Coaching Positively for Wellbeing: The Full Life

{Falecki, Leach, & Green, 2018. PERMA-powered coaching: Building foundations for a flourishing life. In Green & Palmer (Ed). Positive Psychology Coaching in Practice} 

{Kauffman, 2006. Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching. In Sober & Grant (Ed). Evidence-Based Coaching Handbook} 

{Seligman, 2002. Authentic Happiness;  2013. Flourish} 

Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching 

Positive Psychology (PP) theory and research offer a knowledge base for coaching interventions.

Mental models affect what we pay attention to, what issues are framed, how clients are assessed, and what interventions are selected.

For example, the medical model provides a perspective of pathology, weakness, pain, deficit, and conflict.

In contrast, a PP framework and orientation introduces a language of strengths, vision, dreams, and optimal functioning. The PP practitioner focuses on client wholeness and strength, on what energizes and pulls people forward.

What makes people happy?

A key question of happiness research asks: what makes people happy?

Research on subjective wellbeing has given us a good idea about how happiness correlates and associates with all the different life factors and variables.

A clear correlation is established between a sense of wellbeing and meeting one’s survival and safety needs.

However, jumps in success have a short-lived impact that wears off as individuals acclimate to their new possessions or positions.

A popular belief states, “Financial success will make you feel good.” However, research indicates otherwise;  a primary monetary reward goal negatively affects  satisfaction with family life, friendships, and one’s job.

A common assumption is that “Happiness is a response to what happens in life.”

Over time, people usually return to their preexisting  happiness or unhappiness, leveling off after joy and rising up after sorrow. {I remember reading a book by Jack Kornfield titled: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry,” pointing somewhat to this phenomenon.}

Events may shift one’s emotional wellbeing , but other forces pull one back over time.

For life satisfaction, studies show significant or very significant shifts over 10+ years for 1/3 of participants.

Over the short run, up to two years, people tend to a happiness set point; if you widen the timeline and study people over four years, there is far more significant variation.

The implication for enhancing wellbeing is to make lifestyle changes and establish practices and rituals.

Some suggest that since external factors, i.e., events, success, etc., are not the key to understanding variation in a person’s happiness, we should focus on internal factors; it isn’t what happens to people; it’s how they construct and interpret these events. In light of the hedonic treadmill, it might not be what you have that matters but how mindfully you experience it. The implication is to prioritize developing your thinking, growing your perspective, engaging mindfully, and participating in life fully.

The promise of an evidence-based coaching practice

Evidence-based coaching practice can build on PP as a theoretical and empirical science by

Using psychometrically robust measures to assess strengths;

Using empirically testable positive interventions that have been found to increase happiness, productivity, and life satisfaction; 

Attending to the client’s wholeness, fostering hope, and helping hone the client’s vision of the future; 

Fostering cognitive and social skills through increases in joy and positive emotion.

The Full Life: Exercises for increasing happiness, engagement, and meaning.

Aim for your client to develop the capacity to observe her happiness levels.

Diary Exercise

Go through a regular day, and answer hourly:

What did I do?

To what extent was it enjoyable?

To what extent was I in flow?

To what extent did the activity have meaning?

Review the day. Develop hypotheses about what fosters happiness in the way that feels most satisfying and important to you.

Plan for Happiness

Engaging in small positive behaviors can shift the balance of how one experiences the day and overcome the hedonic treadmill.

Be mindful of experience. Just stop to notice what you are already doing that has been pleasurable, engaging, or meaningful, and you could enjoy more by being mindful.

Apply the information learned in the Diary Exercise.

Take a day, even if it is busy, and plan three activities: one that is pleasurable, one engaging, and one meaningful. Do all three activities. Notice which ones come easily and which ones do not.

Authentic Happiness Coaching Model – The Days Before PERMA 

Coaching  helps people shift their happiness set points upward.

Minimal increases in positive emotion can tilt the balance and lead to significant differences in how people flourish or languish.

Success and the so-called American dream have a fleeting impact on wellbeing.

