Achieving Success and Happiness: Positive Psychology Coaching in Practice

{Franklin, 2018. Achieving Success and Happiness. The relevance of theories of wellbeing and flourishing in Positive Psychology Coaching practice. In Green & Palmer. PPC in Practice.} 

Positive psychology (PP) theories can inform the agenda and process of Positive Psychology Coaching (PPC), sharpen the focus and heighten the beneficial impact of coaching, greatly impacting client motivation and directing the change process. 

Happiness or subjective wellbeing is a composite of life satisfaction and the experience of more positive than negative emotions. 

Resilience is a set of life skills that enable people to deal effectively with adversity.

Thriving and flourishing refer to satisfying needs, particularly the need to pursue a life purpose and realize one’s potentials.

Wellbeing refers to need satisfaction and the outcomes or objectives humans universally desire, such as life satisfaction, success, health and vitality, and the experience of predominantly pleasant emotions. We may include skills and behaviors and external resources that lead to need satisfaction: skills and behaviors, such as the development of self-efficacy and resilience; external resources, such as employment and housing.

{Interlude: People would benefit from clarifying which desire arises from their need, which desire arises from their habit or personal learning, and which desire arises from convention or acculturation.}

Positive emotions refer to pleasant emotions.

Negative emotions refer to unpleasant emotions.

Positive behavior is behavior useful or helpful in achieving the desired outcome.

Negative behavior is behavior unhelpful in achieving an outcome.

Seligman’s PERMA Theory of Wellbeing identifies five pathways to wellbeing.

P – Positive emotion, the Pleasant Life

E – Engagement, the Engaged Life

R – Positive Relationships

M – Meaning, the Meaningful Life

A – Accomplishment

The Pleasant Life aims to maximize positive emotion or pleasure and minimize negative emotion.

The Engaged Life involves engaging in measured challenges that capitalize on one’s natural strengths and closely match one’s skills to produce a flow state. Flow is an attentional and emotional state characterized by complete absorption in an intrinsically rewarding activity where skills are closely matched to challenges and opportunities.

The Meaningful Life involves pursuing valued outcomes that are larger than mere self-interest; Eudaimonia; working toward a purpose or outcome that benefits others or something beyond our self.

Ryff’s Psychological Wellbeing Theory, PWBT

Positive wellbeing could be understood as being composed of Life Satisfaction, Affect Balance, Self-Acceptance, Positive Relations with Others, Autonomy, Environmental Mastery, Purpose in Life, and Personal Growth.

Autonomy here refers to a personal capacity to resist social conformity pressures and express one’s personal opinions rather than giving in to the desire for social approval.

{Interlude: In contrast to autonomy as independence or self-government, in this formulation, it is a twisted version of autonomy in Kantian moral philosophy where an agent can act following objective morality rather than under the influence of desires; Ryff tells us it is good to stand up for subjective morality and desires as opposed to giving in to social demands, she is not concerned with moral judgment or the greater good in this formulation of autonomy.}

Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, SDT

SDT considers social and cultural conditions that foster or impair wellbeing. SDT assumes that humans naturally tend to grow and integrate life experiences. At their best, humans are curious, vital, and self-motivated. They strive to learn, extend themselves, and master and apply new skills.

Humans are intrinsically motivated to engage in a wide range of behaviors. Still, unless they are exposed to an environment that provides the right nutrients, this tendency to grow can be easily disrupted, possibly leading to apathy, alienation, and ill-being.

Humans have just three psychological needs: the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, in addition to physiological needs and the need to develop a coherent sense of self.

Satisfaction of these needs is essential for wellbeing and health.

Competence refers to being capable, skilled, effective, and accomplished.

Autonomy, or volition, refers to a need to choose or endorse one’s decisions and actions freely; that they are entered willingly without external coercion, pressure, or control.

Relatedness is a need for mutually friendly, close, caring, encouraging, and enjoyable social relations.

