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Creating Meaning Before and After Positive Events

Posted by John Andrew Williams & Britt Fulmer | June 1, 2021 | Comments (0)

The Intersection of Life Coaching, Positive Psychology and the Making of Meaning 

Since their inceptions in the mid to late 1990s, both coaching (with respect to ICF) and positive psychology have flourished as fields of study,  gaining insight from each other. Life coaching offers several important insights, including the effectiveness of guiding clients to focus on both the present and future, as well as the power of establishing the client as the expert in their own life. Along the way, positive psychology has offered coaching a theoretical base and engaging studies that yield new insights for coaching tools. One of those insights revolves around making meaning both before and after significant events.  

What is Meaning? 

In 2011,Martin Seligman, Ph.D. introduced the influential model called PERMA in his book, “Flourish.” PERMA stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. These five elements combine to determine the level to which someone is flourishing. While each person experiences and values these elements differently, it’s widely accepted that these are the most important elements to bolster well-being.  

Seligman defines meaning as belonging or contributing to something bigger than oneself and having direction and purpose in life. It’s the feeling that one’s life is full of value and worthy of living to its fullest. And meaning matters. A 2009 study linked purpose and meaning with lower rates of mortality, and a 2012 meta-analysis revealed that meaning improves levels of well-being and lowers rates of psychopathology. 

The key to meaning-making is that it is driven by personal values and purpose. External influences, such as relationships or accomplishments, while important in their own right, aren’t enough for someone to derive meaning. It’s an internal, individual connection, such as awe, wonder, or inspiration, that leads to a more flourishing life. 

Post – Ecstatic Growth 

In a recent study, Ann Marie Roepke, Ph.D. evaluated a phenomenon she provisionally called post-ecstatic growth. While a large body of research focuses on growth after a traumatic event, she wanted to explore whether or not positive events could elicit the same or similar growth response. She was pleasantly surprised to see that positive events did lead to increased growth. This included a range of positive events from, falling in love for the first time to a first solo vacation experience. What made the growth for these events even stronger was that they were grounded in meaning. The higher the participant rated the meaningful connection between themself and the event, the more significantly they rated their growth.  

Further research has explored the intersectionality between post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth with similar results. After Roepke’s initial research, the Thriver Model was developed in Germany, positing that it’s not whether the event is good or bad, but the psychological resources a person uses to make meaning of the event and facilitate their growth. 

These findings are significant for the coaching industry. So many times, clients show up to sessions wanting to work through a problem or challenge. While these conversations can be impactful, it can be equally impactful to coach around meaningful positive experiences. By diving into the meaning behind positive events, clients are able to learn and discover about their inner selves, furthering their personal development.  

Meaning Narrative  

Narrative therapy has been around since the 1980s, and it aims to separate the client from their problem by using storytelling and narratives. While there are several techniques to narrative therapy, they all revolve around helping clients build narratives that make meaning of their experiences.  

While post-ecstatic growth addresses how people construct meaning of experiences after they’ve taken place, meaning narratives can help people think about the meaning they want to create in their lives. It allows clients to use storytelling as a way to make meaning in their lives, thus contributing to their growth.  

Tool Suggestion  

Meaning Wheel  

What  

A Meaning Wheel contains all of the places in a person’s life that give them meaning. It can look very similar to the Wheel of Life, or it can be customized to the areas of a client’s life that give them the most meaning.  

Why 

Meaning-making is a pathway toward personal growth. The problem is that many people don’t take the time to associate meaning with the positive events in their life, bypassing their potential for growth.  

How 

  1. Ask your client to identify a recent, positive event in their life.  
  2. Ask permission to use the wheel to address areas of their life where the event might have added meaning.  
  3. Ask them to assess how the positive event made a difference for each aspect of the wheel.  
  4. Coach them around the meaning that they derive for each section. Consider these questions: 
    a. How did this event impact your relationship with [spouse, friend, family, etc.]?
    b. Which area on the wheel did this event have the greatest impact?
    c. How will this event make a difference in your future? 

John Andrew Williams & Britt Fulmer

This article was co-authored by the following contributors. John Andrew Williams taught high school Latin for six years after graduating from Brown University with a degree in Classics. He earned his coaching certificate from the Coach Training Institute and started working with high school and college students, launching his company Coach Training EDU in 2005. He’s an author of five books and a former writer for Newsweek’s Education blog. He is also a speaker at coaching and education conferences from New York to Dubai. His company currently trains over 300 coaches a year in more than 40 countries, with 10 trainers based in the U.S. and four internationally.  Britt Fulmer spent her early career in higher education developing student leaders after graduating with a master’s in education. Today, Britt works for Coach Training EDU, training new coaches and creating content that merges the worlds of coaching and positive psychology. She is also a freelance writer and writing coach based just outside of Philadelphia, helping new, aspiring authors find their voice and write their stories.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

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