{The Co-Active coaching model suggests one always balance the client’s agenda with a larger view of fulfillment that keeps an awareness of aligning the client’s vision and values. The coaching goals of furthering the action and deepening the learning are congruent with empirical findings on the nature of happiness.}

Increasing happiness is an end unto itself; it also correlates with and  helps create greater competence, resilience, access to personal and social resources, improved physical health, a deeper connection to society, and a sense of personal mission.

Exercises are offered as between-session fieldwork assignments or as in-session experiences.

{For example, a group teaching/coaching session might take 15 minutes of personalized instruction, followed by process discussion, paired workshop session or between-session practice and debrief, sharing learnings with the larger group, and concluding with process discussion.}

For greater life satisfaction, there are at least three pathways to happiness:

Lead a more joyful life through experiencing  positive emotions;

Lead a more engaged life through connecting with the intrinsically rewarding internal or external activity;

Lead a more meaningful life by finding meaning, purpose, and connection to a greater cause.

Idealized Session Planning

Establish initial contact; have your client take tests; retest and assess progress.

Use baseline measures of depression and current happiness, approaches to happiness, life satisfaction, and strengths testing.

Positive Introduction Exercise

Invite your client to  

“Describe yourself at your best; base this information on concrete events from the previous week.”

The aim is to train your clients to identify and focus on their strengths.

In further discussions help them anchor their strengths and explore for details.

Variations: For less verbally spontaneous clients, ask to write an introduction.

In workshops, have participants break into pairs for positive introductions.

The coach can tweak each exercise to fit the client’s interests and style.

Exercises can be presented in a structured or process-oriented way.

The Days of PERMA

Many individuals hold a pessimistic worldview, often accompanied by a deficit mindset despite multiple successes in life. As a result, many feel lost in how to find the good life. The conflict between an individual’s current and ideal reality results in rising stress, anxiety, and depression levels. Inxreasingly, fewer people feel good and function well.

The fundamental aim of positive psychology (PP) is to promote flourishing for optimal functioning. To this end, the use of positive psychology coaching (PPC) supports an individual to feel good, function well, and be her optimal best.

PERMA is a multidimensional wellbeing model that assists individuals, organizations, and communities in exploring and enhancing five key domains to build the foundations for a flourishing life.

Seligman (2012) argued that wellbeing could be strengthened when people plan positive actions within each of the five domains:

Positive emotion: plan, invest in, and participate in healthy positive experiences.

Engagement: immerse in worthwhile pursuits and discover and apply strengths.

Relationships: develop social and emotional skills to better connect and share with others.

Meaning: reflect and plan for ways to act with purpose, think beyond yourself, and contribute to higher pursuits.

Accomplishment: set and strive for meaningful goals, manage setbacks, maintain mental toughness, and embody a growth mindset.

We may expand this framework to address physical health, cultural strength, and a broader focus from the individual to the collective good.

People and organizations can practice positive psychological interventions (PPIs) to move towards flourishing. In an applied sense, PPIs are planned activities that aim to increase wellbeing, i.e., cultivate pleasure, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment – PERMA.

PERMA unpacked

A central aim in a PPC engagement is flourishing, a term used to describe optimal human functioning in analogy to plants.

The term flourishing reveals an implicit assumption in PP: from individual to society, humans are drawn toward abundance, goodness, and positivity.

Rogers’ self-actualizing tendency points to the same purposive inner structure of human functioning. People are drawn to fulfill their potentials and achieve congruence between their ideal self and actual self-image and behaviors.

Flourishing from a hedonic perspective entails focusing on generating more positive feelings and experiences.

Flourishing from a eudaemonic perspective comes from actions such as giving to others and living by our values.

Flourishing can be defined as a psychosocial construct that includes having rewarding and positive relationships, feeling competent and confident, and believing that life is meaningful and purposeful.

The PERMA model provides a framework by which people and organizations can practice PPIs to move towards flourishing.