Autonomy support encourages free choice and promotes curiosity, a preference for challenges, independent mastery attempts, enhanced competence, and higher self-esteem.

The pursuit of affiliation, personal growth, and community is positively related to self-esteem, self-actualizations, and wellbeing, with low levels of anxiety and depression.

The pursuit of wealth, fame and social image has opposite consequences.

{Interlude: We may say that the deep human needs of affiliation, personal growth, and community have been degenerated by the shallow mind into longing for fame, wealth, and social image in a futile attempt to satisfy the real needs. The shallow mind has difficulty in grasping the real, so it indulges in the actual, in what it can see and point to, in the momentary, in the near, in what it can compare and exhibit; all nice properties of the infantile, grandiose, exhibitionistic self.}

SDT implications for coaching

Uncritically facilitating client aspirations may not improve their wellbeing and health.

Pursuing success without regard to satisfying the need for relatedness may impair wellbeing, even if success is freely chosen, i.e., it is autonomous and enhances the client’s sense of competence.

To ensure the client’s aspiration to succeed enhances wellbeing, and promotes performance and goal-attainment, follow these guidelines:

the actions and desired outcomes are consistent with the client’s values and sense of self;

the aspirations and goals derive from a clear sense of personal identity and a set of values they have freely chosen;

motivation is self-determined, i.e., intrinsic, rather than derived from some external source, such as work pressures, rewards, or negative emotional states such as envy.

Different types of motivation are intrinsic, integrated, identified, introjected, and external regulation.

Franklin’s Thrive and Survive Theory, TST

Evolutionary psychology is an integrating meta-theoretical framework that accounts for a theoretical basis for deriving the proposed needs.

TST seeks to identify internal resources, adaptations, and external resources, conditions, that allow humans to respond effectively to circumstances to survive and thrive; a meta-theory of what motivates humans to maximize their wellbeing and considers how this may be encoded genetically or learned.

Skills that satisfy needs and promote wellbeing in TST are delineated in a layered structure by the assumed hierarchy of needs.

As a first step, we distinguish between survival needs and skills and needs and skills of thriving and flourishing.

Surviving refers to genetic and behavioral adaptations that support life and reproduction; physical needs are met with survival skills, and security needs are met with security and safety skills.

Thriving refers to objective adaptations, genetic or behavioral, that enhance control, adaptability, and fitness, and subjective enhancements in growth, self, relations with others, and achievement of valued goals.

Improvement, progress, and growth needs are met with life improvement skills.

Positive self-evaluation needs are met with self-development skills.

Connection needs are met with social skills.

Achievement, performance, and success needs are met with work skills.

These adaptations are a by-product of cognitive and social development, enabling advanced learning, reflection, cooperation, and complex, consciously directed adaptive behavior.

Enhanced cognitive capacity facilitates problem-solving, social attachment, complex cooperation, a sense of self, and enhanced control.

These developments enabled humans to survive and thrive by exploiting a wider range of ecological niches, challenges, and opportunities.

TST asserts that all our behavior derives from motivation to satisfy six underlying sets of related need categories that enable humans to survive and thrive individually and collectively.

Physical needs: food, water, sleep, rest, physical activity, shelter, touch, stimulation, pain avoidance, homeostasis, sex, and health. Similar to Maslow’s physiological needs.

Security needs: safety, security, stability, predictability, protection, and sufficient resources, which in the modern symbolic world include money and financial stability. This closely corresponds to Maslow’s safety needs.

Satisfaction of both of these groups of needs aids survival.

TST proposes four sets of thriving needs.

A need in all life forms is to act upon the environment to confer an advantage or improve their life prospects.

In humans, the need for improvement in one’s life situation is highly cognitive and involves understanding, learning, meaning, growth, challenge, autonomous direction, purpose, and progress toward valued goals.

Maybe seen to include Ryff’s PWBT needs for Purpose in Life and Personal Growth; Seligman’s PERMA need for Meaning; Deci and Ryan’s assumption in SDT that all humans are motivated to learn, master new skills, and apply their talents.

