Wondering how life coaching and positive psychology are connected? If so, you’re not alone! Let’s start with some simple definitions to get clear about the differences, and where these two disciplines intersect.
What’s Life Coaching?
Life coaching is a partnership where a coach and client come together to accomplish a specific and measurable goal. Rather than telling the client “how to get there”, coaching holds that each person carries innate wisdom, and is capable of developing their own answers. As coaches, we assist this process by helping our clients think strategically, identify self-imposed limitations, and overcome roadblocks.
The Goal of Coaching is to help clients reach a state of flourishing through goal accomplishment.
What’s Positive Psychology?
Positive psychology is the science behind how individuals and groups flourish and thrive. It’s the study of emotions, behaviors and beliefs that emphasize human strengths rather than weaknesses. Positive psychology provides new empirical data and specific tools to help people move along a continuum from “baseline wellness” to a state of thriving.
The Goal of Positive Psychology is to help us identify the goodness and strength inside ourselves, and find ways to lean into those attributes across all aspects of our lives.
In Pursuit of “The Good Life”
The field of positive psychology is extensive, but it all boils down to a very simple central theme: improving our quality of life. Like coaching, the aim of positive psychology is to help us grow into ever better versions of ourselves. Each of these disciplines is centered around cultivating the internal qualities that help people achieve higher levels of satisfaction and contentment in life.
Both coaching and positive psychology start from an assumption of mental health and wellness, building toward a desired future state by tapping into a client's strengths and self-efficacy.
The field of positive psychology was catalyzed by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, who believed there was something important missing from the field of psychiatry. The concept of “flourishing” has been the subject of philosophical thought for thousands of years, but only emerged as the subject of serious scientific inquiry in the 1990’s.
At the time, psychiatry was predominantly focused on mental suffering, and ways of easing emotional pain in life. Seligman asserted that pain isn’t the whole story of the human experience. He championed the idea that the brighter side of life was also worthy of serious study!
The work of Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues sought to discover how people achieve and sustain positive states of mind, which eventually became an entire field of study. We’re talking now about the good stuff: joy, love, gratitude, laughter, achievement and contentment (among others).
Today, Positive Psychology offers us a scientific approach for understanding human potential, along with a set of research-based interventions and practices for achieving it.
How Is Positive Psychology Used In Life Coaching?
In positive psychology, the primary aim is to help us develop an inner toolkit for growth and life satisfaction that's rooted in our personal strengths.
This isn’t to be confused with a “Good Vibes Only” point of view! In this context, positive doesn't mean "happy all the time." The science isn’t suggesting we attempt to obliterate any trace of negative thoughts or emotions. Instead, we use them as a starting point for investigation.
Understanding negative emotion is essential in life coaching because no matter what issue your client might be facing, negative feeling states will likely come into play at some point. Every one of us has a unique set of factors that catalyze our negative emotions, as well as how we experience them.
Left unexamined, negative emotions can get in the way of your client’s ability to develop insight, find solutions to challenges, and stay focused on what they want to accomplish.
Much of our work as coaches involves recognizing a client’s inner voice of criticism, diminishment or self doubt, and helping them learn how to work with those thoughts more productively.
Working with Emotions
When we’re applying any positive psychology exercise in a coaching context, our starting point must always be an assessment of client readiness. Before introducing an exercise or intervention, consider:
- Is the client in a stable emotional place?
- Is there a desire and commitment to focus on the thoughts and conditions that will lead to improving their overall happiness and wellbeing?
- Is the client willing to do homework, and try new things?
Making the Shift from Negative to Positive Emotional States
According to positive psychology coach and author Margaret Moore, if we want to understand how emotions shape our thoughts and actions, there are two main parts of the brain to take into account:
- The prefrontal cortex is located in the front of the brain directly behind our forehead. This is our brain's logic center, responsible for driving our focus from one task to the next.
- The limbic system is a more ancient part of the human brain. This is where we process our emotions - both positive and negative.
FUN FACT: Positive emotions improve our prefrontal cortex functioning while negative emotions impair it.
Unfortunately, negative emotions are "sticky" and positive emotions are "slippery". What this means is that we have to work hard to hold onto our positive emotions, while negative feelings have an irritating way of hanging around.
