Positivity Institute founder Suzy Green explains why positive psychology is all about enhancing resilience, achievement and wellbeing – but not about happiness. And why coaching is essential in helping build and sustain this approach to positive emotions
She jokes that although her main strength is vitality/zest, and she thinks of herself as a positive person, “some of my colleagues call me Dr Cantankerous! I do get worked up about things at times”.
“I don’t like happiness,” says Dr Suzy Green, grinning widely. She’s CEO and founder of psychological consultancy, the Positivity Institute in Sydney, Australia, and a world-renowned expert on Positive Psychology (PP), which is often described as the science of happiness. So what does she mean?
But she’s not referring to her personal happiness. She’s taking issue with what she sees as an overly narrow description of PP.
For Green, PP is also about meaning, wisdom, creativity and many more psychological constructs. She’s not alone in her vehemence. Martin Seligman (2011) has said he now detests the word happiness in relation to PP, preferring the topic of wellbeing.
At last year’s Australian Psychological Society’s Interest Group in Coaching Psychology conference, Green and Professor Stephen Palmer defined PP coaching as an “evidence-based coaching practice informed by the theories and research of positive psychology for the enhancement of resilience, achievement and wellbeing”.
Resilience, Achievement and Wellbeing form the three prongs of Green’s RAW model for flourishing (Green, 2014), which she unveiled at the conference.
Coaching is a vital ingredient, and is the key to sustainability.
“PP really needs coaching,” says Green. She’s one of a number worldwide pushing to integrate coaching psychology with PP. Others include the University of East London, which is launching the first-ever integrated Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology (seepages 42-46). “It’s very exciting,” says Green of this move.
She’s keen to stress that wellbeing is not just about ‘positive’ emotions. “We know it’s not normal to be happy all the time. [If that was the case] they’d lock you up, or at the very least you’d annoy people. But if you think about the primary emotions of fear, anger, sadness and happiness, then fear and anger – that’s our fight or flight mechanism – will never go away. We don’t want it to go away, but we just don’t want fear to become a phobia, anger to become a rage disorder, or sadness to become clinical depression.”
However, when it comes to the study of ‘positive’ emotions within psychology, there’s still much ground to be covered.
“As clinical psychologists we know a lot about helping people with negative moods. What the PP movement has done is give a whole body of science about helping people create positive emotions.”
She says that for wellbeing it’s important not only to learn to manage emotions, particularly when they go to extremes, but also how to improve positive emotions and boost wellbeing more broadly.
“Not every coaching session is a feel-good one, but it has the capacity to build positive emotions through the rapport we have with our clients, by getting people to talk about their strengths and desires. And we know through Broaden and Build theory (eg, Frederickson, 2004), that people’s thinking broadens and they become more creative. So it’s absolutely crucial in coaching. In clinical work, people’s thinking is so narrow because of their mood state, so the best thing you can do as a coach is to shift up some positive emotions to broaden the client’s capacity to identify opportunities and potential pathways.”
Green left school aged 16, initially working as a secretary. However, after becoming intrigued by the stories shared by her then partner, who was studying psychiatry as part of his medical studies, she successfully applied to read psychology as a mature age student at the University of Wollongong in Australia, becoming the first in her family to attend university.
Her first job was in the main psychiatric clinic in a small town south of Sydney: “I was thrown in at the deep end with clients who had serious mental illness and I had to learn pretty quickly. I also learnt that I personally couldn’t do that work all day.”
Green first started coaching in 2002 and feels fortunate that when she went to do her clinical masters and doctorate, through a “series of fortunate events”, she ended up carrying out a globally ground-breaking randomised controlled trial (RCT) looking at the impact of Cognitive Behavioural Solution Focused coaching on goal achievement and wellbeing (Green, Oades & Grant, 2006).
Dr Anthony Grant had also done a study in this area, but not an RCT. He became her secondary supervisor on her clinical masters on using evidence-based coaching for mental health promotion and prevention.