SDT acknowledges the importance of growth but does not specifically classify this intrinsic motivation to grow and develop as a need.

{Interlude: In evolutionary biology terms, the exploratory behavior generation unit seems to be the ground on which needs to learn and improve emerge, in that sense, the need for improvement is a satisfaction to the behavior of exploration.}

In TST, the need for improvement is a critical driver of change; it implies a desire in all people to improve their life situation, especially in terms of what they value.

Even if all other needs are met, people cannot be fully happy or satisfied if their life is stagnant with no prospect of change, growth, progress, or improvement. In the TST approach to coaching, this need is highly relevant to developing hope and sustained motivation in clients.

The need for Positive Self-evaluation involves a need for self-worth, self-acceptance, self-regulation, self-efficacy or competence, self-concept clarity, and self-respect. In lay terms: well-founded self-confidence.

Developing the skills necessary to satisfy this need is a central focus in coaching.

The need for Connection involves strong social bonds, approval, love, respect, appreciation, belonging, status, and influence. This need is bidirectional; wellbeing and health are best enhanced via mutually supportive bonds.

Respect and satisfaction of social needs are the best predictors of positive feelings.

Achievement is the final attainment of valued goals and desired outcomes. It encompasses the ultimate attainment of a wide range of goals, from the prosaic to the magnificent, from the personal to the cultural; it often involves the interest of others, even those we may have never met.

In TST, improvement or progress toward valued goals is distinguished from their final achievement, recognizing that while they are related, it is adaptive for people to find both initiation and progress rewarding to persist and finally achieve sometimes complex and distant goals.

Skills, Strategies, and Need Satisfaction

We have specified six groups of needs that underlie wellbeing. To enhance wellbeing, we must satisfy these needs. We will now identify internal resources required to satisfy these needs, such as beliefs, skills, and strategies.

You may design a personal self-development plan to develop these skills and internal resources to satisfy your needs and enhance your wellbeing.

The Need for Improvement, Growth, and Progress

TST suggests five internal resources that will greatly assist in satisfying this need.

Fostering enabling beliefs, e.g., “improvement is possible,” or “personal responsibility, improvement, and learning equals success.”

Openness to reality, new experience, and feedback; mindfulness helps here.

Motivation; clear objectives, goals, values, purpose, mission, calling, ambition, or philosophy of life.

Developing problem-solving pathways.

Proactivity, persistence, and learning from feedback.

The skillset involved in learning to improve one’s life effectively is critical to developing the subsequent skills necessary to satisfy other needs.

The Need for Positive Self-evaluation

The most efficient route would be to concentrate on developing 

self-acceptance or non-contingent self-worth,




self-concept clarity or identity

self-respect, or the development of virtues and character. 

Implications for Coaching

All these needs interact in complex ways and change throughout life. We may visualize them as layered, hierarchical, and emergent, where need and life satisfaction build upwards.

Where survival needs are essentially met and have lost their potency, you may develop skills to promote thriving and wellbeing sequentially, starting with life improvement skills to self-development skills, social skills, and work skills.

We may consider the unfolding of needs from physical to security, improvement, positive self-evaluation, connection, and achievement as a dialectic shaping our motivation, attention, and action.

Our task as the coach would be to assess which needs are currently unmet and which skills are required to meet them.

The client’s objectives and presenting problems or aspirations can be understood and re-negotiated with the lens of this model.

Generally, clients feel dissatisfied with several life areas or needs, and it is thus necessary to prioritize the order in which these needs are addressed.

Start from more fundamental needs and related skills.

In executive coaching, the client may want to immediately focus on attaining some specific occupational outcome, i.e., Achievement, Performance, and Success. It is frequently observed, however, that lack of work success is often caused by a deficit in social skills, i.e., connection, and these, in turn, often originate in poor self-management skills such as emotional self-regulation.

