Positive Psychology and Coaching: A Review of Trends in Theses

Every few years there is another journal article published in relation to the ‘future of positive psychology’.  The most recent was Linley (2006) where he and his fellow researchers identified a number of pertinent issues for the field of positive psychology to consider as it moved forward. At the time these issues included the “need to synthesize the positive and negative, build on its historical antecedents, integrate across levels of analysis, build constituency with powerful stakeholders, and be aware of the implications of description versus prescription.” Following on from this article, and since 2008, there has been a movement within humanistic psychology to ‘reclaim’ positive psychology (Wong, 2011).

The uptake of positive psychology by the popular press has primarily promoted the health benefits of positive psychology, among other applications. Snyder and Lopez (2009) warn of possible damage to the field of positive psychology through the scientific community becoming caught up in the overhyped  media’s claims of positive psychology (Snyder & Lopez 2009). Warning researchers in the field, Snyder and Lopez suggest that researchers must remain within the parameters of scientific professionalism and utilise any research or studies appropriately.

Some negative attributes of positive psychology as described by Held (Held 2004) include the movement’s lack of consistency towards the aspect of negativity. The simplistic approach taken by some psychologists in the application of positive psychology is raised by both Held in 2004 and Lazarus in 2003. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not seen to be beneficial to the advancement of the field of positive psychology with a suggestion that the need for individual difference needs to be incorporated into application and recommendations.

Authors Bio  

Saiyyidah Zaidi-Stone, a UEL MAPP student and Founding Fellow of the Harvard Institute of Coaching

Research

Saiyyidah Zaidi-Stone, a UEL MAPP student and Founding Fellow of the Harvard Institute of Coaching, has been undertaking a review of all previous ‘positive psychology’ theses and dissertations for the Institute, with a view to identifying possible areas of research for the future. This search also looks at the type of research undertaken, at which universities, within what subject areas and keywords. The aim is to look at emerging themes. A separate review was undertaken by the Institute for the term ‘executive coaching’ and the ‘positive psychology’ search when considered alongside the ‘executive coaching’ search may identify possible overlaps or key themes where the 2 areas could form synergies. This research was undertaken by looking at all theses (Masters and PhDs) in various academic databases, mainly reviewing the published theses with ‘positive psychology’ in their abstracts in ProQuest Dissertations & Theses [ProQuest] for Harvard Institute of Coaching. ProQuest is primarily an American and Canadian academic database. In addition, for this paper for Positive Psychology Quarterly, the British Library’s EThOS [EThOS] thesis search was also reviewed. A ‘googletrend’ search was undertaken for the term ‘positive psychology’, and the results of this make very surprising reading for both academics and professionals looking at the future of positive psychology.

ProQuest Search Results

The ProQuest search system is the world’s most comprehensive collection of dissertations and theses with 2.7 million searchable citations to dissertation and theses from around the world from 1861-2011.  In total, 259 references from 2000 to December 2011 met the selection criteria of having the term ‘positive psychology’ in their abstracts in the advanced search function (see Fig. 1). These dissertations and theses started appearing in 1980, however, were scarce until 1999. In contrast, in the years 1999-2011 there was a rapid growth in dissertations meeting the search criteria with a peak in 2010.

Fig 1 Total number of theses produced from 2000- 2012

The most productive universities were Capella University, Alliant International University in San Francisco Bay, Fielding Graduate University, University of Kansas and Regent University, Virginia.  The search found a variety of subject area theses from psychotherapy [n=55] to performing arts [n=1], and in total, 100 different university subject areas produced theses that met the search criteria, these were across disciplines and included subjects such as social work, adult education, physical therapy, spirituality and gender studies, to name a few.  Some of the more unusual subject areas included sovereignty, regulated industries, and minority and Hispanic American studies (See table below for examples of theses).

Author and Year

Title

University

Cranmer, D. (2007). Autonomy and control in the workplace: Assessing managerial styles and employee perceptions of work climate Capella University
Crawford, D. (2005). The bases for executive action: A multiple case study of leadership in the highly regulated long-term health care industry Regent University
Rohde, D. (2010).

Occupational and economic acculturative stress, job-related outcomes, and personal resources among low-wage earning latinos

Alliant International University

 

Author keywords covered 100 different words including the more popular positive psychology [n=88], hope [n=19], optimism [n=18] as well as post traumatic growth [n=2], clergy [n=2] and acculturative stress [n=2] (see Figure 2). Of the 259 theses, the majority were written in English with French [n=4] and Afrikaans [n=1] also present.

Fig 2 Author keywords for theses 2000-2012

Reflections on results

When looking at some of the actual research undertaken, there is a very rich source of evidence based studies which aim to enable humans to improve subjective well being and flourish. Studies looking at ‘motherhood as an opportunity for positive growth and self development’ to ‘the power of love’ to ‘learning thankfulness between masters students and professors’ provides a lot to dwell upon. In order for research to have an impact on the lives of individuals, it is important that the findings are shared more widely than academia, less the wealth of information and significance be restricted.