Positive emotions

All emotions have meaning and purpose. For example, living a life of engagement, meaning, and accomplishment often means stepping into negative emotions such as fear, discomfort, and pain.

As an evolutionary adaptation, the negativity bias dictates that negative emotions such as fear or anger are stronger. Therefore, without the effort to generate more positive emotions, it is easy for people to become defined by the more negative forces when they do not necessarily need to.

Feelings of joy, love, gratitude, hope, pride, inspiration, curiosity, amusement, serenity, and awe are linked to wellbeing.

People who experience a preponderance of positive emotions, or more positive affect, tend to be successful and accomplished across multiple life domains.

Experience of frequent positive emotions is correlated with increases in confidence, optimism, and self-efficacy.

Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions posits that positive emotions have an evolutionary role and lie at the foundation of human flourishing, where they widen a person’s array of thoughts to generate behavioral flexibility. Effortful investment in creating and experiencing more positive emotions broadens an individual’s capacity to think, see the big picture, be creative, and act proactively. This broadening generates actions and behaviors that build an individual’s physical, intellectual, social, psychological, and emotional resources and skills that, in turn, build resilience and mental toughness facing challenges, change, and opportunities.

A coaching move to identify and build positive emotions even at times of stress and adversity includes challenging existing perceptions of what is not working and acknowledging strategies that are working. In this way, the coach supports the client in exploring opportunities to express and track positive emotions.

Evidence-based interventions to generate increased positive emotions include:

“Counting Your Blessings” or “What’s Working Well?”

Envisioning your “Best Possible Self” past and future

Learned Optimism

Strengths Discovery


Evidence-based coaching (EBC) increases hope by focusing on goal setting, building agency, and generating pathways-thinking.

Emotion Theories

Emotions carry informational messages alerting the person to the quality of the circumstances in which she finds herself.

In this view, emotion does not cause behavior but prepares a person for various possible behaviors. The question for the person to ponder is, “What is this feeling telling you?”

Emotions are experienced along two main dimensions of valence, pleasant versus unpleasant feelings, and intensity, high arousal versus low arousal emotions.

People have emotional preferences for either relatively high or low arousal emotional states. For example, some people seek out calmer positive experiences such as feelings of contentment, harmony, and peace. Others, by contrast, pursue more lively emotions such as enthusiasm, joy, and eagerness.

These preferences can be a topic for coaching conversations since these have a downstream effect on choices, goals, allocation of resources, and interpersonal relationships.

Positive emotions are beneficial to health and relationships and are known to broaden and build social and psychological resources.

Negative emotions help avoid risk scenarios, protect what we value, and conserve resources.

Tracking emotions is helpful for insight. Example assessments are the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE; Diener et al., 2009) and the Affect Intensity Measure (Larsen & Diener, 1987). In addition, coaching conversations can address emotional preferences, emotional volatility, emotion regulation strategies, and even coach-client match in emotional tone.

What Are Positive Emotions Good For?

How do positive emotions work?

Why bother; why would anyone pay for coaching to increase happiness?

Positive emotions help us thrive with their daily benefits; they boost psychological functions by opening up our focus of attention, widening the lens, and seeing the big picture; they broaden and build access to personal competencies; they broaden our momentary thought-action repertoires and build our enduring personal resources: physical, intellectual, social, psychological.

Joy, love, awe, gratitude, hope, and desire are central to psychological flourishing and increase our capacity to use multiple social, cognitive, and affective resources and to take an integrated long-term perspective. Positive priming of one’s emotions increases cognitive (thinking) flexibility, speed, and accuracy; they foster skills, increase intuition and creativity, and widen the scope of attention; they are linked to all the competencies needed daily.

Negative emotions serve to negotiate life or death challenges quickly; they ensure survival by galvanizing us into action by narrowing and sharpening our focus on the problem that we must solve fast.

In work teams, we aim for high performance. Discussions with a ratio of positive, approving, and supportive statements to negative, disapproving, and critical statements with high positivity ratios (3:1) are fluid and flexible. When negativity occurs, workers bounce back after being criticized; pointing out problems or challenges ignites performance. Behavioral repertoire widens.