At that point, there had been some 30 years of research into goals and PP. “So this was about using coaching to bring that research to life in as much as if you help people set personally meaningful goals through coaching, the outcome is enhanced wellbeing. The goal is whatever the goal is, and the wellbeing comes as a result.”
She went on to teach PP. Between March 2004 and July 2013, as adjunct senior lecturer in the University of Sydney’s Coaching Psychology Unit, she developed and taught Applied Positive Psychology as part of the postgraduate degree of Masters of Applied Science (Coaching Psychology) and Graduate Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Towards the end of her tenure, she co-founded the Positive Psychology Institute, and in July 2012, she founded the Positivity Institute.
She’s now been involved in four RCTs related to coaching. These include one with senior high school students in Australia for which she was awarded an Institute of Coaching grant. It involved comparing a Cognitive Behavioural Solution Focused coaching approach with a PP intervention with students in two schools.
On the edge
She’s worked with more than 500 clients to date, including those with clinical depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Since 2004, she’s been working more in executive coaching, transitioning from clinical work completely two years ago, though the latter still stands her in good stead.
“Last year, I had my first chief financial officer client. He was working at a very big company. He’d heard me present and knew I was a psychologist. He went to HR who suggested he went to the EAP (Employee Assistance Programme). He said no, he wanted to work with me. His doctor had wanted to put him on antidepressants as he was clinically depressed. So I said, if after homework and two sessions you’re not better, you need proper clinical treatment.
“It’s been really interesting observing someone as resourced and generally robust as him turn around so quickly. I got him on to his values, doing his strengths and looking at his potential pathways. In just a couple of weeks, his mood had picked up and he was out there meeting people. It was about highlighting what mattered to him – challenging some of his faulty thinking about not getting another job.
“If I was a traditional clinical psychologist, I could have taken him down another path, assessing and reducing the symptoms.
But it’s slowly starting to change. There’s a bit of PP creeping in, though it’s still very much a medical model, which is why I’m so glad to be working in the coaching field.
“Coaching has much to offer, particularly to those who are high-functioning that get a curveball. I think that shift on strengths, on values and moving towards what’s important to you, is vital. That’s not to say clinical treatment isn’t important if it needs to be done.
“I guess though, some of my clients know I have that clinical background. I might sometimes get a client who is borderline. That’s my niche.”
Drawing on her vast experience, she’s come to believe it’s the values work that makes the difference.
“I’ve tried everything with everyone and for me the path to wellbeing is uncovering ‘who I am’. I discovered early in my career, even before Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is really taking off in Australia and which I’ve been using for years, that it’s about helping people set their goals aligned to their values.
“For me, the most powerful coaching tool – by observation only, I have no research on this – is values clarification, prioritisation and then making small shifts in pursuit of meaningful goals.
“In Australia there’s been an increase in mental health awareness, with workshops on it. And there’s a place for that. But when I run workshops on coaching or on PP, people are happier to come along. We’re still talking about boosting your mood and some of those Cognitive Behavioural strategies, but using them in a proactive way to boost resilience, goal striving and wellbeing.
“Coaching is about goal striving, goal attainment and wellbeing. If you as a coach have the remit to help people with their wellbeing, you need to know about the science of wellbeing. Where does that sit? In PP.
“The best use of my time nowadays is not one on one, although I do keep a handful of executive clients, but to speak to as many people as possible. PP in schools (Positive Education) has really taken off here. We’re leading the way on this in Australia.”
When Green was in her mid 20s, her then partner became influenced by Eastern philosophies, reading Buddhist books and travelling to India. This sparked an interest in Green in her self-development and self-growth. And she began to wonder, “Why didn’t I learn this stuff at school? Why aren’t my kids learning more of this stuff? It seemed crazy to wait until people derail, then give them skills for life.”
Nowadays, she spends half her working time in the education arena. “The biggest institutions in our society are schools and workplaces, and as a clinical psychologist, I wouldn’t have had access to those. So it’s been great to get out there with my knowledge on wellbeing, packaging it in an interesting way.”
Green’s Pos. Ed. programmes differ from many others, in incorporating training in creating coaching conversations, rather than coaching being used primarily to coach leaders, as in the corporate setting.
