This article will discuss happiness, it’s scientific measures and the role positive psychology has in promoting happiness in coaching and counselling practice. Traditionally scientists have focussed mostly on the problems with human psychology and it was not until 1998 that Seligman and others began to develop a new, positive vision and goal for Psychology (Wallis, Coady, Cray, Park, & Ressner, 2005). Positive Psychology is the study of what makes individuals, groups and organisations flourish and perform optimally. Humans place a high value on being happy and making choices in life that result in happiness and it’s easy to see why the study and practice of Positive Psychology has become popular. Happiness contributes to people’s health, relationships, success and longevity. (Diener, Biswas-Diener, & Biswas-Diener, 2009). Happiness which can sometimes also be called subjective well-being by researchers is defined by the experience of positive emotions that can be short-lived, coupled with a deeper meaning that enhances life satisfaction. These two elements that make up happiness; emotions and meaning can reinforce one another.
There are many different factors being researched in Positive Psychology that enhance our happiness. (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2008). In the following paragraphs I will discuss three of the different factors of positive psychology in depth and how they promote our experience of happiness. The three factors of positive psychology are psychological flow, positive emotions and emotional intelligence. Psychological flow state is defined by the quality of being totally absorbed in the present moment activity. Positive Emotions describe good feeling moods one can experience and they contribute to optimal functioning. (Mayer, Roberts, & Barsade, 2008). Emotional intelligence is defined by the ability to reason about emotions and use emotions to further improve thought. (Mayer et al., 2008). The essay will also discuss happiness measures and how they are used in the research of Positive Psychology. I’ll explore how research has helped build our understanding of happiness and inform the applications used by counsellors and coaches for increasing their client’s happiness and life satisfaction (Peterson, 2006).
The first aspect of positive psychology that contributes to happiness I will discuss is flow, which can often be found during optimal or peak performance. Flow happens when the person’s ego is lost to experience and they are totally absorbed in the present moment (Nakamura, & Csikezentmihalyi, 2009). Flow is characterised by the level of challenge the individual experiences being equal or slightly greater to their level of skill. During flow state there is also an immediate feedback loop between the goal and progress being made.
During the years 1980s-1990s, flow was studied by Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues using techniques such as interviews, questionnaires and experience sampling method (ESM). The ESM studies contributed to an understanding of what facilitates flow states and it’s been applied in a variety of contexts. ESM works using a pager that invites participants to record in the moment emotional, psychological and behavioural experience. There are two ways to apply the development of flow states in individuals and organisations; one is to mould activities and the environment to foster flow or reduce obstacles to it forming, and the other is to assist individuals in finding it within themselves (Reid, 2011). Examples of assisting individuals to find flow include interventions to make work a greater source of flow and using flow principles in designing products and environments (Reid, 2011).
In counselling and coaching the facilitators can use tools like SMART goals which are actually sub-goals to help clients access the flow state; SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed. As Csikszentmihalyi research identified, clear goals is an important factor for flow state to be achieved and with the balance of challenge and skill coaches can help clients identify and set appropriate goals for increasing the conditions conducive for flow state to emerge (Macleod, 2012). In counselling ESM and flow theory can be used to orient counselling toward the optimisation of strengths and skills (Reid, 2011). Mindfulness has also been used to help influence flow states in workplaces because mindfulness practice improves engagement and helps participants be more present and attuned to their task at hand (Macleod, 2012).
The second factor of Positive Psychology that contributes to happiness is positive emotions; such as joy, contentment, interest and love. Not only does positive emotion promote the feeling of pleasures in the moments they are experienced but it also enhances optimal functioning and psychological growth over the long term. Part of this psychological growth is experienced because positive emotion urges approach behaviours and encourages action. Positive emotion builds on our personal resources helping us become more knowledgeable, creative, resilient, socially integrated and healthy.
The most common way for scientists to measure happiness is called The Satisfaction with Life Scale created by Diener. More recently The Day Reconstruction Method was created by Daniel Kahneman inviting participants to fill out a long questionnaire and dairy entries; rating feelings at the time of day on a seven point scale. Happiness can be challenging to measure because of it’s inherent subjectiveness and the fact that even happy people sometimes feel down (Wallis et al., 2005).
The Broaden and build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson, it suggests positive emotion is the fuel for human flourishing (Fredrickson, 2005). During the experience of positive emotions peoples in the moment thought-action responses are widened; for example joy urges us to be playful not only in social or physical behaviours but also during intellectual and artistic behaviour.
Coaches and counsellors can boost their client’s ability to experience positive emotions with gratitude exercises like keeping a gratitude journal. Sonya Lyubominsky’s studies showed that over a period of six weeks participants who recorded what they were thankful for in a gratitude journal once a week found they had greater levels of life satisfaction (Wallis et al., 2005). Negative emotions can also be reduced with Mindful Self-Compassion interventions in counselling by clients learning to accept their negative emotions by cultivating kindness and compassion toward them which can eventually transform their emotional state. The Loving-Kindness Meditation is an example of an activity that can cultivate greater levels of self-compassion and compassion for others (Ashley, & Germer, 2011).
The third factor of Positive Psychology that contributes to happiness is Emotional Intelligence, EI involves the ability to reason and use emotions to understand thought and enhance emotional knowledge. EI is a predictor of many meaningful outcomes including workplace performance, social relations, and mental and physical wellbeing. Two ways EI can be theorised and measured is using Integrative model and Specific-Ability Approaches displaying test validity. Specific-Ability approach involves concentrating on skills that are necessary for EI. The Integrative model connects several specific abilities to get an overall sense of EI. EI is a new area of research in science and there is still a lot that is not understood including why some of the different scales for emotional perception do not correlate (Goldin, & Gross, 2010). The Mayer-Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MECIT) is another example of how EI can be measured, asking participants to identify emotions using a four-branch model of emotional; intelligence that implies emotions are experienced for different function or different purposes Mayer et al., 2008).
Mindfulness training is an approach that can be used to increase emotional regulation and enhance emotional awareness in coaching and counselling. According to Goldin (2010) an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program can help clients reduce stress, anxiety and depression and enhance the ability to emotionally regulate. Mindfulness works by training participants to intentionally attend to thoughts, sensations and emotions with focussed attention or open awareness. Although MBSR doesn’t specifically instruct participants to change the nature of emotional reactivity it appears overtime to reduce it as well as improve the capacity to hold the attention and self-focus in the present moment. Mindfulness improves the ability to exert cognitive control over your attention, have greater emotional flexibility and be able to choose to move away from aversive emotional stimuli (Goldin et al., 2010).
While the study of happiness in the field of Positive Psychology is a fairly new focus for research with many areas that require more in depth research, it’s practical application in society including through coaching and counselling practice can have far reaching benefits. Valid measures have helped scientists debunk some of the myths around happiness and helped the study of emotions move into the domain of scientific research (Diener et al., 2009). As I have shown in this essay three of the factors of Positive Psychology Flow, Positive Emotion and Emotional Intelligence have helped humans begin to understand the role emotions play in intelligence, behaviour and even growth. Through the study of positive psychology we can begin to start to develop more applications that enhance our ability to experience happiness and help counselling and coaching clients move away from maladaptive behaviours toward more positive, happy life experiences. And while happiness is not a guard against ever experiencing negative emotions and life experiences it can help build our internal resources in being able to cope with them when they occur. Positive Psychology can help develop our ability to regulate, be more emotionally aware and savour the positive experiences when they do occur.
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