Thus, it may not be possible to achieve the work success they desire until they first acknowledge their need to develop the necessary underlying self-regulation skills and social skills to work effectively with others.

Coachees may desire to influence and manage others, but this capacity rests on their ability to first manage themselves. It is not possible to credibly lead others from a position of personal weakness.

Fundamental to developing skills necessary to satisfy any unmet needs, it is advisable to acquire foundational life-improvement skills needed to improve skills in other life areas.

In our coaching, we may review internal resources such as beliefs, skills, and strategies that constitute fundamental life improvement skills: fostering enabling beliefs, openness to reality, motivation, developing problem-solving pathways, proactivity, persistence, and learning from feedback.

Once grasped, they facilitate attaining any other desired and necessary skills.

Establishing hope in this manner frequently leads to a rapid improvement in the client’s mood, as they can see an effective way of achieving their life goals and enhancing their lives via coaching. Developing hope is a critical early step in the TST approach to coaching and life improvement and enhancement.

As a coach, we assist the client in identifying and developing the skills required to satisfy their needs and examine the wants, aspirations, or goals they are currently pursuing to satisfy their needs. On examination, many of these may be found to be problematic and in need of re-evaluation.

Similarly, unrealistic or unhelpful beliefs and expectations must be examined, as these may impede progress.

BEST performance is a product of: Beliefs, Effort, Skills, and Talent. Exceptional performance is possible with the right enabling beliefs, sufficient effort, and the development of necessary skills. Exceptional talent is frequently negated by disabling beliefs, poor effort, or inadequate skills.

The areas of belief, effort, and skills are amenable to change with coaching.

Needs, Wants, Expectations

Emotions are linked to need satisfaction.

How people go about meeting their needs has consequences.

Social-cultural influences and individual choices determine how these needs are converted into wants, aspirations, and goals.

Not all wants, aspirations, and goals are equally effective in satisfying underlying needs and producing the desired wellbeing increase.

Addictive, compulsive, and self-defeating behaviors have in common the desire to feel good via behaviors that briefly satisfy some needs while undermining the long-term satisfaction of other needs. These include using drugs, gambling, risk-taking as shortcuts to feeling good, sexual adventures, overeating, and compulsive pursuit of status, power, and money. For example, the need for acceptance and status (connection) causes many to overvalue money and for some to use threat and intimidation.

Survival needs predict negative affect and thrive needs predict positive affect.

Coaches should ensure that physical and security needs are met if their client is experiencing significant negative emotions. Under such circumstances, helping clients to thrive may not be sufficient to negate their negative emotions and promote their wellbeing. Meeting physical needs such as sleep, exercise, and good health, and security needs such as safety, financial security, and safe housing should be noticed.

We may assess coaching outcomes via the WHO-5 or Thrive and Survive Needs Scale (Pearse, 2014). We may use these at the beginning of the coaching engagement, then reassess later stages again and a year or so after ending the coaching for follow-up.


Our actions are profoundly determined by our understanding of the world and how to live fulfilling and rewarding lives. Understanding the art of living well is helpful to being an effective coach. Success and happiness are universal desires. Theories of wellbeing inform our understanding of the human experience, guide us in our coaching relationship, and assist our clients in living satisfying lives.

Discussion points

Think of a client and use each of the four wellbeing theories to identify the following.

How would you assess the client’s needs and objectives?

How would you negotiate the coaching priorities?

What internal skills and external resources would facilitate the coaching outcomes?

How could you increase your effectiveness and credibility as a coach?

Table Comparing Various Wellbeing Models




Deci and Ryan


Hierarchy of Needs


Psychological Wellbeing

Self-Determination Theory

Thrive and Survive Theory



Environmental Mastery




Positive Relationships

Positive Relations






Environmental Mastery


Coherent Sense of Self

Positive Self-Evaluation




Purpose in Life

Personal Growth


Intrinsic Motivation












Positive Emotion


Autonomy Support