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Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of happiness to work for your clients, by R. Biswas-Diener and B. Dean

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The Journal of Positive Psychology
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Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of happiness to work for your
clients, by R. Biswas-Diener and B. Dean
Anthony M. Grant a
a Coaching Psychology Unit, Department of Psychology, University of Sydney, Australia
Online Publication Date: 01 September 2009
To cite this Article Grant, Anthony M.(2009)'Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of happiness to work for your clients, by
R. Biswas-Diener and B. Dean',The Journal of Positive Psychology,4:5,426 — 429
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The Journal of Positive Psychology
Vol. 4, No. 5, September 2009, 426–429
BOOK REVIEW
Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of
happiness to work for your clients, by R. Biswas-Diener
and B. Dean, Hoboken, Wiley, 2007, 272pp., US$50.00
(hardback), ISBN 0-47-0042-46-X.
Coaching and positive psychology appear to be a
perfect fit. Where positive psychology is the scientific
study of what constitutes the life well-lived (Seligman
& Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), the essence of coaching is a
collaborative, solution-focused, action-oriented meth-
odology that aims to enhance the coachee’s personal
and/or professional life experience, goal attainment
and well-being (Grant, 2003). To date, there has been
considerable progress in the field of positive psychol-
ogy as regards understanding human strengths and
values. However, much of the work thus far has been
about investigating the nature of the relationships
between various constructs, such as self-concordance,
well-being, goal attainment and goal satisfaction
(Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), the measurement of con-
structs such as well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1996) or
the development of a taxonomy of human strengths
(Peterson & Seligman, 2004), rather than research into
how best to operationalize positive psychology con-
structs within a one-to-one helping relationship such as
coaching.
There have been several book chapters and a
number of journal articles on this topic (c.f., Kauffman
& Scoular, 2004; Seligman, 2007), and there are several
solid texts on using positive psychology primarily
within consulting relationships rather than coaching
(e.g., Linley & Joseph, 2004). However, to the best of
my knowledge, Biswas-Diener and Dean’s Positive
Psychology Coaching is the first complete book to
systematically present the major findings of positive
psychology explicitly for use in coaching practice.
Coaching and positive psychology: an ideal fit?
As Biswas-Diener and Dean argue, coaching and
positive psychology appear to be an ideal fit.
However, if indeed these are such ideal compatriots,
why has coaching received so little attention within the
positive psychology literature? One answer might be
because in the past the commercial coaching industry
has not been held in high regard by many academics,
scientists and scientist-practitioners (Goldstein, 2005;
Salerno, 2005). Indeed, in various quarters coaching
is still regarded with some disdain. To be frank, this
disdain may well be justified as many sections of the
commercial coaching industry have done little to
demonstrate scientific, ethical or intellectual rigor in
either practice, research or coach training, and the
brash marketing by many life coaches is more remi-
niscent of the over-selling found in late-night television
infomercials than in a genuine helping profession.
Given that positive psychology has been at pains to
differentiate itself from the anti-science rhetoric and
faddism frequently associated with the human poten-
tial movement, its distancing from the commercial
coaching industry is understandable.
However, coaching as presented in Biswas-Diener
and Dean’s book, involves the systematic application
of the behavioral science of positive psychology
in the service of enhancing clients’ life experience,
work performance and wellbeing. It is the focus
on the systematic application of the evidence-based
behavioral science of positive psychology and the
incorporation of an informed-practitioner model that
distinguishes the coaching approach in this book from
the all-too-frequent pop-psychology or pseudo-science
seen in many proprietary coaching approaches. It is
this focus and this grounding that makes this book
such a welcome addition to the coaching and the
positive psychology literature. Whilst being theoreti-
cally-grounded and well-referenced, the book is written
in an accessible, conversational style making the text
highly readable, and the authors take care to present
the academic research in a way that makes it easy
to relate it to one’s own personal everyday life
experiences.
Applied positive psychology: consultant or coach?
