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Positive psychology, coaching and mental toughness

Gable and Haidt define positive psychology as “the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing (well-being) or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005, p. 103). It has been noted that many of the components of positive psychology are not new (Noble & McGrath, 2008), but Peterson (2006) and Linley and Joseph (2004) believe that it is a useful umbrella term that has the potential to unite a range of related but disparate directions in theory and research. Whilst much of the research in positive psychology has been focused on the understanding and development of wellbeing there is increasing recognition that the research and development of resilience also falls under the positive psychology umbrella. Resilience has been a topic of broader psychology for a long time although more recently topics such as “post-traumatic growth” and “mental toughness” have been included and focus on resilience as a crucial part of a flourishing life.

Green and Spence (in press) suggest the link between positive psychology and coaching is clear as both disciplines are focused on the cultivation of optimal functioning and wellbeing. As noted above, positive psychology dedicates itself primarily to the scientific study of wellbeing and resilience which includes the identification of intentional activities designed to increase both aspects. Coaching however focuses
primarily on the application of methods that encourage individuals to set and strive for personally meaningful goals within the framework of a collaborative relationship. Whilst goals may be varied, we would suggest that the goals of coaching are often broadly related to the goals of positive psychology (i.e., to “increase wellbeing”, “increase resilience”, “develop mental toughness”) and hence coaching can be used a methodology to apply the science of positive psychology.

There are increasing discussions on the integration and implementation of positive psychology research within coaching (e.g., Kauffman & Scoular, 2004). The term “Positive Psychology Coaching” (PPC) has become popular in the last few years as a result of some influential publications (Biswas-Diener, 2010; Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). Whilst there are no known scientific studies conducted on PPC, some evidence-based coaching studies have been published using positive psychological constructs as dependent variables. These include the first published randomised controlled trial of cognitivebehavioural, solution-focused life coaching for the enhancement of goal striving, wellbeing and hope (Green, Oades & Grant, 2006) and a subsequent study that compared professional and peer life coaching for the enhancement of goal striving and wellbeing (Spence & Grant, 2007). Whilst the evidence-based coaching methodologies used in these studies did not specifically include positive psychology techniques (i.e., “gratitude visits” or “random acts of kindness”), their aim was to increase both goal striving and wellbeing.

Whilst the term “mental toughness” has not yet been consistently linked to the umbrella term of positive psychology, we would argue that it does indeed fall under that umbrella. Clough and Strycharczyk make the connection when they propose that mental toughness is about “providing every individual with the opportunity to reach his or her full potential” (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2012a, p. 226). We would suggest that this definition is consistent with the aims of coaching and the definition of positive psychology (i.e., the scientific study of the conditions and process that lead to optimal human functioning) (Gable & Haidt, 2005).

As such we would encourage coaches to introduce the concept of mental toughness and utilise the MTQ48 in a Positive Psychology Coaching scenario whether the goals of coaching relate to “increasing resilience” or “enhancing wellbeing”.

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