When you hear the term “positive psychology,” what comes to mind?
For many people, it might conjure up images of floral themed gratitude journals, and post-it notes covered in positive affirmations. But what’s actually behind those daily practices? Why do therapists and coaches recommend them, and can they really make a difference?
At JRNI Coaching, you’ll hear us talk a lot about positive psychology in our life coach training program. That’s because evidence-based and science-backed training is the foundation of what we do. When it comes to helping people achieve their goals and live in alignment with their values and dreams, we think coaches need to understand how the human mind actually works.
What Is Positive Psychology?
Simply put, positive psychology is the study of human happiness. It’s a movement that began back in the 1960’s, driven by the work of psychology researcher Martin Seligman. In a field that is often dominated by an emphasis on human pain and suffering, positive psychology takes a different spin on things. It aims to study -- and teach -- the practices, mindset, and beliefs that contribute to achieving and maintaining “the good life.
In positive psychology, our focus is on cultivating an inner toolkit centered around personal strengths. In this process, we’re not seeking to deny pain, suffering, or trauma.
Those are very real experiences, and deserve attention and healing-centered care. However, when implementing positive psychology tools and techniques, our assumption is that the client is at baseline mental wellness, and is interested in exploring these methods.
Positive psychology doesn’t sweep away negative thoughts and emotions. Instead, it uses them as a starting point for investigation. This involves recognizing the inner voice of criticism, diminishment, and self doubt, and learning how to work with them.
We can’t shift what we can’t see, so an initial step is simply recognizing what’s there. Positive psychology isn’t about pushing negativity away. It’s about really feeling our way into the roots of our negative thoughts, gently digging them up, and planting new seeds in their place.
The field of positive psychology is extensive, but it all boils down to a very simple central theme: improving our quality of life. It’s a science that helps individuals and organizations move from a state of surviving to thriving.
Whether we’re working to increase emotional intelligence or cultivate gratitude, positive psychology is not just theoretical. It’s an experiential practice that encourages clients to try on specific techniques, trust themselves, lean into their strengths, and discover what works best for them.
How Does This Show Up in Coaching?
When we’re working with principles of positive psychology in a coaching context, we should first assess client readiness. Are they 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? Are they willing to do homework, and try new things? This is the starting point for implementing a coaching framework rooted in positive psychology.
Positive psychology techniques that you’ll often see used by coaches 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: imagining and working toward a “best possible future self”
- Developing healthy habits and strengthening personal accountability
Positive psychology provides evidence-based tools that can help drive lasting change and increase overall satisfaction in life. For coaches who want a framework for helping their clients get consistent and measurable results, it’s useful to be familiar with the science and practice of positive psychology.
Why Positive Psychology Matters in Life Coaching
The value of coaching is ultimately determined by the outcomes our clients achieve. There are times, though, when clients don’t themselves know how to articulate the outcome they’re really looking for. People often hire a life coach because they believe they need help overcoming an area of weakness. They may think the key to achieving their goals is simply a matter of discipline and accountability.
Underneath the stated goal a client comes to coaching with, there may be an even more fundamental desire that has not been expressed. The desire to feel content. To be happy. To feel more satisfied with themselves, and their life.
A good coach understands both what’s on the surface, as well as what’s underneath. An example of this might be a client who comes in wanting help with weight loss. They’ve joined the gym, and tried a variety of diets. Nothing sticks. They lose weight, only to gain it back over and over again. The client hires a coach to help them drop 25 pounds and keep it off. That’s the goal. Simple, right?
What a coach often uncovers in working with clients like this is an underlying negative core belief lurking beneath the surface. They may be driven to lose weight from a place of pain and shame rather than aspiration and joy. In many cases, this is actually what has been holding the client back. Coaching then involves exploring the client’s feelings of self doubt, or self-sabotaging behaviors. Knowing how to professionally guide a client through this level of self inquiry is a critical skill, and one which requires both training and compassion to develop.
Coaching is an unregulated field, which means anyone can do it. It doesn’t require a psychology degree, or any particular background. This can naturally leave a lot of room for error, mixed results, and even unintended harm.
When it comes to working with people’s thoughts, emotions, and unconscious beliefs, it’s important to know what you’re doing. Professional training increases a coach’s efficacy and credibility. If you’re an aspiring coach, it’s always advisable to get certification from a credible program.
At JRNI Coaching, we champion principles of positive psychology in our coaching programs for one very simple reason: they work. Our tools are evidence based, and backed by good science. If you’re curious about positive psychology and want to learn more, JRNI Coaching’s The Everything Life Coaching podcast contains an expansive catalogue of topics to explore. Come listen as JRNI co-founders John Kim (The Angry Therapist) and Noelle Cordeaux (CEO of JRNI Coaching) discuss how positive psychology works in coaching here!