The book is primarily written for practicing coaches
who wish to learn about positive psychology, rather
than positive psychologists who wish to learn about
coaching. The authors assume that the reader holds
a relatively sophisticated prior understanding of
coaching. Consequently, the authors do not spend
time explaining the basics of coaching, rather they get
straight into addressing the book’s primary aim,
which is to impart a straightforward understanding
of the research and science of positive psychology
ISSN 1743–9760 print/ISSN 1743–9779 online
ß2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17439760902992498
http://www.informaworld.com
Downloaded By: [Grant, Anthony M.] At: 12:50 11 August 2009
for use by coaches in real-life coaching practice.
This Biswas-Diener and Dean do particularly well.
Coaches with no previous knowledge of general
psychology, social science or positive psychology will
find this book presents this information in a highly
accessible fashion. Those who already have some
background in positive psychology will find that the
material presented may well provoke new lines of
thought about how to apply positive psychology.
In addition, the book overall presents a convincing
case for the use of coaching as a methodology for
applied positive psychology.
This latter point is important, because the
dominant methodology for the application of positive
psychology found in the academic literature tends
to position the positive psychology practitioner as
someone who gives the client directions as how to
best improve their well-being. Whilst the role of
expert consultant can be a useful one, there is a
danger that positive psychology interventions based on
a consultation model can become overly-prescriptive;
clearly we need to avoid the patronizing ‘take three
blessings and a gratitude exercise daily, and come
back to see me next week’ approach. Indeed, it is
somewhat ironic that overly-prescriptive positive
psychology interventions run the risk of emulating
the worst aspects of the medical model with its
attendant overt power hierarchies and paternalistic
tendencies. Fortunately, Biswas-Diener and Dean
present a collaborative, client-centered coaching
approach that provides an important counter-balance,
and this is an important contribution in the develop-
ment of an applied positive psychology.
Three key sections in the book
The book is presented in three key sections. The first
section addresses foundational concepts of happiness
and positivity. I found this section of the book to have
a welcome pragmatic focus, with the authors empha-
sizing the utility of happiness rather than taking an
evangelistic stance.
The authors make the salient point that coaching
clients rarely, if ever, come to coaching with the
explicit goal of being happy. Rather, clients tend
to present with specific complaints or problems.
As Biswas-Diener and Dean point out, the skill of
the coach lies in being able listen carefully to client
complaints, identity the unstated emotional needs and
then work with the client to help the client set goals
that are both materially and emotionally satisfying.
Indeed, the section on goal setting gives the reader
some useful ways to approach the process of setting
goals from a positive psychology perspective, and
reminds coaches to pay particular attention to issues
of self-concordance and goal conflict.
However, I found the section of the book on the use
of goals to be somewhat over-focused on the main-
stream positive psychology literature. Whilst this focus
is in keeping with the aims of the book, I felt that this
section would have benefited from drawing on the
broader goal literature to a greater extent, particularly
the work of Street (2002) on conditional goal setting,
and Locke and Latham’s seminal works on goals and
task motivation (2002).
Following the discussion of goals, Biswas-Diener
and Dean then go on to present a chapter on ways
to enhance happiness and well-being. This chapter
details a range of evidence-based interventions. Again,
the information in this section was well-referenced
and highly accessible, and most practicing coaches will
have little difficulty in adapting it for use in their own
coaching practice or in their own lives.
The second section of the book centers on character
strengths and virtues, and is predominately focused on
the work of Peterson and Seligman (2004). Whilst this
is a seminal work in the area, it would have been
useful had the book also covered other approaches
to understanding character strengths and virtues.
Nevertheless, this section of the book is a good
introduction to the Values in Action Inventory of
Strengths (VIA-IS; Peterson & Seligman, 2004) for
those coaches not already familiar with Peterson and
Seligman’s approach. Biswas-Diener and Dean also
present an informed perspective on the use of the
VAI-IS in coaching, and this rightly includes a
discussion on cross-cultural issues and a caution on
over-simplistic notions of a strengths approach.