She’s been involved with two large-scale Pos. Ed. initiatives at schools in Australia, one at Knox Grammar and another at Loreto Kirribilli. The initiatives involved three-day programmes on PP, coaching and resilience for all staff, including maintenance workers. The programmes were followed up with support over two years.
“It’s a bit like an organisational change process. We’re really trying to highlight that coaching needs to be a culture and everybody needs to learn it.”
She’s also been working with the University of Western Sydney, creating a positive working culture, running eight cohorts over the last two years, working on strengths and resilience, and using coaching conversations to bring it to life. And last year she managed and supervised on a large coaching programme around wellbeing and leadership at Sydney Children’s Hospital, where staff were highly engaged, but burnt out, she said.
Her favourite strengths assessments are VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Realise2 (now called R2 Strengths Profiler), saying the latter “is fabulous for career coaching to find out what people are drained by”.
She’s just published a set of Character Strength cards approved by the VIA Institute. She’s launched the GROWCoach app with Christian van Nieuwerburgh (see Roadtest, pages 52-53).
She’s involved in a number of forthcoming PP and coaching conferences, and is working on a PP coaching self-help book based on experiences with individual clients, as well as editing a book with Professor Stephen Palmer (Positive Psychology Coaching in Practice, Routledge, forthcoming).
“There isn’t much out there. We wanted to bring some rigour and multiple authors’ perspectives.”
She recommends coaches interested in PP read Biswas-Diener (2007; 2010)’s books, access articles on PP, reviewing them in their journal clubs and thinking about application in practice, as well as exploring in supervision and attending PP conferences. And there are MAPP programmes around the world (see pages 42-46), she says. “Or you can do a free Massey Open Online Course (MOOC) – there are two on PP.”
Given all that she’s involved in, how does Green keep up her energy levels? “I have power naps. And I’m learning to ride a 125cc scooter before moving on to a bigger motorbike. A couple of years ago, I did my strengths assessment and in my weakness quadrant was courage. I thought, ‘That’s not right’. Then I realised, ‘Yes, actually, Suzy you don’t ever consciously choose to get out of your comfort zone’, so I got the scooter and learnt to ride it.
“Then I did the Tough Mudder [a 16-19km endurance course created by the British Special Forces]. I was so scared. And last year I did the 14km City2Surf Sydney run, the longest I’d ever run continuously. This year I’m doing a half-marathon for a not-for-profit, the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
“I’ve just moved into a different space. Both my kids are out of school now. I can sit back and think, ‘What do I want to do for the next 10 years?’ For a long time, I didn’t have a life; I didn’t have a relationship. I’ve been with my partner for four years, we like to travel, he’s into fitness, we like to go to nice restaurants, I’ve got a nice life outside of work.”
So what does she want to do and see over the next 10 years?
“I’d love to see [a Pos. Ed. approach] in all schools. It will be an interesting thing to watch. And in the corporate sector, I’d like to see some really proactive programmes to boost people’s wellbeing. It’s an exciting time to be involved in this area.
“I’ve done lots of one-on-one executive coaching and worked with some of the big financial institutions around resilience and mental toughness, including UBS. Most have been coaching for many years, but my message is about how to make it more cost-effective and create workplace coaching where people have access to a coach more proactively rather than sending people reactively to the EAP, making it more accessible as part of a wellbeing agenda.
“So I’m keen to explore that, using the work I’ve been doing in schools and seeing how that can translate.
“As I’m turning 50, I look back and it sounds a bit funny, but it really feels like this is my calling now. It feels this is what I’m meant to do while on the planet.”
R Biswas-Diener, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Intervention, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010
R Biswas-Diener and B Dean, Positive psychology Coaching: Putting the Science of Happiness to Work For Your Clients, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007
B L Frederickson, ‘The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions’, In: Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B Biological Sciences, pp1367-1378, 2004
L S Green, L G Oades and A M Grant, ‘Cognitive-behavioral, solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal striving, well-being, and hope’, In: The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3, pp142-149, 2006