In groups with positive-to-negative ratios under 3:1, there is less resiliency and a narrower range of behaviors. After negative comments, people seem to lose creativity and authenticity.

The upper limit of positivity is 12:1; a healthy balance of criticism is needed. There is a limit to how positive to be.

In a study including individual personal diaries (monthly long periods): subjects with 3:1 or higher positivity ratios were doing much better than those with 2:1 or lower ratios.

Similar studies indicate that a few positive daily experiences can swing the balance from languishing to flourishing. Just a bit more positive everyday experience leads to a remarkably different quality of life.


Engagement within PERMA has been defined as fully immersing in an intrinsically motivating activity, experiencing flow, and an equal match of challenge and skill.

One way to promote engagement is by applying character strengths to cultivate flow and nurture intrinsic motivation.

Strengths are internal patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that are energizing and lead to maximal effectiveness.

The Values in Action Character Strengths Survey ( explores six virtues and 24 character strengths.

Our top character strengths, known as signature strengths, more closely align with our intrinsic values and interest. When consciously applied in everyday life, study, and work, we become more engaged, and an immediate increase occurs in life satisfaction, wellbeing, meaning, and performance.

A PPC should review signature and lesser strengths and collaborate with the client to determine a strategy for future proactive strengths use.

The aim is to know and use one’s strengths to support each of the PERMA pillars for wellbeing.

The Strengths Profile ( assesses 60 attributes across three dimensions: energy, performance, and use. It distinguishes between what energizes and de-energizes us. The report identifies attributes as Realized Strengths, Weaknesses, Learned Behaviors, and Unrealized Strengths. By understanding energizing and de-energizing attributes, we can generate more positive emotions, flow, and remain more engaged in our actions.


How can we better connect, give, and contribute to the lives of others?

Social and emotional skills form the basis of our internal resources. These skills develop through positive relationships.

The coaching relationship must be a positive connection established through effective communication, such as active listening, reflecting, clarifying, empathy, questioning techniques, and rapport-building strategies.

By establishing a high-quality connection, coaching becomes a collaboration conducive to an open, honest, and trustworthy relationship that is free of judgment yet stable enough to manage challenging conversations.

Some methods and strategies for building positive relationships:

Encourage your client to record and map positive-to-negative ratios of interactions with another individual. These data are then used as a discussion point to reflect and build on social and emotional competence.

How you celebrate is more predictive of strong relations than how you fight. As a coach, model the way through Active Constructive Responding (ACR) and encourage your client to proactively listen, celebrate, and respond positively to others who share good news with her.

Acts of kindness and being kind to others foster a greater sense of interdependence and cooperation within the social community.


Meaning refers to the intrinsic value and joy a person feels. When you contribute to society and apply your strengths and values with a sense of purpose, efficacy, and self-worth, you will feel connected to something larger than yourself and therefore feel as though what you are doing has value.

Strategies to build a sense of meaning:

Act following your values.

Identify and use character strengths in pursuit of goals.

Visualize your best possible self. Knowing one’s values and strengths is a strong foundation for this.

When people are asked to imagine and write about their future selves working hard and accomplishing their goals, they show a significant increase in cheerful moods. The writing act prompts people to organize their thoughts systematically, which requires analysis and, by doing so, builds meaning.

Self-concordant goal setting, goals aligned to core life values, is a powerful tool for building meaning.


Apply personal skill and effort as you move toward the desired goal. Use motivation and persistence; overcome possible challenges; remain flexible along the path; set clear goals; plan realistic and strategic ways.

Fuel your passion and perseverance; become grittier.

Develop a growth mindset by praising the effort towards achieving the goal and reflecting on the process and strategies contributing to the success.

Accomplishment Coaching

Goals are fundamental to the coaching process.

You set clear goals and plan realistic and strategic ways to achieve these goals.

You apply personal skills and effort to move towards your desired goals.