This is important because without a solid under-
standing of the underlying principles and without
a sophisticated coaching skill-set, a strengths-based
coaching intervention can easily come across as
over-simplistic Pollyanna ‘happy talk’ or, even worse,
downright patronizing. Biswas-Diener and Dean dis-
cuss a range of ways to avoid these pitfalls, including
ideas on how to prepare the coaching client for
a strength-based coaching session, and they suggest
a number of ways of introducing the strength-based
paradigm to clients.
Preparing clients for a coaching session is one
thing, but another problem faced by many coaches is
how to prepare themselves for a coaching session. How
can one best get into a strengths-based mindset in
order to facilitate such thinking in the client? The
section on how to use a strengths-based framework to
prepare for a coaching session contained some useful
tips and techniques. For example, in addition to
The Journal of Positive Psychology 427
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planning the process of the session (also discussed in
the Appendix), Biswas-Diener and Dean suggest that
coaches mentally prepare for a coaching session by
focusing on and explicitly detailing the clients’
strengths.
Their well-grounded advice is for coaches to be
themselves, rather than trying to impress clients by
being a ‘super-motivated, all-action achievement
coach.’ This may appear common-sense or even trite
advice, but my experience is that many novice coaches
automatically assume that if they are offering positive
psychology coaching services then they themselves
must always be happy, highly positive, incredibly
motivated, and all aspects of their lives must be
perfect. Biswas-Diener and Dean’s message is clear
and important; know yourself, be yourself and be
authentic in your coaching style.
They also present scripted examples of how such
a session might progress, and this gives some insight
on ways to use the strength-based approach in a
coaching session. Here I felt it would also have been
helpful to have some more scripted examples of how
to deal with client ‘objections’ to the use of a strength-
based approach. This is because most coaches will
have had clients who, despite presenting as being
willing and engaged, still manage to find multiple
reasons why they should spend time in the coaching
session talking about their problems or past difficul-
ties, rather than strengths or solutions, and many
coaches find it difficult to help clients shift from a
problem to solution-focused mindset.
The third section of the book presents a short
overview of special topics in positive psychology,
including its application to jobs, careers and organi-
zations, and a discussion on the future of positive
psychology. This section is much briefer than the
other two sections. It presents useful information but,
because of its brevity, this section had a sense of
unfulfilled promise, and I would have liked to have
read more of the authors’ thoughts and experience
on these issues. Maybe this section will form the
beginnings of their next book on coaching? There are
certainly many coaches practicing in work-related
domains such as executive coaching, organizational
change, and training managers in coaching skills who
would welcome a workplace coaching text on positive
psychology, and this would be a valuable addition to
the coaching and positive psychology literature.
Meta-theoretical issues
An issue that some may consider to be a limitation,
and one which I believe is broadly true of writings on
positive psychology coaching in general, is the lack of
an commonly-used and explicitly-stated overarching
theoretical framework. Although applied positive psy-
chology encompasses a number of theoretical sub-
perspectives (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1980; Fredrickson &
Losada, 2005) and a number of authors have presented
a range of approaches to a meta-theoretical frame-
work for positive psychology (e.g., Sheldon, 2004), few
authors within the positive psychology coaching arena
detail their underlying assumptions or meta-theoretical
frameworks.
In contrast, other domains of applied psychology
explicitly articulate their assumptions and frameworks.
Contemporary health psychologists for example, tend
to work within a bio-psychosocial perspective (e.g.,
Sheridan & Radmacher, 1992). Where alternative
theoretical orientations are assumed in domains such
as health psychology, for example post-modern or
constructionist frameworks (Hepworth, 2006), those
core assumptions are normally explicitly stated, even if
only briefly.
