We all know people who just never seem to have a bad day. They’re always perky, up, ready to go, eager to please — kind of like a puppy. But when you’re not feeling it, and maybe the day hasn’t been all that great for you, that person’s sunniness can be annoying at the very least, or on our worst days, can be something we simply can’t relate to or even believe is genuine! Yet there is usually something there that is attractive and admirable about their optimism. We want what they have, maybe just a touch of it.
So what is positive psychology, and, if you sign on with a coach, counselor or therapist who espouses positive psychology, are they going to try to turn you into a Pollyanna?! Rest assured, the aim of positive psychology is NOT to see the world through rose-colored glasses. In his book Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, Robert Biswas-Diener describes four key points about the field:
1) Positive psychology looks at what is right with people.
2) It recognizes negative emotions, failure, and problems as natural and important parts of life.
3) It is first and foremost a science backed by research that leads to the creation of real-world interventions that will improve school, business, government, and other aspects of individual social life.
4) Interventions are largely positive with a focus on promoting superior functioning, instead of alleviating pain or restoring a normal level of functioning. (p. 5)
So the science of positive psychology and the art of coaching intersect at their common goal of promoting well-being, happiness, and personal success. In her article, Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching, Carol Kauffman expresses the popular belief that ‘positive psychology provides a robust theoretical and empirical base for the artful practice of life and executive coaching.” She goes on to say that psychology began the 20th century developing tools to measure human pathology. Our current century is seeing the development of “assessment tools, interventions, research methods to study strengths and virtues.” Just as psychologists have devoted their careers to diagnosing mental illness, the new wave of practitioners of positive psychology are measuring “strengths, hope, optimism, and love reliably. Studies show them to be effective with sustainable impact.” (p. 221)
You can see that positive psychology is not about unbridled optimism. Instead it helps us discover where our strengths lie, and what is already working for us in our lives. With that knowledge a coach or other practitioner can work with us to set appropriate and realistic goals concerning any and all aspects of our lives. We can harness the energy and talents that come naturally to us. We can choose the partner, hobbies, career, and lifestyle that capitalize on our strengths, and help us to maximize the joy and flourishing available to us throughout our lives.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing Positive Pscyhology Coaching: Assessment, Activities, and Strategies for Success. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.
Kauffman, C. (2006). Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching. In D. Stober, & A. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients (pp. 219-253). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.