Positive Psychology - Perfect with Coaching
Scroll down for much more about positive psychology, including its definition, history, and classic examples of applied positive psychology.
We're passionate about great coaching and the perfect evidenced-based partner for coaching is positive psychology, because both coaching and positive psychology ask the same fundamental question: What helps people flourish?
All our coach training programs and modules integrate positive psychology and other evidence-based approaches, such as neuroscience, self-directed neuroplasticity, emotional intelligence, and appreciative inquiry to give our coaching students the most up-to-date and effective coaching techniques available.
Take just one module, such as Introduction to Positive Psychology for Coaches and earn a certificate of completion with 8 ICF CCEs.
Or take the entire ICF Approved Certified Positive Psychology Coach® Program for beginner-to-advanced coaches and learn to apply proven techniques to your professional coaching. This program is ICF approved for up to 210 ACSTH, which streamlines the ICF ACC, PCC, and MCC credentialing process for our graduates.
What is positive psychology?
The International Positive Psychology Association website, offers this positive psychology definition: “Positive psychology is the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive.” (2018)
Positive psychology is based on research into what causes happiness and well-being and enables people to flourish. Positive psychology interventions can also build resilience, resourcefulness and strengths, leading to self-mastery and success in a variety of realms (Seligman, 2011).
Positive psychology is descriptive rather than prescriptive, which means it is never used to diagnose nor prescribe what people must do (Seligman, 2011).
Although it is thought of as a cohesive body of knowledge, positive psychology is based on the work of a variety of researchers whose definitions and criteria vary, so it’s more of a collection of overlapping research, theories, models, and interventions, which may not always fit perfectly with one another. And of course, new research may confirm or contradict previous findings. The underlying philosophies are fairly consistent, however. Generally, the focus is on what helps some people do well and how others may apply that to their lives to become happier and more successful, themselves.
History of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology first emerged, officially, as a field of research in 1998, when then president of the American Psychological Association, Martin E. P. Seligman, made research into what causes people to be happier, one of his presidential initiatives. Part of the purpose of developing a body of research into positive psychology was to balance the previous fifty years of exploration into symptoms of mental illnesses. Seligman and his colleagues, such as Christopher Peterson, sought to balance the psychology based on the disease model with a psychology of well-being that might prevent the development of disease, as the DSM-IV described symptoms of illness, and to discover characteristics that were found to lead to well-being (Seligman, et al, 2000). Today, Seligman is often referred to as the Father of Positive Psychology.
“Psychology since World War II has been largely devoted to repairing weakness and understanding suffering…American psychology before World War II had three objectives: the first was to cure mental illness, the second was to make relatively untroubled people happier, and the third was to study genius and high talent. All but the first fell by the wayside after the war.” (Seligman, 2004).
Positive Psychology also adds the perspective that working on happiness and well-being is an intrinsically worthwhile endeavor, that happiness is contagious and leads to many other positive benefits for individuals, groups, and communities and that a “Happiness Revolution” may spark a transformation in culture and values (Ben-Shahar, 2014). Perhaps the Happiness Revolution is one arm of the larger consciousness revolution that many outside of positive psychology have already joined.
Pre-history of Positive Psychology
2,500 years ago, the Buddha famously said that all beings want to be happy and avoid suffering. Buddhist practices, such as meditation and mindfulness, are designed to free people from suffering, so they can be happy. Today, researchers in psychology and neuroscience are exploring these practices so others can benefit from them.
Almost as long ago, Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, within which he proposed his own ideas of what makes a happy and good life. In the early days of positive psychology, Seligman and colleagues derived wisdom from Aristotle and other thinkers from around the world. Two important concepts from Aristotle, hedonia, or seeking pleasure, and eudaimonia, taking virtuous action, have shaped ideas about what it means to enjoy a happy and good life (Huta, 2016).
If Seligman is the Father of Positive Psychology, then Abraham Maslow is perhaps the grandfather. The term "positive psychology" may have originated in 1954 when Maslow titled the last chapter, chapter eighteen, of his book, Motivation and Personality, "Toward a Positive Psychology". In it, Maslow criticized contemporary psychologists’ “pessimistic, negative, and limited conception of the full height to which the human being can attain…” Maslow further says, “the science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man's shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height.” (Ben-Shahar, 2014)
Later, Maslow acknowledged that humanistic psychology focused on the more positive aspects of psychology and human development. According to Ben-Shahar, humanistic psychology drifted away from scientific rigor (2014). Seligman and colleagues, including Chris Peterson, Donald O. Clifton, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and others, sought to add that rigor back within positive psychology, so it would gain greater acceptance in the larger psychological community.
What is Happiness?
People tend to associate happiness with positive emotions, but emotions are fleeting and can put people on a ‘hedonic treadmill’, where they are constantly in pursuit of the next great experience (Ben-Shahar, 2007). On the other hand, those who pursue engagement, or flow, tend to enjoy life more consistently by challenging themselves to use their strengths with greater skill. The most stable producer of life satisfaction overall, is the meaningful life of service.
For instance, someone stuck on the hedonic treadmill may become frustrated that s/he doesn’t experience happiness all the time. Learning to focus more on flow or on meaning could help this person relax and enjoy life more consistently. Likewise, someone else might think s/he is not happy enough because s/he doesn’t laugh or smile throughout the day but may already be enjoying a life of flow and meaning.
Researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky says the set point for happiness accounts for about fifty percent of anyone’s overall happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2007). If 50% of happiness is predetermined and only 10% can be accounted for by circumstances, that leaves 40%, which is impacted by how we choose to think and behave. It’s that 40% that positive psychology interventions can impact. If we want to be lastingly happier, we need to work at it, just as many people need to work at managing their weight. However, happiness can be substantially improved if we do what has been shown to work for others. Again, these effects are temporary and must be repeated to maintain a level of happiness above the individual’s set point (Lyubomirsky, 2007). However, according to some neuroscientists, the brain can be rewired for relatively sustainable change by practicing interventions that are similar, if not identical, to those of positive psychology (Hanson, 2013). This is known as, neuroplasticity.
How people view the past is also an important factor in how satisfied they are with their overall life. Gratitude and forgiveness are two tools that have been proven to help people let go of regrets and view their lives more positively (Lyubomirsky, 2007).
Research into happiness has revealed that, on average, the happiest people enjoy better health, more longevity, more harmonious relationships, greater success with careers, are kinder, more generous, and are more likely to volunteer to help others (Ben-Shahar, 2014). As Seligman says, “Happy people are good people (2011).”
Ben-Shahar takes his positive psychology model a step further and calls it, WholeBeing. He includes a spiritual component beyond the secular one proposed by Seligman. Ben-Shahar points out that spiritual and religious people tend to be happier than atheists, that spiritual beliefs provide the much-needed meaning that sustains well-being and they give people a sense of being part of something larger, of being “whole, complete and perfect” and provide reasons for people to be good. Ben-Shahar says science, or secularism, got it wrong; religion got it right (2014). This emphasis on wholeness and spirit is well aligned with coaching philosophy.
What is Applied Positive Psychology?
Applied positive psychology is the practical application of positive psychology research findings. Here are several classic applied positive psychology exercises, a.k.a. interventions:
- Positive Introduction Exercise
Instructions: Write a short, positive introduction to yourself, based on a specific time when you were at your very best. Then share it.”
Follow-up questions, drawn from the Institute of Coaching site, can include:
- What strength or strengths does this story illustrate?
- Is it signature strength for you?
- Do you use it often? Where else?
- What is the benefit for you?
- What is the benefit for others?
This approach connects people with their strengths and increases confidence, while encouraging greater clarity around their strengths.
- Ideal Self Exercise
The “Ideal Self” or “The Best Possible Future Self” exercise asks participants to envision their possible ideal self in the future. “Ideal Self” refers to their personal goals, or “most cherished self-wishes”, as well as representations of the futures that they can envisage for themselves. In addition to increasing positivity, this tool may help to cultivate optimism.
The Ideal Self exercise prompts people to visualize their “best possible future selves”, providing opportunities to learn about themselves, to understand their needs, values and strengths, as well as their emotional responses, and to gain insight into their priorities.
This exercise serves to increase and sustain happiness while integrating experiences into a meaningful framework. Imagining success at one’s life goals is also found to boost psychological well-being and adjustment, improve performance, and bring about a wide array of benefits associated with positive thinking.
Throughout the Immersion, we returned to the Ideal Self with tools to support it. For instance, we explored the strengths shared with us when we told our Positive Introduction and how those strengths might help us reach the goals of our Ideal Self.
- Gratitude Visit Exercise
Two ways shown to build happiness and well-being, especially relative to past memories, are to express gratitude and practice forgiveness. A fascinating tool for dramatically increasing happiness, for as long as six months, is one that was originally developed in Dr. Seligman’s Positive Psychology course at Penn. It’s called the Gratitude Visit.
The Gratitude Visit involves writing a letter to someone who has been particularly helpful, and may have changed your life, but who has never been fully thanked. The letter should state specifically why the writer is grateful, including what that recipient did for them and what results those actions had on the writer’s life. The writer then meets with the person they are thanking, in person; not by telephone or email, and reads the letter aloud, making frequent eye contact with the recipient. The experience can be profound for both participants. Seligman uses this within the Gratitude Night that is a part of his course.
This Positive Psychology technique has been well tested and shown to increase well-being and has also been shown to decrease depression and anxiety. According to a study conducted by Dr. Seligman with 411 people, 92% became happier in 15 days. In addition, the positive effects of the exercise lasted for 6 months or longer (Seligman, 2011).
Although Seligman states in his 2011 book, Flourish, that it’s important to visit the person being thanked, rather than just call or write.
- Three Blessings
Each night before going to bed, write down three good things, or blessings, that happened that day. The most important part of this exercise comes from reflecting on how you helped make each good thing happen. People are often unaware of their own role in positive events and underestimate their own positive impact.
Subjects who participated in the three good things exercise for one week were found to be happier and less depressed six months later. Variations on the “3 Good Things” exercise include:
A: In a work setting, ask, “What three things went right with the project today?” “What did you do to make those good things happen?”
B: When lying in bed at night when one might otherwise have stressful thoughts, instead ask, “When was I at my best today?” Often, we remember events that otherwise would have been overlooked.
This exercise can increase a sense of peace, promote confidence and enable us to acknowledge ourselves, while recognizing strengths and capacities that may otherwise have been overlooked.
According to Seligman, positive psychology research data is ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘prescriptive’. That means the results of assessments point to choices that people could make that may lead them to more well-being, happiness, and greater mastery in life. Positive psychology practitioners don’t diagnose nor do they prescribe.