If you’ve ever asked yourself how positive psychology and life coaching differ, you’re definitely not alone. Brief definitions don’t distinguish between these two very different approaches towards well-being.
What is even more surprising than their marked differences is how powerful positive psychology and life coaching are when used together. In order to truly understand how these two compare, let’s start by gaining a better understanding of what they really entail.
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.”
– Pete Carroll
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The origins of coaching trace back to the 1940s, but it was only in the 1980s that the field came to stand on its own. In the last few years, coaching has become pervasive in our society.
Originally used in sports and organizations, coaching is no longer limited to Olympic athletes or executives of big organizations. More and more people are coming to understand that relying on a coach for guidance and feedback allows them to live successfully on their own terms.
Simultaneously, coaching programs and courses are stepping up and meeting higher demands and standards for training. Currently, coaches and aspiring coaches can pursue graduate degrees in coaching offered by universities in certain countries.
What Exactly is Coaching?
“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”
– Timothy Gallwey
Coaching is a confidential and trust-based relationship between a client, who wants to:
- Improve a certain area of their life
- Optimize their performance and achieve certain goals
- Gain clarity and a clear course of action
- Resolve issues, preventing them from becoming full-blown problems,
And a qualified professional that:
- Trusts the client to find the answers to their questions
- Believes that change is possible and holds the client accountable for their actions
- Offers clarity and insight into current circumstances and the desired outcome
- Provides powerful assessments, questions, and tools that facilitate awareness and a sense of direction.
In sum, coaching is an ongoing process between two people (or more with group coaching), that draws on a foundation of trust to build awareness, skills and an action plan that allows the desired transformation to come to life.
It’s about bringing out the best in people and inspiring them to act on their potential.
Difference Between Coaching and Therapy
“Clients come to therapy or coaching wanting to change, and both professions assume that significant change will occur over time”
– Hayden & Whitworth
Coaching and therapy are distinct in many ways and it’s important to draw a clear line between them.
Therapy is, generally speaking, for people dealing with a psychological issue that undermines their ability to function in healthy and adaptive ways. The focus is retrospective and includes repairing damage from previous experiences.
Identifying and treating disorders and pathologies and alleviating symptoms through behavioral, cognitive or analytic interventions is the scope of therapy.
Even though both approaches rely on developing awareness and developmental issues, therapy relies on awareness of past experiences to bring about healing in the present, and coaching sheds light into unseen possibilities and strengths thus linking awareness to action.
Who Is It For?
Coaching is for healthy and functioning people seeking change in their lives that will result in greater fulfillment both personally and professionally.
Types of Coaching
These professionals specialize in a given topic where they can reach a niche of people with the same type of needs and desires, addressing them with in-depth knowledge.
A couple of years ago, coaching was essentially split into two categories:
- Life coaching
- Business coaching
Life coaches would deal with clients wanting to enhance an aspect of their personal lives. Business coaches, drawing on their own corporate experience, would offer guidance and insight to clients looking for a change or improvement of their work performance.
Psychology Coaching and Positive Psychology Coaching
The field of coaching is still recent and is unregulated, making it fairly easy for anyone to call themselves a coach.
Even with coaching training, a large number of these professionals don’t have a degree in psychology or behavioral sciences, resulting in a field that lacks a solid scientific research base.
Both psychology coaching and positive psychology coaching are approaches that stem from psychological theory and professionals of these branches are usually trained in either psychology or positive psychology, informing their work with research from the field.
“Psychologists have the most training of any profession in understanding human motivation, behavior, learning and change, and if they’ve done clinical work, they have a depth of one-on-one experience far greater than that of people who aren’t mental health professionals. Coaching is actually a great fit with what most of us [psychologists] already do.”
– Jeffrey E. Auerbach
Psychology coaching uses the science of psychology in practical ways that support clients in increasing success and well-being in their personal and professional lives.
