During his 2021 WBECS pre-summit talk 1, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology noted “The vital importance, now more than ever, of well-being at the personal, organizational and global levels”.
Dr. Seligman believes that one of the most impactful ways coaches will be of service post-COVID is by moving our clients from “languishing to flourishing”. In other words, helping our clients get back to living a life of higher overall well-being and life satisfaction—which many folks were living pre-COVID and are no longer experiencing.
Listening to his insightful presentation, I was struck with two key questions:
The VIA character strengths survey 2 is a strengths assessment that rests on the foundation of positive psychology and Dr. Seligman’s research on character strengths and virtues. This model is used to illustrate the link between determining and optimizing strengths to help our clients boost their well-being.
Dr. Ryan Niemiec explains that “Flourishing is like supercharging your well-being and happiness. Flourishing is a loaded word, but in short, it means having a lot of social and mental/emotional well-being. Finding this kind of happiness can be as elusive as sand slipping through your fingers. At the same time, it can be as straightforward and simple as feeling your in-breath and out-breath.” 3
Languishing, on the other hand, does not refer to a mental illness but rather to the decline or loss of well-being. 4
The good news is that recent research points to new ways you can increase your clients’ chances of flourishing again.
In his WBECS talk, Dr. Seligman proposed that “all free and unoppressed people seek these universal pillars of social, mental/emotional well-being, and building PERMA is at the heart of positive psychology and is causal to life satisfaction.”
So. Well-being leads to life satisfaction, not the other way around.
Dr. Seligman’s PERMA 5 model of well-being captures five central elements of flourishing that, for our clients, can be independently measured and enhanced over time. This means we can measure our clients’ PERMA at the beginning, middle and end of the coaching period, with improved levels of well-being as the goal.
Different people will derive well-being from each of these five building blocks to varying degrees. A good life for one person is not necessarily a good life for another. And there are many different paths to a flourishing life.
By understanding the factors that enable flourishing, coaches can help their clients make more informed choices to live a more fulfilling life that is aligned with their values and interests.
So for example, people who are flourishing with high subjective well-being or life satisfaction experience the following benefits:
Further, people with high subjective well-being are more likely to:
Seligman sees character strengths (in particular the 24 VIA Character Strengths) as the pathway to PERMA. Seligman says, “These twenty-four strengths underpin all five elements, not just engagement: deploying your highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment, and to better relationships.” 6
And there is now plenty of research 7 that supports this theory, showing that character strengths closely connect to each part of PERMA/flourishing.
In particular, in one informative study 8, the 24 character strengths were examined across the five dimensions of well-being (PERMA). While many significant associations were discovered, the top two strengths for each were:
So there is a clear connection between character strengths and our experience of PERMA.
But what is the implication for our clients? How can we help as coaches? How might you take action and really put this research into practice in your coaching?
The first step is for your clients to take the VIA Character Strengths Survey 2. It’s free of charge for your clients, and you will both know their strengths and signature strengths.
Then, as research has shown, we can associate certain strengths that directly help each of the five PERMA elements flourish for our clients. Regardless of where their strengths lie, we can help our clients:
Each of the following five building blocks contributes to well-being and:
Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about:
Pleasant emotions such as joy, excitement, interest, hope and contentment come from many sources. One of these can be reflecting on something good that happened during our day and sharing it with others.
Exercise: Ask your client to share an example of something good that happened today. Name the character strengths that contributed to the good feelings.
Engagement is an experience in which someone fully deploys their skills, strengths and attention for a challenging task. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this produces an experience called “flow” that is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward.
There are many ways we can use our signature strengths to engage more at work, at play and in whatever we are currently focused on.
Exercise: Ask your client to engage in a household chore or a work project by thinking of three novel things about the activity while doing it. Encourage them to use their senses and their mindful awareness to experience the task in this new way.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are social beings because the drive to connect with and serve others promotes our survival. Developing strong relationships is central to adaptation and is enabled by our capacity for love, compassion, kindness, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, self-sacrifice, etc.
Couples who recognize and appreciate each other’s character strengths have more committed and successful relationships. Put simply: They’re happier in the relationship.
Exercise: Ask your clients to name one example of how their partners have used each of their top three strengths in an admirable way. Suggest that they share these examples with their partner and explain why the strengths are important to them.
A sense of meaning and purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. Workers who use their signature strengths at work are more likely to experience meaningful work—their job becomes a “calling” in their life.
Exercise: Ask your clients to align one of their signature strengths with their top three work tasks (e.g., running a meeting, filing papers, emailing a customer).
People pursue achievement—in the form of competence, success, and mastery—for its own sake, in a variety of domains, including the workplace, sports, games, hobbies, etc.
We can directly accomplish more in life by creating goals and taking steps to reach them. Goals can be big or small. The best ones are specific and reachable. Hope is a central part of this process.
Exercise: Ask your clients to set a goal they would like to accomplish. Build hope by asking them to think of at least three ways they can achieve their goal and at least three positive thoughts they can use to motivate themselves to stay focused on it.
I recommend getting your own evidence-backed PERMA intervention guide 9 published by VIA.
Well-being is valuable not only because it feels good, but also because it has real-world and beneficial consequences.
Optimism is a key contributor to flourishing, and nurturing hope in our clients will be an important part of this journey—along with discovering creative ways of applying their signature strengths to achieve their goals.
According to Dr. Seligman, “Well-being is the new goal and it is measurable and buildable.” As coaches, we have the opportunity to help our clients (and ourselves) regain the ability to flourish in our lives post-COVID, and we have the tools and resources for this collective journey ahead.
Further Reading & Research
I encourage you to explore these many resources further.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.