As you encounter challenges, you apply your motivation and persistence to overcome these while being mindful to remain flexible along the path to achievement.

Skills in growth mindset support you to persevere in achieving your long-term goals, and you can develop and learn these skills.

To develop growth mindset skills, a coach will praise your effort and see you in your endeavor; guide you to reflect on the process and strategies that contributed to your success.

These coaching moves strengthen your belief that you can develop intelligence and character.

The act of ongoing reflection is consequential; make it a practice. Reflect on what works well; you may use an appreciative inquiry approach. This reflection builds purpose and a sense of meaning.

Study what works best, envision what might be, and plan for what could be.

“Coaching as usual” does focus on goals, goal selection, commitment, achievement, perseverance, and attainment. We are all about supporting you to experience accomplishment. With the PPC approach, we go beyond “coaching as usual” and pay special attention to your wellbeing.

We use specific PP approaches to support wellbeing in your goal pursuit. Here are some of these PP approaches:

Identify your character strengths; this will enhance your goal attainment and wellbeing.

Set self-concordant goals, i.e., meaningful and realistic goals.

Reflect purposefully to develop a growth mindset and enhance grit. Here the coach provides feedback, praise, and analysis of what worked well; a solution-focused approach does show here.

The Grow Model as a coaching session structuring tool supports the process towards accomplishment:

Goal – What is the objective you would like to achieve?

Reality – What is happening now that tells you there is a problem or an opportunity?

Options – What options exist to move you toward your goals?

Way Forward – Which of these options will you commit to, and by when will you take these actions?

We aim to raise self-awareness to support you in developing self-concordant goals.

PERMA in coaching practice

When a positive psychology coach uses PERMA, their aim for you is to

create awareness of positive emotions;

encourage strengths identification and use for enhanced engagement and flow;

support creating and maintaining positive relationships;

connect or reconnect to meaning and purpose;

celebrate achievements that occur along the way.

We may speak of one domain or pillar as if it is separate from the others to focus temporarily on one issue and for practical purposes. Still, the PERMA domains are interrelated, and they go together.

We may use a self-assessment tool such as the PERMAH Profiler (Butler & Kern, 2015) to assess current levels of flourishing across the domains plus physical health. The result can become a baseline for discussing and agreeing upon wellbeing goals and subsequent coaching interventions to promote wellbeing, improve performance, facilitate goal attainment, improve mental health, and enhance life quality.

Mental toughness

Mental toughness is a quality that determines in part how you deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure; it is characterized as a high sense of self-belief and control over your destiny while remaining relatively unaffected by adversity.

In addition to the ability to bounce back from adversity and negative experiences, described as resilience, mental toughness protects from the challenge of positive pressure and expectations.

A mental toughness model by Clough and associates describes four elements involving

control over emotions and life events, 

commitment to involve in experiences rather than avoid them, 

response to challenges by embracing the changeable nature of life and seeing the opportunity this provides, and 

confidence and high self-belief in one’s ability to achieve success.

Develop your mental toughness through life experiences that increase self-confidence, self-esteem, locus of control, and problem-solving skills. 

To maintain mental toughness, use anxiety management, visualization, and imagery. 

Seek support from significant others. 

Link success to get intrinsic motivation.

PPIs enhance resilience and encourage hardiness as proactive responses to challenge and change. For example, the mental toughness assessment tool MTQ48 identifies Challenge and Confidence as hardiness and Control and Commitment as indicators of resilience. Mental toughness determines how individuals manage stress, pressure, and change, irrespective of their circumstances.

Coaching and using a toolkit of PPIs support you in building resilience and overall wellbeing by learning new skills to identify and take positive action towards intrinsically motivated goals and practicing perspective-taking to reframe challenges and look for and embrace opportunities.

Which clients benefit most?

As always, caution those who are distressed or experience clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety.

PERMA coaching can be applied in almost all settings, across all of life’s domains, and is ideal for client’s already flourishing, moderately mentally healthy, or languishing and want to move towards flourishing.