In brief? We lose hold of good feelings quickly, and need to work harder to release the more unpleasant ones. (Sad but true!)
Not only that, our negative feelings have the power to actually shut off the thinking part of our brain. Seriously! When the limbic system kicks in due to the onset of a negative emotion, the functioning of our prefrontal cortex is suspended. (Double whammy!)
According to Moore, there are two main sources of negative emotion that we need to recognize and know how to work with as life coaches: internal and external. Here's what you ought to know:
- External: We all have our own triggers and responses to outside sources of stimulation. Think: traffic, noise, clutter, etc. One of the most important things you can do for your clients is to help them understand what consistently pushes their buttons and brings on feelings of irritation, frustration, anger or negativity. Coaching intervention:How can the client anticipate and mitigate their external triggers?
- Internal: The other trigger is inside our own mind, where it can be nestled in deep and much harder to spot for ourselves! As coaches, we have many ways of labeling these thoughts, including: the inner critic, limiting beliefs and cognitive bias. You get the idea. Helping your client to recognize what their own unhelpful voices sound like is essential to gaining control over negative emotions. Coaching intervention: How can the client begin to disassociate from and neutralize the negative self-talk inside their own head?
The Power of Positive Emotions
What positive psychology research has shown is that positive emotions not only feel good, they also improve our health and enhance feelings of social connection. This in turn stimulates our vagus nerve, which oversees the parasympathetic nervous system.
What this means in plain English is that our emotions actually produce mental and physical outcomes that can have a big impact on how we experience life.
- Stress and trauma activate the sympathetic nervous system, which governs our fight/flight/freeze response.
- Positive emotions can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees rest and digestion.
Think of positive experiences like nutrients. We need lots of them in order to create a constant flow of feel-good emotions that lead to lasting health benefits.
In other words, eating one vegetable a week is not going to cut it. In order to receive the full nutritional impact, you need a constant diet. And here's the good news: you don’t have to be a “naturally cheerful person” to experience these benefits! We can all intentionally cultivate positive emotions and enjoy their impact on our health and wellbeing.
Here’s just a few examples:
- Frequently experiencing joy drives us to acquire better and more diverse skills.
- Gratitude strengthens social bonds and skills for loving.
- Serenity allows us to modify our self-perception and view of the world.
- Hope brings increased resilience.
- Pride unlocks motivation for achievement.
- Amusement builds friendship and creativity.
- Inspiration increases skills and feelings of morality.
- Awe allows us to see ourselves as part of a larger whole.
- Love impacts all of the above!
Positive emotions prepare us for growth by broadening our mindset. The more moments we experience inside a broadened mindset, the more we can fundamentally change who we are and become better versions of ourselves. As coaches, THIS is the state of mind we want to help our clients cultivate!
Want more on this topic? Check out the work of positive psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson in the blog Using Broaden-and-Build Theory In Your Coaching Practice
Coach’s Toolkit: Positive Psychology Interventions and Techniques
How does positive psychology help coaches? By providing evidence-based tools that can help drive lasting change and increase overall satisfaction in life. For life coaches who want a framework for helping their clients get consistent and measurable results, there are many effective interventions to draw from.
Positive psychology techniques coaches frequently use include:
- Knowing and appreciating your strengths
- Identifying personal values and priorities
- Understanding your life purpose
- Cultivating positive emotions and gratitude
- Resilience and coping skills
- Reframing a situation to recognize where you have agency, ability, and tools to make change
- Self-acceptance and compassion
- Future visioning and working toward a “best possible future self”
- Developing healthy habits and strengthening personal accountability
PRO TIP: Coaching Isn't Therapy
As we apply theories and tools from the field of psychology to the domain of coaching, it’s important to remember that coaching is not therapy. If the distinction between these two fields feels murky, check out: The Difference Between a Therapist and a Life Coach!
When working with people’s thoughts, emotions, and unconscious beliefs, we encourage coach practitioners to maintain a clear understanding of what we’re trained and qualified to do... and what we’re not. To that end, it's advisable to earn a coaching certification from a credible life coach training program. Our clients are best served when we learn how to apply the tools of positive psychology (and other coaching frameworks) ethically and responsibly!
Want to Become A Coach?
One of our values at JRNI is that we dare to be different. Our coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training. Grounded in the science of positive psychology, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.