The ProQuest research study primarily looked at the abstracts, keywords and subject areas for the theses returned in the ‘positive psychology’ term search. Further research could consider whether world events influence particular themes of research at a particular time; for example is it possible that there will be a number of resilience based research papers coming in the next few years as a response to the worldwide economic challenges and political challenges faced globally?

EThOS

The UK EThOS theses database has over 250,000 searchable theses on its database. Using a similar search process to that undertaken for the ProQuest search, 7 theses showed up with ‘positive psychology’ in the abstract [2007 n=1, 2008 n=4, 2009 n=1, 2011 n=1].  These 7 theses were presented by 5 Universities [Birmingham n=2, Hull n=2, Ulster n=1, Wolverhampton n=1, Exeter n=1]. A range of subject areas were covered including: children, education, hope and amputees, and employment.

GoogleTrends

GoogleTrends is a public web facility and shows how often a particular search term is entered relative to the total search volume across the various regions of the world and in various languages. The value of this application is that it helps academics understand what lay people are searching for. Before 2005, searches for the term ‘positive psychology’ were insignificant. An article published in Science and Theology News (July 4th 2005) discussing the first Masters in Applied Positive Psychology programme at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first article that generated sufficient traffic for it to be picked up in googletrends.

Perhaps more interestingly, a Googletrend search undertaken on 4.3.2012, showed that, internationally, the region most often searching the term positive psychology is Singapore, followed by Hong Kong, Australia America, Canada. India just made the “top 10” regions however the UK, or any other European country for that matter, did not show in this trend at all (see Fig 3).

Fig 2 Author keywords for theses 2000-2012

In relation to cities, Philadelphia had the highest number of searches for the term ‘positive psychology’, followed by Singapore and Melbourne.  The lowest three, with a significant enough number [at least 200 searches per day] to register, were Boston, Miami and San Francisco however three Australian cities and Dublin were also in the top 10.

The language of those searching raised a surprising result. Based on anecdotal evidence, one would have thought that the most popular language of those searching was English, however, it was not. English was second to Tagalog (the most commonly spoken language in the Philippines), with the third most popular language being Chinese. It is of note that the Philippines region was ranked 7th despite this region seeming to have a significant impact on the language search for ‘positive psychology’. This rich and unexpected finding gives those researching and practising positive psychology a lot to think about.

 

Theses results and Positive Psychology Masters courses

The results from this search do not highlight any links to specific positive psychology university courses. In many respects, the rich and diverse subjects where positive psychology is being researched is magnificent. The Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, was the first course of its kind in the world and commenced in 2005; a further MAPP course started at the University of East London in 2007. There are numerous positive psychology modules and courses being offered at universities throughout the world and this may explain the wide variance in universities where research has been undertaken. It is worth noting that the positive psychology module at Harvard became the most popular undergraduate course in 2008 so there is a real interest in this subject from future potential business and organisational leaders (See Kate’s article on Positive Psychology in the UK and across the world for further review of PP courses).

Given that positive psychology is such a wide field and impacts on areas of psychology, as well as other numerous fields, the question of how to bring coherence to ‘positive psychology’ remains. Could researchers and students involved in MAPP programmes try and bring some cohesion to the field of positive psychology?

 

How is research conducted?

It is very healthy for the field of positive psychology that the research is coming from a variety of different areas and raises questions as to what will happen when the ripples from positive psychology meet those of neuroscience, executive coaching, counseling, etc.?  How can the diversity of research and how research is being conducted be widened? Much of the current research is also very case study specific and looks at a small number of individuals, who are demographically representative of the required population sample, but may not actually be representative of larger populations There is, and has always been, a bias towards psychology students or small numbers in the participant groups.

 

Conclusion

Reflecting on the Harvard Institute of Coaching theses search, there is a significant amount of research being undertaken in a variety of subjects however Masters degrees such as MAPP are not showing through in the search when undertaken as set out earlier. There is clearly a great deal of interest in the subject of positive psychology both by researchers and professionals, however there needs to be an increased consistency in how research is undertaken and the reporting of ‘positive psychology’ in order for researchers to be able to benefit from sharing findings further. In the last 10 years over 100 universities [ProQuest] and 5 universities [EThOS] are producing positive psychology research- this cannot be representative of the full picture, and as Positive Psychologists both in practice and academia we need to look at the following themes:

  1. Consistency of terminology so that research can be compared;
  2. New areas of research or application rather than repetition;
  3. Consider how  positive psychology link to other academic fields;
  4. What impact will the search for positive psychology emerging from the Far East have on the currently predominantly Western science?

There is a lot to consider given the insights raised in this summary. For further information on the Harvard Institute of Coaching Positive Psychology research go to www.instituteofcoaching.org and search for An Annotated Bibliography of Dissertations and Theses.

If you are interested in the positive psychology annotated bibliography please contact Saiyyidah Zaidi-Stone (saiyyidah@mcleanstone.com). The annotated bibliography is probably incomplete and if you know of any relevant dissertations and theses that ought to be included, please contact Saiyyidah.

 

References 

Held, B.S. (2004). The Negative Side of Positive Psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 9-41.

Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2009). Positive Psychological Assessment. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Reclaiming Positive Psychology: A Meaning-Centered Approach to Sustainable Growth and Radical Empiricism. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(4), 408-412.

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