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How Positive Psychology Advances the Development of Professional coaching

Coaching has grown increasingly popular in the past number of decades with many styles such as life coaching, executive coaching, leadership coaching, performance coaching, career coaching, etc. ICF defines coaching as ‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential’ (International Coaching Federation, 2018). There are a number of other definitions of what coaching is. Hudson (1999) and Whitmore (1992), in (Berridge, 2011), both emphasise the role of a coach as a facilitator of ‘client learning and development through self-discovery while holding a future orientation’. Biswas-Diener and Dean (2007, p. 2) identify that coaching is a ‘powerful force for transformation […] harnessing the best in people and inspiring them to live out their potential’. Grant (2003) further indicates that the ‘essence of coaching is a collaborative, solution-focused, action-oriented methodology that aims to enhance the coachee’s personal and/or professional life experience, goal attainment and well-being’.

Despite the many thousands of individuals that have experienced success through coaching interventions it is a profession that remains clouded in scepticism. One of the issues facing the coaching profession is a lack of empirically backed scientific data that supports the impact that coaching can have for individuals. As a profession it remains largely unregulated and anyone can call themselves a coach without necessarily having training or relevant qualifications, training courses may or not be accredited by a coaching body, the scope of coaching practices and styles almost limitless, coupled with a myriad of different techniques, theories (Seligman, 2007). From this perspective Seligman (2007, p. 266) identifies that coaching needs both a theoretical and a scientific, evidence-based foundation to enhance its credibility as a profession as well as setting the boundaries for responsible coaching practices.

It is important to note that positive psychology is not just the science of happiness, nor is it a recent or new addition to the field of psychology. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from 1954 is based on focussing on human potential and not just the short-comings. Positive psychology has gained ground since Martin Seligman called on the psychology world to focus not just on the deficits of the human condition and mental ill-health but rather to include the study of exploring how people build on their strengths, potential, resilience and well-being, with the field expanding from the study of what makes people happy to one more based on the concept of well-being and flourishing (Seligman, 2011). Seligman (2007) states that positive psychology is the study of positive emotion, engagement and of meaning. In a move away from his original authentic happiness theory and the search for happiness towards the concept of flourishing – which is different for everyone Seligman developed the PERMA model. The PERMA five building blocks that enable flourishing – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment –enables the measurement, classification and the ability to build on positive emotion, engagement and meaning and thus flourishing. Martin Seligman acknowledges ‘A good life for one person is not necessarily a good life for another. There are many different routes to a flourishing life. Positive Psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, we are not telling people what choices to make or what to value, but research on the factors that enable flourishing can help people make more informed choices to live a more fulfilling life that is aligned with their values and interests.’ (Seligman, 2018). There is a growing evidence base that show that the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions when used in coaching, strengths development and positive affect enhancement can have and are shown to be linked to increases in well-being, resilience, engagement and goal attainment (Donaldson, Dollwett, & Rao, 2015). By using psychometrically established measurements, longitudinal and random research methods and experiments of positive psychology research Seligman (2007) asserts that coaching using these evidence based interventions creates a solid basis for coaching practices.

Biswas-Diener and Dean ( (2007) and Linley and Harrington (2006) indicate that positive psychology and coaching have a lot in common and would appear to fit well together. They are both concerned with enabling optimal flourishing, enhancing well-being, performance, goal attainment, with the positive psychology being the study of a life-well lived (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and coaching being based on the assumption that the individual is ‘basically healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow’ (MentorCoach, 2018). Biswas-Diener and Dean (2007) identify that using the empirical and theoretical base of positive psychology provides a grounding for coaching in enhancing the well-being, performance and life experiences of individuals being coached. While acknowledging that the skill of coaching is in active listening, in a non-judgemental environment, identifying the unstated desires of the client, supporting the client in developing self-awareness and self-acceptance, and supporting the client in working towards self-identified goals, Biswas-Diener and Dean identify that the tenets of positive psychology assist the coach in paying attention to issues of self-concordance and goal conflict (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). MentorCoach (2018) further identifies that positive psychology provides ‘important empirical underpinnings to the techniques and strategies that coaches use to help clients to realise their goals on the path to greater well-being’. Moore (2010) asserts that coaches that use the principals of positive psychology are focussed on working on the clients strengths for enhancing personal happiness, and happiness flourishes when individuals have engagement and meaning in their lives.

By combining the intuition and accountability of skilled coaches with the evidence-based research from positive psychology Asif (2017) states that powerful awareness, growth and change. In an interview with Lisa Sansom, citing Carol Kauffman, Ilona Boniwell and Jordan Silberman, Asif (2017) identifies that positive psychology coaching is a ‘scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals’, further stating that to be a positive psychology coach is centred on your own beliefs 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 evidence-based scientific research from positive psychology, and the proven impact of positive psychology interventions, and the close belief base between coaching and positive psychology theories shows that coaches that base their coaching methods on the science and interventions of positive psychology. As stated by Seligman (2007) ‘people who are trained in the techniques of coaching, in the theories of positive psychology, in valid measurement of the positive states and traits, in the interventions that work, and who know when to refer a client to someone who is better trained will be, by my lights, bona fide coaches of positive psychology’.


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Donaldson, S. I., Dollwett, M., & Rao, M. A. (2015). Happness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(3), 185-195.

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Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

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