology coaching?

Positive psychology is the science of optimal human functioning, and is concerned with uncovering the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive. The term was coined in 1999 by a group of research psychologists led by Martin Seligman, who wanted to move the field of psychology from what they saw as its post-Second World War focus on fixing mental ill-health, to include research into the sources of psychological health. What, they wondered, are the things are that enable us (and the groups and systems to which we belong) to flourish, rather than to just be ok?

Since the millennium, the academic field of positive psychology has spawned an enormous amount of research on topics as diverse as meaning and purpose, engagement, strengths and positive emotions. I typed ‘positive psychology’ into Google Scholar and got 4.2m results. It seems a natural bedfellow to coaching and coaching psychology, as it has a shared interest in increasing wellbeing and performance, and offers an asset approach (rather than a deficit) that focuses on what’s good and builds from there.

The term positive psychology coaching was coined in 2007 and has been defined in different ways by different scholars and practitioners. A definition I like is this one: ‘A managed conversational process that supports people to achieve 
meaningful goals in a way that enhances their wellbeing.’

It’s coaching, basically, but with explicit consideration of client wellbeing. The positive psychology coach might be informed by psychological research and theories, including those on wellbeing, strengths, optimism and hope; and they could make use of assessments from positive psychology if relevant to the client. They might also introduce clients to positive psychology interventions – evidence-based activities that increase wellbeing – or another specified dimension such as meaning in life, goal focus, or gratitude.

It could be argued that positive psychology coaching doesn’t actually sound like an approach distinct from others; it’s simply coaching informed by positive psychology. The fields of positive psychology and coaching psychology, while still young in academic terms, have significant amounts of research behind them, but by comparison there are relatively few studies about positive psychology coaching. As the research base grows, it will be interesting to see how positive psychology coaching develops, and whether it really needs to stand alone.

Positive psychology coaching in practice: who I am, not what I do

Having studied positive psychology, I do incorporate it into my coaching practice. But as I very rarely use interventions and assessments as part of the coaching process, it’s something that underpins who I am as a coach more than anything I particularly do. This manifests in three tangible ways:

Commitment to wellbeing – I am explicitly committed to clients’ wellbeing and I contract on that basis. New clients can expect me to talk to them in exploratory and contracting sessions about this commitment, and I gain permission from clients up front to ask about the impact on wellbeing of particular goals or courses of action. The definition of wellbeing is wholly the client’s, and the coaching is not necessarily about wellbeing, unless that’s what the client brings. I just hold that I care about it and reserve the right to ask about how it’s being supported.

A bias towards the positive – I hold onto the belief that, as humans, we’re more likely to focus on the bad stuff than the good stuff, and I do take action to counteract that in coaching by asking clients about what went well. That’s not to say that negative emotions are somehow not allowed or that the reality of the human experience is somehow denied; any and all emotions are welcomed and explored. Nor do we pretend that the bad things aren’t happening or that everything is fine. It’s just a subtle emphasis on the positive over the negative, and on solutions over problems.

Using positive psychology research to inform the conversation – I very occasionally find that a theory or piece of research from positive psychology may be relevant to a client’s issue in hand. For example, the concept of growth and fixed mindsets, and the different types of motivation have come up as particularly pertinent theories to recent clients. I am extremely cautious here. I contract for it up front, ask the client first if they would be interested, and am constantly weighing up whether this places me inappropriately in the role of ‘expert’. It is always framed as an invitation to consider an interesting perspective, which the client is at liberty to take or leave. Regardless of its basis in evidence, theories and research are never presented as fact or the ‘answer’ to the client’s ‘problem’.

Resisting labels (for now)

The truth is, while I flirted with the idea of describing myself as a positive psychology coach, I have decided against using the label (for now). It feels too early in my professional development to take on labels, and maybe I’ll never need one. And, as a coach whose practice is informed by psychology, I draw on theories which go beyond positive psychology.

That said, my commitment to client wellbeing is at the heart of my practice, and I’ll be watching with excitement as positive psychology coaching research develops.

References and resources for the Positive Psychology Coaching curious

Biswas-Diener & van Nieuwerburgh (2021). The professionalisation of positive psychology coaching. In Smith, W. A., Boniwell, I. & Green, S. (Eds.) Positive psychology coaching in the workplace. Springer.

Biswas-Diener, R. & Dean, B. (2007). Positive psychology coaching. Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Wiley.

Boniwell, I. and Tunariu, A. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications, 2nd edition. Open University Press.

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains. Canadian Psychology 49(1), pp. 14-23

Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. Robinson.

Sheldon, K., Frederickson, B., Rathunde, K. et al. (1999). Positive psychology manifesto. Akumal, Mexico, January 1999.

King, L. A. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27(7), pp. 798-807

Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K. & Worth, P. (2016). Second wave positive psychology. Embracing the dark side of life. Routledge

Rozin, P. and Royzman, E. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, pp. 296–320.

Van Nieuwerburgh, C., Barr, M., Fouracres, A. J. S., Moin, T., Brown, C., Holden, C., Lucey, C., & Thomas, P. (2022). Experience of positive psychology coaching while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice 15(2), pp. 148-165

Van Nieuwerburgh, C. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2021). Positive psychology approaches to coaching. In J. Passmore (Ed.), The coaches’ handbook: The complete practitioner guide for professional coaches. Routledge

Van Zyl, L. E., Roll, L. C., Stander, M. W., & Richter, S. (2020). Positive psychological coaching definitions and models: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 793.

Image by Michael Henry on Unsplash