Positive psychology coaching uses the science of well-being and research-based assessments and interventions to bring about greater satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
The Benefits of Coaching
One of the changes from the last few years is that there is now a strong body of research showing the effects and benefits brought about by a coaching process.
We no longer need to rely solely on the testimonials of clients and, instead, can count on science to provide data that accounts for the effectiveness of coaching and the different tools used.
Studies show that coaching:
- Makes a significant impact on one’s overall life satisfaction
- Is an effective approach to goal attainment and personal development
- Helps clients become more effective by teaching them how to set concrete, measurable goals and break them down into manageable steps
- Is an effective strategy in which the collaborative efforts help the client identify and take action towards creating change in their life
- Asks challenging questions which encourage the client to look for new ways of coming up with solutions.
It is worth noting that life coaching is a highly unregulated industry and there is no standard format for coaching. Therefore, there are different schools of practice and everyone has a unique coaching style.
Life coaching is generally predicated on the belief that a person has the solutions to their most pressing questions and challenges within themselves, and the role of the coach is to help the client uncover these solutions. Through asking the right questions, providing insight and an objective perspective, and serving as a source of accountability, coaches help people remove their personal obstacles in order to reach their true potential.
Coaches help people recognize and break the unwanted negative cycles of behavior that govern their lives and empower them to choose how they want to live. Lastly, clients often lead the coaching process.
The client sets the goals they want to achieve and is led by their coach to find the appropriate actions to reach their goals. Coaching is a booming industry and has applications across many domains, including business, relationships, health, finding purpose, and more. There is hardly a field that life coaching cannot add to, including positive psychology.
For anyone unfamiliar with positive psychology, check out this article containing a useful introduction to the field.
In short, positive psychology seeks to understand what constitutes an optimal lifestyle and uses research-based interventions to help people live pleasant, meaningful, and engaged lives. It is largely based on identifying the strengths and virtues of individuals and promoting them.
The study of positive psychology has allowed for the discovery and validation of many practices known to assist in achieving an optimal life. For example, writing things down for which you are grateful in a weekly journal has been shown to boost positive emotions, and is often recommended by positive psychology practitioners.
An understanding of positive psychology principles can be applied to many industries such as education, consulting, research, law, and, you guessed it, coaching.
Comparing the Two
Positive psychology and life coaching actually have quite a bit in common. Primarily, they both operate off of the belief that people are basically healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow.
They both target healthy individuals and do not try to fill the role of therapy. Additionally, neither of them promotes ignoring negative feelings in blind pursuit of constant happiness. Both recognize the value of negative emotions and utilize them to foster individual growth.
Furthermore, they both emphasize personal and professional growth. They attempt to contribute to an individual’s self-awareness so that they may live a life of greater fulfillment.
Coaching often results in the same optimal states of life enjoyment, fulfillment, and engagement that positive psychology strives for. However, coaching and positive psychology’s methods of achieving this result can often differ.
One of the beliefs held in coaching is that people have the answers to reach their own goals and that the answers should come from within. Alternatively, positive psychology is based off research that has proven results for a large number of people.
Practitioners of positive psychology often recommend the interventions supported by this research to people they seek to help. There are many people who prefer this approach, as the approaches are scientifically validated and it is much easier to visualize an action plan from the onset.
Nonetheless, life coaching has a long history of success and coaches often include science when helping clients learn about themselves and when giving suggestions for ways to help clients reach their goals.
Though coaching generally steers away from giving advice, it does make use of exercises to help clients grow and provides a framework to guide them. The integrative nature of coaching combined with the applicability of positive psychology to be used in any domain of life combines to form the field known as Positive Psychology Coaching.
Positive Psychology Coaching
When combining the strengths of intuition and accountability in life coaching and the research-backed solutions of positive psychology, clients can achieve powerful growth that neither field would provide individually.
For example, one powerful tenet of life coaching is that awareness breeds useful change. By raising your own awareness of your unconscious habits and patterns and learning to see your life from a more objective perspective, you can then choose how you wish to live your life.
