Positive Psychology and Life Coaching: What’s the Difference?

If you’re familiar with the life coaching and personal development industries, you’ve probably seen a little buzzword floating around the internet: positive psychology. But just because you’ve heard of it doesn’t mean you know what it is. Many of our prospective coaches don’t

So in this article, we’re explaining what positive psychology is and how you can use it in your coaching practice to make a more significant impact on your clients.

WHAT IS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY?

Positive psychology is the science and study of happiness. 

Just as the name implies, it involves using psychological practices to build positive feelings, behaviours and traits. Not just any psychological approaches , either. These practices are evidence-based, research-backed, and scientifically proven to positively impact a person’s state of mind and happiness levels.

WHEN WAS POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY INVENTED?

Positive psychology was founded by Martin EP Saligman, a prominent researcher in psychology, in 1998.

Seligman was frustrated that the bulk of previous psychological research had focused on human deficits (such as mental illness or trauma) and ways of alleviating them. There was  considerably less research devoted to exploring and developing human strengths, well-being and happiness. 

Positive psychology was borne out of his desire to address this gap in research.  

The goal? To help people flourish and cultivate gratitude, self-compassion, high self-confidence, high hope, high self-esteem, high resilience, joy, inspiration and love. Rather than fixing negative states, then, the intent is to find scientifically-sound ways to cultivate more of the positive ones.

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As University of Michigan professor and positive psychology legend Christopher Peterson puts it:

Positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal.” Peterson, (2008).

THE EIGHT PILLARS OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

Positive psychology addresses eight critical domains of well-being, and teaches tools and interventions for coaches to use in all of these areas: 

  • Resilience — to help people be and feel stronger in adversity. 
  • Self-acceptance — to help people build a lasting sense of being good enough, regardless of failures, meeting external standards, or gaining approval from others.
  • Meaning and valued living — to help people find meaning in life, discover their values, and connect to their “why” so they can bear any “how” in a positive frame of mind. 
  • Maximising strengths — to help people realise their unique potential,  find the things they are naturally good at, leverage those personal strengths and deliver optimal performance. 
  • Supportive relationships — social connections are crucial to happiness and resilience, so positive psychology teaches the principles of relationships that promote human flourishing. 
  • Motivation, Goal Setting and Goal Achievement — to help people achieve meaningful success through the science of motivation and goal setting.
  • Emotional intelligence: Positive psychology teaches the key pillars of emotional intelligence, which form the foundation of supportive, healthy, flourishing relationships at home or work.
  • Mindfulness —to help people become aware of their emotions, feelings and thoughts and relate to them non-judgmentally, rather than being swept up in them.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIFE COACHING AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY?

This is another question we get asked often!

1. INNER KNOWING VS SCIENCE

Life coaching fundamentally focuses on the belief that clients have the answers and helps us tap into them using powerful questioning. Positive psychology purports that scientific research has the answers.

With its focus on science, it’s no surprise that positive psychology is also the model with the most research behind it (tens of thousands of studies and counting). So it can be a fantastic and reliable tool for delivering results for your clients.  

2. POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY IS THE NEWEST MODALITY

Here’s a glimpse at the evolution of different personal development models that are popular today:

  • The early 1800s: Hypnosis
  • The 1970s onwards: NLP
  • The 1980 onwards: Life Coaching
  • 2000 onwards: Positive Psychology

As you can see, positive psychology is the newest personal development modality. It has helped advance the development of the coaching industry by providing science-backed interventions that help people realise their goals and reach higher states of happiness.

DO LIFE COACHING AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY HAVE ANYTHING IN COMMON?

Yes! Positive psychology is a natural fit with traditional life coaching because the two modalities have a lot of overlap:  

  • Both assume people are healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow. 
  • Both work with people seeking improvement. 
  • Both focus on nurturing the strengths and talents that someone has rather than on fixing their weaknesses. 
  • Both seek behavioural change and goal setting.

Ultimately, both life coaching and positive psychology are focused on helping people achieve the things in life that help them feel great. They simply go about it in different ways.

HOW CAN YOU USE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY IN COACHING?

When you study positive psychology alongside traditional life coaching and therapeutic techniques such as NLP and hypnosis, you gain proven tools to incorporate into your coaching toolkit. 

This enables you to create a coaching experience that’s highly transformative and tailored to you, your niche, your preferred coaching style or the individual client.

Smiling woman talking to wellness coach about motivation and happiness,

Each of these modalities can serve a slightly different purpose, too.

As Glen Murdoch, founder of The Life Coaching College, explains, “Much of coaching is focused on creating change. But with positive psychology, coaches can move away from the change approach and instead use specific interventions to help clients find more happiness where they’re at. For some people, that is priceless.”

You can rest assured that this will bring about positive change in the long run, too, since the benefits of happiness are widespread — including better health, a longer life, closer friendships, more creativity and productivity at work and in life, and, in turn, greater success.

WHY POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY AND LIFE COACHING ARE A DREAM TEAM

Ultimately, clients seek out life coaches for support with a full range of issues, including:

  • Career challenges or goals
  • Getting over a break-up or divorce 
  • Improving relationships at home or work 
  • Personal and professional development
  • Being happier and feeling more fulfilled
  • The list is endless!

Positive psychology exercises and interventions can be effectively integrated into ANY coaching relationship, helping you achieve the best outcomes for clients.  

Together, positive psychology and life coaching make one powerful team by tapping into a clients’ inner knowing and the power of science to help create beautiful changes in their inner worlds and outer lives.

Want to Incorporate Positive Psychology Tools into your Life Coaching Style?

You’re in the right place!  If you’re already a certified Life Coach, take The Life Coaching College’s Positive Psychology Program to add positive psychology skills to your coaching toolbox.

If you’re not certified as a Life Coach yet, positive psychology training forms a large part of our Diploma of Life Coaching, Advanced Practitioner of Life Coaching and Master Practitioner of Life Coaching programs. This is alongside traditional life coaching techniques, NLP and hypnosis so you can make the biggest impact on your clients.

Ready to get started? Click here to learn more about our courses and become a certified coach!

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The Life Coaching College

Glen Murdoch is the founder and CEO of The Life Coaching College. He has a long history of working with Athletes and Teams as a Performance Coach and Analyst and has developed Australia's number 1 Life Coaching College.