In our previous posts we looked at coaching and psychology, now it is time for the third word: positive. Let's find out what the positive means in the context of positive psychology coaching and bring the three words together to something bigger.
Part 3: Life is not all sunshine and roses
I am always intrigued by the first associations people make when they hear positive psychology. Some say: “Oh yes, think positive!” Others are more philosophical: “Yes, we need more positivity in these times.” And again others say: “Can you help me because I have been feeling so low for such a long time now.” It’s quite a range of associations people make when they hone in on the “positive”. (And before you ask: No, being a positive psychology coach doesn’t mean that I am always happy and that my life is an endless sea of happiness either, unfortunately.) So what is this “positivity” really about?
Focus on well-being
Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes individuals and groups thrive and lead happier lives. It emerged as a response to traditional psychology’s focus on mental illnesses and how to treat them. But simply no longer feeling depressed or anxious doesn’t mean people are happy – they are just less unhappy. Positive psychology explicitly looks at mental wellbeing and how to increase or maintain happiness.
Do you remember what we said in part 2 about the difference between coaches and psychologists and how coaches work with those who are mentally well and psychologists with those who are unwell? Even though both may root their work in positive psychology science, coaches tend to work with those clients who need to increase or maintain wellbeing – rather than create it first. For example, if someone has had very low mood for some time, a psychologist is much better placed to first help that person feel less low and unhappy. Only then a positive psychology coach can support clients to find their own ways towards more wellbeing and happiness.
There is always light and shadow
But life has it’s ups and downs, it’s bright sides but also shadows. Sometimes we just have a bad day, for example spilling coffee over our desk to start and it just goes downhill from there. Other times it is more serious, for example when we lose our jobs or someone close to us falls ill. Both events may make us unhappy – there’s no point in pretending otherwise or to “think positive” when the reality is that we feel sad, angry or scared.
Unlike what some “positivity self-help” advice may tell you, thinking positive or trying to blank out the negative is not going to help. In fact, this tells you that a person may not really have grasped positive psychology. Positive psychology explicitly states that light and shadow, happiness and unhappiness co-exist and that we should acknowledge and accept both, even if the experience of the “negative” is really not that nice and we would much rather have only the happy bits. But amid all the negative stuff, there may still be the odd ray of light, no matter how faint. In fact, often it is the small things that help us sit out and get through the negatives – just having a nice cup of tea, seeing the blue sky, having a friend to talk to or making a plan.
Happiness come from within you – not from the coach
If we have spent, for example, weeks looking for a new job and none is forthcoming, then unhappiness may be with us even for some time. The point at which it becomes a mental illness and requires psychological attention is when we can no longer “function” by ourselves. But many of us can muster our personal resources to keep us going and even emerge better once things have settled.
Maybe we have character strengths like optimism or perseverance that help us in those times. Maybe we have friends and family that motivate us to keep trying and cheer us up when we need it. Maybe we meditate or do sports to keep our mind and body healthy. In these situations, a coach may be able to give structure to a client who is looking for direction or who needs a little push to help get unstuck. But a coach can never make your life more positive or make you happy – they can only assist you when you are creating your own happiness. Happiness comes from within you.
Not the answer
Positive psychology coaching is not the answer to unhappiness - I'm sorry if you are disappointed now. It simply means that the coach’s work is rooted in the science of positive psychology and often uses its evidence-based techniques and tools (so called positive psychology interventions or PPIs). It suggests that they have studied positive psychology in some depth (check for their MAPPCP credentials) and bring that perspective into the coaching relationship with you.
But then, coaching is not about giving you the answer - it is about asking the questions and you finding your own answers! You are creating your own happiness from the answers you find within you.
The sum of the three parts
So having explored the three parts, how is positive psychology coaching bigger than the three words? In the first place it is just coaching. But it comes out of and is informed by psychological science. Positive psychology looks at how people, who are perfectly capable of “functioning” and who are mentally healthy, can maintain or improve their wellbeing.
A positive psychology coach will bring their deep understanding of positive psychology and coaching psychology to the conversation and listen so that you can ask yourself the questions that help you explore how you might make your own life happier. Are you ready to ask some questions?