However, people often hit a roadblock as they may not like what they learn about themselves and will get in the way of their own awareness. This is where the introduction of positive psychology can be useful.
There are exercises, such as a self-compassion letter, which allow a person to learn to silence their own inner critic and motivate themselves without constant criticism. By developing their own self-compassion through positive psychology exercises, clients can often reach higher levels of awareness without any further instruction.
Whether your interest stems from a desire to help yourself or others, a search for a career change, or just curiosity, both life coaching and positive psychology are powerful tools for personal growth.
Interview With Lisa Sansom: 12 Urgent Questions Answered
What is positive psychology coaching? How does it differ from regular coaching? When can I call myself a positive psychologist?
These are just a few of the numerous questions about positive psychology coaching that we have investigated over the last two years.
We interviewed positive psychology expert Lisa Sansom (featured at the right side of the picture) to get her opinion.
Below you will find her responses as well as links to other suggested websites for further exploration.
Can you give a definition of positive psychology coaching?
Others have defined this before me. For example:
“Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC) is a scientifically-rooted approach to helping clients increase well-being, enhance and apply strengths, improve performance, and achieve valued goals. At the core of PPC is a belief in the power of science to elucidate the best [methods for development].”
– Researchers Carol Kauffman, Ilona Boniwell & Jordan Silberman
MentorCoach indicates that:
“In short, positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. It is a rich and growing field, and aligns perfectly with coaching. Both assume people are basically healthy, resourceful, and motivated to grow.”
Essentially, I’d say that it’s using the positive psychology research findings to inform one’s coaching techniques, methods, mindsets and approach.
So how does it differ from regular coaching?
On the surface, it might not look or feel much different to a client. However, what is different is that the PP coach continues his or her life-long learning in the field of positive psychology by staying engaged with the research, the literature, the researchers and other PP professionals.
The PP coach also adjusts his or her coaching techniques, methodologies, etc, accordingly when new findings are discovered. “Regular” coaches may not be as tied to the empirical evidence and research findings, and so their techniques and methodologies may change only as a function of their own experiences, [from] attending conferences where they learn from other coaches’ anecdotal experiences, or they may not change substantially at all.
You can also learn more about positive psychology coaching from the Institute of Coaching.
One of the Directors of the Institute of Coaching, Margaret Moore, wrote a great article about it here.
U Penn MAPP grad and coach, Peter Berridge, wrote his Capstone on the topic if you are looking for more in-depth information.
Is a positive psychology practitioner called a PP coach? What is the difference between a coach and a practitioner?
A PP coach is someone who does coaching and is trained as a coach. A PP practitioner may apply positive psychology research findings to other areas, such as nursing, teaching, social work, therapy, parenting, etc. There are many “positive psychology practitioners.” Coaching is one area where individuals may choose to apply positive psychology.
Robert Biswas-Diener of Positive Acorn wrote “the” book on positive psychology coaching – it’s well worth a read for any coach who wants to know more about the field. It’s called ‘Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching’ and with Ben Dean (of MentorCoach), they wrote ‘Positive Psychology Coaching’ (Amazon links here and here respectively).
How does a PP coach differ from a life or business coach that applies the principles of PP?
Now we’re really splitting hairs! I suppose you could say that the “principles” of positive psychology are not quite the same as the “research” of positive psychology. If we go back to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll see this definition of positive psychology:
“Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
In order to be a PP coach then, you would also have to believe “that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
However, it is my experience that most, if not all, coaches who are properly trained in the field hold these beliefs. Before I knew about PP, I was taught as a coach to believe that people are “creative, resourceful and whole.” (Co-Active Coaching Amazon, Laura Whitworth). I would say that these principles are consistent with PP principles.
Perhaps the one thing that is different, as I alluded to above, is that the PP coach also believes in staying close to the science and adjusting his or her approach (etc) accordingly. Coaches that are getting their PP from mass media books only are not getting the full richness and subtleties that are inherent in positive psychology research.