In addressing issues related to theoretical orienta-
tion, Biswas-Diener and Dean welcome the notion
that positive psychology is transtheoretical, and that
there is no single theoretical framework for positive
psychology. This, they argue, is a good thing because
... (positive psychology) can be accepted in bits and
piece by everyone, without concern for ugly profes-
sional turf wars based on dearly held theoretical
orientations’ (p. 220). Their point has some merit.
However, without an explicit theoretical reference
point, positive psychology coaching runs the risk of
becoming (or perceived as being) a purely simplistic
technique-driven process, resulting in a superficial
one-size-fits-all approach. Although those with a
substantive training in psychology (or the social
or behavioral sciences) will be very familiar with (for
example) cognitive-behavioral or bio-psychosocial
conceptualisations, many individuals who come to
coaching from other backgrounds may not have
such a grounding (Spence, Cavanagh, & Grant,
2006). It may be useful for future work to explicitly
articulate such theoretical frameworks, and in this way
further contribute to the ongoing education of coaches
and the continued development of the field of applied
positive psychology.
Conclusions
Coaching and positive psychology have much to offer
each other. The sustained development of positive
psychology coaching requires that coaches become
informed about the science of positive psychology,
428 A.M. Grant
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and conversely, that positive psychologists become
knowledgeable about evidenced-based coaching meth-
odologies. Coaching authors have a vital role to play
in ensuring that coaches have exposure to the research,
practice and the theory of positive psychology.
Fortunately, Biswas-Diener and Dean’s book manages
the rare feat of balancing reader accessibility with
scientific fact, real-life experience with theoretical
frameworks, and optimism with a refreshing dose of
pragmatic realism. This book is a welcome addition
to the coaching and positive psychology literature.
References
Biswas-Diener, R., & Dean, B. (2007). Positive psychology
coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your
clients. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1980). Self-determination
theory: When mind mediates behavior. Journal of Mind
& Behavior, 1(1), 33–43.
Fredrickson, B.L., & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect
and the dynamics of human flourishing. American
Psychologist, 60(7), 678–686.
Goldstein, S. (2005). Editorial: Coaching as a treatment for
ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 9(2), 379–381.
Grant, A.M. (2003). The impact of life coaching on goal
attainment, metacognition and mental health. Social
Behavior & Personality, 31(3), 253–264.
Hepworth, J. (2006). Strengthening critical health psychol-
ogy. Journal of Health Psychology, 11(3), 401–408.
Kauffman, C., & Scoular, A. (2004). Towards a positive
psychology of executive coaching. In P.A. Linley &
S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice
(pp. 287–302). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Linley, P.A., & Joseph, S. (Eds.). (2004). Positive psychology
in practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically
useful theory of goal setting and task motivation.
American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths
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DC: American Psychological Association.
Ryff, C.D., & Keyes, C.L.M. (1996). The structure of
psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality
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Salerno, S. (2005, August 9). Qualifications needed to
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Seligman, M.E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive
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Anthony M. Grant
Coaching Psychology Unit
Department of Psychology
University of Sydney, Australia
anthonyg@psych.usyd.edu.au
The Journal of Positive Psychology 429
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... Whilst PP can be taught or delivered without a coach (Terni, 2015) the complementary nature and shared goals of the two fields mean that delivering PP using coaching techniques can really help coachees achieve a flourishing state (Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007). Grant (2009) points out that the field of PPC is still missing research on appropriate methodology of PP to coaching. Programs such as MAPPCP are a step in the right direction and will shed more light on to how exactly the two fields can work together in practice. ...
... ed on findings from interviews with 7 coaches who used PP in their practice. The latter is an empirical research study specifically on effective factors of change in PPC. Literature on how PP is used by coaches in their practice was not found. This could be due to coaches not reporting findings or it could be due to lack of uptake of PP by coaches.Grant (2009) points out that whilst a lot of progress has been made in the realms of PP research, an area that has been overlooked is how exactly coaches can operationalize PP in their practice. ...
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