Positive psychology, simply stated, is the science of strengths and positive characteristics. It is, in fact, a relatively new field, being officially established by renowned psychologist and former American Psychological Association (APA) President Dr. Martin Seligman in 1998. Dr. Seligman and his colleagues envisioned a science of strengths built on solid research, assessment and interventions that would help people and institutions flourish and thrive. This concept of positive psychology is nothing short of a revolutionary paradigm shift because it asks all of us to not simply think about how to fix what is broken but how to nurture what is best within us. By emphasizing what is "right," both in ourselves and our clients, we can thrive as professionals and help our clients to soar. Positive psychology, therefore, offers us, as fitness professionals, a compass, a map and the necessary coaching benchmarks to help enact change within our clients.
The World of Emotional WellnessMore often than not, we tend to know and be more acquainted with emotional unrest and other common emotional disorders. In fact, there is no shortage of information on the negative emotional states, such as depression, grief or anxiety. But it is happiness and other positive emotions that are an important piece of creating authentic emotional wellness. Research suggests that happy people (those who experience emotional wellness) tend to lead healthier lifestyles. They are more highly and meaningfully motivated because they are not satisfied with just "getting by." Thus, getting your clients into positive mood states and helping them find emotional wellness will impact and enhance your own professional skills while helping your clients stay on the right track.
"Emotional wellness" is a general category to describe not only positive mood states but also our ability to identify and create shifts in our emotional experiences through conscious healthy choices. However, emotional wellness does not imply that we are always giddy or jumping for joy but rather, that we tend to feel more positive than negative, and when we are feeling emotions such as sadness, we accept them with permission to experience such emotions. It is through this acceptance that we often feel a lightening or relief instead of further distress and a downward spiraling of negative emotions. Therefore, through emotional wellness, we are seeking a sense of overall well-being, not emotional "perfection."
The more that emotional wellness is promoted, our clients, as well as ourselves, will find liberation — more psychological energy to focus on what is most important: achievement of goals, healthier lifestyle choices, satisfying relationships and, yes, happiness. In fact, emotional wellness is very much like a high-yield bank account: we begin by investing a little and then feel the impact of its growth over time, enriching our lives.
A happy person is one who is in touch with and practices emotional wellness. So ask yourself: How would you identify an emotionally well person?
As a fitness professional, when you are evaluating if a client is an emotionally well individual, look to see if he or she:
- Expresses overall satisfaction with his or her life.
- Tends to notice and experience more positive emotions, such as joy, gratitude and happiness.
- Experiences occasional (and appropriate) negative emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness and guilt.
- Attends to a healthy lifestyle in such dimensions as work, relationships, family structures and spirituality.
- Values and also makes an effort in his or her daily life to be physically healthy and vibrant.
"Strength-Based" Coaching ApproachThe following are some suggestions for getting started on a strength-based coaching approach with your clients. These are, in essence, simple tips to guide and help your clients shift toward emotional wellness and positive states. Doing so, even in the most rudimentary way, will help re-energize, motivate and renew their commitment in their work with you.
Try the "Strengths Introduction" exercise
This is, in fact, a very simple exercise. Begin by asking your clients to give an example or share a short story that describes them at their best. This is an ideal way to start working with a new client, but it can also be used anytime you wish to introduce this concept of identifying client strengths. Remember, use your listening skills to identify a theme or strength-based descriptor in the story. What do you hear? Courage, perhaps? What about persistence, compassion, patience or gratitude? Many coaches ask their clients to take '
online assessments, designed by positive psychologists, to assess and rank individual character strengths. Research suggests that building on strengths is far more effective in coaching than taking an approach that improves weaknesses. In fact, your clients will feel the difference through this approach in your training. Simply reminding them of what they're already doing well will fuel their motivation and effort. Additionally, asking and helping them to find ways to leverage their strengths and apply them toward present challenges is also highly effective. The bottom line is this: simply the act and effort of identifying and talking about strengths bolsters and cultivates further growth and motivation. Whether you make a formal assessment or initiate informal conversation about your client's strengths is up to you.
Use Your CuriosityCuriosity tends to initiate qualities like playfulness, exploration, creativity and innovation. Thus, playing a game of "what if" can bring new solutions and possibilities to our minds when we, fitness professionals, feel stuck or fresh out of ideas. When a client is feeling discouraged, looking for new avenues or bored with the same old routine, our curiosity, as a coach and trainer, will help shift the angle of intervention. So, see what springs up from your own curiosity. Try asking your client to describe a situation from someone else's point of view, or suggest they consider how they might have approached a current challenge if they were 20 years older (or 20 years younger). The possibilities here are endless, but the result is the same. Asking coaching questions from a place of curiosity helps our clients give themselves permission to be playful, and this often leads to new and helpful solutions.
Know and Use Your Own Strengths
What do you do best as a trainer? What are your personal, signature strengths, and how do you use those in your work with clients? If you don't know, I'd strongly recommend that you find out! Take the VIA strengths assessment as a place to begin (see business fact). Start by researching your character strengths, and consider how you may use them in other dimensions of your life (including your work with clients). Just as we ask of our clients, we must aspire to grow and challenge ourselves. All of us fitness professionals want to be more effective and become better trainers. So, get in touch with your own strengths, and discover how you can harness them to strengthen your work, have a greater impact on your clients and feel a deepening satisfaction within your professional endeavors.
Remember to Have Fun
Humor is another playful and powerful way to support our clients. You may have a gift for knowing just when to put a smile on someone's face. If so, you know the simple truth in the power of humor: it puts everyone in a better mood. Healthy humor is, in fact, a path toward emotional wellness. The challenge here is to think creatively about easy ways to bring more humor into your daily life and into the lives of your clients. Ask your clients to share something that made them laugh recently. They will savor the humorous memory, and you will begin learning what tickles their funny bone (and it will probably bring a smile to your face in the process as well).
Finally, begin on this road to emotional wellness by applying the assessments and interventions to yourself first! The experience will support you and all that you do — nothing compares to the personal experience of "walking the talk" of positive psychology. You will amaze yourself! And the next step is sharing that newfound zest with your lucky clients who will benefit from your application of positive psychology. So pass it on!
Dr. Lori Gray Boothroyd is a licensed psychologist, ICF Certified Coach, Licensed Executive Wellcoach and serves on the training faculty for Wellcoaches Corporation. For more information, please visit www.loriboothroyd.com.