Is an online course enough to become a PP practitioner, or does one need a background in psychology in the form of a Bachelor, Master or Ph.D.?
This is definitely an “it depends.” There are great online courses out there, such as MentorCoach, Positive Acorn, CaPP Institute, CiPP, Zone Positive, WholeBeing Institute, Caroline Miller and others which I’m not remembering right now. These are courses designed and delivered by people with deep expertise in positive psychology – founders of the field, researchers, people with advanced degrees.
However, there are also fakers out there (I won’t provide links but check out some potential criteria here) who basically say “read these books and write a report and now you’re certified.”
Consumers, as always, must do their due diligence. I get a lot of requests from people asking me if I’ve heard of such-and-such a practitioner or program. I’m very happy to help people do their due diligence by providing my own perspective. It also helps if the program (founders, designers, instructors) has an affiliation with a recognized MAPP program (such as U Penn, Claremont, UEL, Bucks, etc) and/or a positive psychology association like IPPA or the CPPA.
Overall, to be an effective PP coach or practitioner, one does not need a strong background in traditional psychology and one does not need to be a certified, qualified psychologist.
However, beware of anyone calling themselves a “positive psychologist.” You can only do this if you have psychological credentials. That term merits further investigation by a savvy consumer. We prefer to use the title “positive psychology practitioner” instead.
Beware of anyone calling themselves a “positive psychologist”
How does PP coaching work? What does the process look like?
This will differ from coach to coach. There is no prescribed process for positive psychology coaching.
What makes you a PP coach and what qualifications should people look for in their positive psychology coach?
I am a certified coach through the Adler School of Professional Coaching and I took the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.
I also took courses through MentorCoach and had professors such as Chris Peterson. I continue my education through MOOCs with amazing professors such as Barb Fredrickson and I attend conferences such as the IPPA World Congress on Positive Psychology and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference.
When clients are seeking a PP coach, they should ask questions about those three areas.
1) What is your training and certification to be a coach?
2) What makes you qualified to call yourself a “positive psychology” coach?
3) How do you stay on top of the new findings in the world of positive psychology?
And, of course, clients should go through other questions to ensure a “good fit” with their coach.
Some further guidance on how to do that can be found on the ICF (International Coach Federation) site.
What is the process for seeking out and engaging a PP coach?
There are several options for you to find a PP coach.
You can use the directory at a coach training institution, such as those mentioned above.
Positive Psychology News Daily has a list as well.
Noomii, which is “the web’s largest directory” of life and business coaches, was started by UPenn MAPP Grad Kurt Shuster.
What are the potential benefits of PP coaching?
The potential benefits of PP coaching are much the same as regular coaching – personal and professional growth, moving closer to your important goals, self-awareness and so on. The ICF has a good page that outlines why people would engage with a coach.
Additionally, the benefits of working with a PP coach who is well-trained and qualified are that you will be drawing on a valid body of research (as opposed to just intuition and that individual’s personal coaching experience) and that your coach will know the why and wherefore of the practices, rather than just guessing that things might work for you.
What are the potential downsides of PP coaching?
This is a fabulous question, because there are downsides to everything. One potential downside is that the research findings from PP apply to an “average” person within the tested population. You, as a very individual client, may not fit that “average” – it’s important to realize that nothing works for everyone, even if that intervention or activity is empirically-based.
For example, a very famous positive psychology intervention is the gratitude journal where you write things down for which you are grateful and why. This intervention can be changed up a number of different ways, not all of which have been thoroughly tested – for example, how many things do you write down for each entry?
When do you write the journal (morning, evening)? Do you have to do it every day or more or less frequently? Do you have to hand-write it or will an app work as well? What are the components of a highly successful gratitude journal?