Model of Goal Striving and Mental Health (Grant, 2006)

Consider a horizontal axis of intentional goal striving from low on the left to high on the right.

Consider a vertical axis of mental health (or illness) from low mental health (or high mental illness resulting in languishing) at the lower end to increased mental health (and normal functioning) going up.

High intentional goal striving and good mental health correspond to flourishing.

High intentional goal striving and low mental health (or high mental illness) correspond to distressed but functional.

Lower intentional goal striving and good mental health correspond to acquiescent (the boring life).

Lower intentional goal-striving and inadequate mental health correspond to significant psychopathology.

For those in the “acquiescent” quadrant experiencing good mental health but relatively low levels of intentional goal striving (happy but disengaged), the opportunity lies in exploring values, strengths, and goals that may move them towards flourishing.

Those in the “languishing – distressed but functional” quadrant may be highly engaged and experiencing high levels of meaningful goal striving, however, often to the detriment of their wellbeing.

Individuals in the “flourishing” quadrant may seek coaching for development or excellence or coaching with a focus on the quality rather than the quantity of their work performance.

Leadership, Career Transition, and Education Coaching 

PERMA is potentially a powerful approach to better support wellbeing during times of change.

In the case of Career Transition Coaching, PPC can support you in these ways:

Positive emotions: Job loss and career transition come with many ups and downs in emotions. To support you in navigating your feelings, we focus on the “best professional self” exercises and guide you to reflect on your workplace and professional achievements.

Engagement: Reflect on your strengths use. Develop your resume so your strengths shine through your achievements and personal-professional job market brand. While in transition, ensure your strengths are directed and applied to maintain wellbeing.

Relationships: Reflect on your interpersonal skills and positive work relationships; invest in connecting positively with others.

Meaning: Explore your ideal future position and future professional best self to make informed future career choices.

Accomplishment: Set SMART goals to successfully approach the job market and land a new position.

Even at challenging times, when stress and overwhelm seem to rule the day, if you inquire into the five PERMA pillars of wellbeing, you may be surprised at how many good things are there waiting to be seen.

Positive Emotion: What do you love most about your current role? How does this make you feel?

Engagement: What are your strengths in your current role? How do you know? When do you experience flow?

Relationships: Who are the people who support you in your current role? How do they do this?

Meaning: What brought you to this role in the first place? What contributions do you make? How important is this to you?

Accomplishment: You say you are very busy and have to bring work home. Given your busy schedule, list ten accomplishments you have made in the past month.

So now, hopefully, we have shifted your perspective to recognize that positive experiences happen just as much as negative ones.

The next step is to plan specific actions to strengthen and further your wellbeing at work.

Positive Emotion: How could you better track the good stuff when it happens at work?

Engagement: Take the VIA Survey ( to identify your top five character strengths. Choose two strengths; how could you use these strengths in novel ways at work? Which lesser strengths would you like to develop that may significantly impact the outcome of your goal?

Relationships: Consider a person who supports you at work. How could you thank them and explain how helpful they are to you? (E.g., a “Thank You” letter?)

Meaning: Reflect on what legacy you have left at the end of this week at work. How would you like to be remembered next week?

Accomplishment: Set yourself a small “learning goal,” e.g., learning new computer software, and a “performance goal,” e.g., completing the monthly report on time; how will you celebrate them once achieved?

These questions can form the basis of a wellbeing plan. Map out when and how these actions and steps could occur, and make the action plan realistic and meaningful.

Themes for coaching sessions may include a review of character strengths; to ensure future actions align with client strengths. Reflect on each PERMA pillar, and identify what works well and what needs modification.

Questions to consider

How can you highlight to the client the importance of creating meaningful goals using the PERMA framework?

How do you assist your clients in ensuring their accomplishment does not undermine their wellbeing?

What measures of wellbeing do you use to assess progress and provide a return on investment?

How are you building or sustaining PERMA in your life as a coaching or positive psychology student or practitioner?