Life Coaching vs. Positive Psychology

July 15, 2015 by John Andrew Williams

This past June I had the pleasure of attending the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) meeting in Orlando, Florida. Aside from being able to hear some of the founders of Positive Psychology, there was a mind numbing number of presenters, nearly 500, over the course of the four days.

Interested in wanting to learn about the latest and greatest in the field and the research being done? It was on full display, tedious slides after tedious slides with n-counts and standard deviations in decimal points galore. Having also attended the International ICF conference in the Middle East, I was struck by some similarities, as well as differences in the conferences.

Here are the three big insights I took away from the conference and the relationship between life coaching and positive psychology.

The major difference between life coaching and positive psychology is in the genesis and thus mindset and approach. Before I get started on elaborating on the distinction, I recognize that some positive psychologists will say, “But wait! We have an applied branch too!” and some life coaches will say, “We care about science and measurement too!” In fact the ICF is putting on a “Science of Coaching” summit in London this fall, and the IPPA does have an emphasis on application, kind of.

Basics of Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the study and application of research into the field of positive well-being and flourishing. Since positive psychology originated in an academic setting, based off clinical psychology, it has at its essence a research mindset. Such a mindset explores theory and creates prescribed actions and recommendations based on the research. It’s a fine approach that’s very much in the model of clinical psychology except with a focus on the positive and forward thinking.

Basics of Life Coaching

Life coaching on the other hand, originated from a mixture of sports psychology, actors’ training, neurolinguistic programming, and applied applications of personal development. Being academically focused and having an element of research isn’t necessarily emphasized in the coaching profession. Life coaching was based more on practice and the evidence was that people wanted to hire life coaches. The profession flourished in the corporate worlds, where executives realized that people with coaches just did better than those who didn’t have coaches. The basic approach emphasizes the role of the client as expert in his or her life. The coach is merely skilled at bringing out more expertise from the client. Although subtle, it’s a major difference between the two professions.

Positive Psychology and Life Coaching – let’s be friends

I see positive psychology and life coaching becoming better friends as each profession finds its way into popular culture. Coaching is going to grow simply because it just works. Positive psychology is going to grow because it has the backing of academia. It is exploring a field that is so new and ripe with scientific discoveries just waiting to be found. With increased and better measurement tools, it’s an exciting time to be in the field. The synergy between the two fields is found where the application and appreciation of individuals’ differences from coaching meets the theoretical framework and science of positive psychology.

It is simply a matter of time before the IPPA and a coaching organization, perhaps the ICF, if it can manage it, will join forces and create a theoretical framework for life coaching, and life coaching can provide an alternative training structure and practical application of positive psychology.

Also read: How Relative Thinking Hurts Us

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