And even after nailing down all of those details, it turns out that a gratitude journal still won’t work for everyone. There are cultural differences about what gratitude means, gender differences, age differences, value differences, etc, and all of those combinations and permutations have not been thoroughly tested.
All this means is that your PP coach might mention that you could benefit from doing a gratitude journal, and it might not work because you just aren’t a “gratitude journal” type of person. And that’s totally fine.
There are also issues about ensuring that the PP coach stays on top of the current research. For example, for quite some time, Barbara Fredrickson’s 3:1 positivity ratio was almost PP doctrine. Then along comes Brown and Sokol who say, wait a minute – the mathematical modeling doesn’t hold and there is no tipping point!
However, there are still many interventions, books, blogs, etc that make use of the 3:1 tipping point model, even though it’s been mathematically debunked and the psychological research is still ongoing. This might be one of those things that doesn’t go away, like neuroscience myths that our right brain and left brain have domain-specific independent functions and roles, or that we only use 10% of our brains. Those are both myths, by the way – just to be clear about that. With the 3:1 ratio, it’s still under investigation.
Another downside to PP coaching is the belief that positive psychology is about happiness. Let me say quite clearly that it’s not. But many believe that it is. If you’re about happiness, get a coach who is clearly about happiness. It’s a life goal and some people have it and if it’s yours, then get someone who will help you with it. (But be aware that, according to recent research, the pursuit of happiness can make you unhappy and placing too much value on happiness can make you unhappy too.)
There is nothing in positive psychology that has ever said to ignore the downs of life or to turn a blind eye to its vicissitudes. A savvy PP client knows this and so does the well-trained PP coach. It’s not all about only ever experiencing positive emotions. That can be problematic too.
I’m a big fan of PP coaching – I have a clear bias on this because I do coaching and I do use PP findings to inform my coaching and help my clients move towards their goals. However, both coach and client need to be very aware of what PP is and isn’t, just like they need to be aware of what coaching is and isn’t so that they don’t fall into these traps and downsides.
“Both coach and client need to be very aware of what positive psychology is and isn’t”
What are the limitations of PP coaching and coaching in general (as opposed to when a situation may call for counseling, therapy, medical interventions, etc)?
The International Coach Federation has a great list of FAQs on what coaching is and isn’t, and when other modalities (like counseling, therapy, etc) may be called for.
You asked about medical interventions. Coaches do not prescribe medication. They may, however, ask about lifestyle elements such as sleep, eating habits, exercise and so on. There are specific lifestyle coaches who can help clients make positive progress in these areas, and some of those lifestyle coaches are trained in positive psychology as well.
I have had clients who were working with a therapist AND myself as a coach. It works well. For example, I had a client who was on anti-depressants and working with a psychotherapist about her past. This client wanted to work with me to be able to craft the life and balance she wanted for when she was done with the anti-depressants and therapy. It’s sort of like planning for your retirement while you are still working. As long as the coach is clear about the boundaries and the client is clear about the issues and boundaries, then it works.
What areas of life and business can it apply it to?
All of them. Just ask.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I would highly recommend that you reach out to Ebbe Lavendt about this too – it’s the focus of his research and he’d have some great answers.
- Ebbe Lavendt’s Youtube channel
- Paper on positive psychology coaching
- Ebbe Lavendt’s talk at the World Conference on Positive Psychology:
Lisa is one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of positive psychology. Hopefully, because of her time and effort put into answering these questions, the distinction between positive psychology coaching and life coaching is a little bit clearer. Please comment below with any questions or comments about the intersection between these two fields.
American Psychological Association, A. P. A. (2016). First-class coaching. Retrieved here.
Biswas-Diener, R., & Dean, B. (2007). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
Hart, V., & Leipsic, S. (2001). Coaching versus therapy: A perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research, 53(4), 229–237.
Luoma, D. The Effectiveness of Life Coaching on Overall Life Satisfaction. Master’s Thesis: Pepperdine University, The George L. Graziadio School of Business and Management.