This is my thesis from my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology & Coaching Psychology (MAPPCP) programme
Date of Submission: 10th January 2017
Word Count: 6549
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Table of Contents
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Positive psychological research has suggested meaning in life is an essential cornerstone of well-being. A strong link between meaning in life, self-concept clarity and authenticity has further been identified. There are few rigorously tested interventions which have been demonstrated to have a positive effect on these variables amongst non-clinical populations however. This is the first quantitative study to investigate the effect of three life coaching sessions on levels of meaning in life amongst 38 participants from differing backgrounds. The Meaning in Life Questionnaire, Self-Concept Clarity Scale and Authenticity Scale are used before and after the intervention in order to measure changes and correlations between the variables. Results indicate a significant increase in presence of meaning in life following the intervention, and a strong correlation between meaning in life and self-concept clarity. This suggests the importance of life coaching interventions as a powerful method to increase levels of meaning in life.
meaning in life; life coaching; self-concept clarity; authenticity; positive psychology; well-being
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Meaning in life has consistently been a central theme in positive psychological theory and research since its beginnings (Ryff & Keyes, 1995; Seligman et al., 2005). Although championed initially by Frankl (2004, 2014) through his experiences in a concentration camp during the Second World War, it remained relatively neglected until this more recent surge of research has suggested close association between meaning in life with many aspects of wellbeing. Increases in meaning in life have now been correlated to increases in optimism (Steger, 2012), resilience (Debats et al., 1993), positive affect (Hicks & King, 2009), positive life events (Disabato et al., 2016), joy (Steger et al., 2009) and identified as an important mediator between religiousness and well-being (Steger & Frazier, 2005). Meanwhile, increased meaning has also been associated with decreases in the need for psychotherapy (Battista & Almond, 1973), positively effecting the recovery from depression (Disabato et al., 2016) whilst a lack of meaning in life has been associated with mental illness and addiction (Kinnier et al., 1994). More recently, positive psychology’s study of meaning has been criticized as being in danger of pursuing a “Disney Land-type of happiness” (Wong, 2009) and has been redefined, through what some are calling “Second Wave Positive Psychology” (Held, 2004; Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015) or “Positive Psychology 2:0” (Wong, 2011). This new and arguably more sophisticated vision of the study of well-being and flourishing distinguishes between positive experience and positive outcome, arguing that positive outcome can also be obtained through negative experience (Ivtzan et al, 2016). Meaning in life has been identified as a positive outcome which is quite often obtained through adversity.
Although research is reinforcing the benefits of meaning in life, defining this variable of well-being is proving problematic. Frankl (2004) defined making meaning in life as choosing, “…one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (p.75). Steger
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similarly feels finding meaning involves an individual interpretation of a series of events (Steger, 2009), although more recently has distinguished between this idea of coherence, and additional variables: significance and purpose (Martela & Steger, 2016). Ivtzan (2015) however believes purpose to be a separate concept altogether, defining meaning as a, “…cognitive experience…” (p.56), as opposed to purpose, which he associates with the motivation behind outward expression of our aspirations. Reker & Wong (1988) also see meaning making as creating coherence in our lives, and it is this definition of meaning in life, separate from the concept of purpose that the current study will adopt. It is agreed that although closely linked to meaning, purpose is more usefully defined as a separate concept, related to an individual’s external reality. This differs from meaning, which is defined as the internal choices an individual makes around structuring and processing one’s reality.
Interventions to Increase Meaning in Life
It is all very well defining meaning and identifying the positive benefits of increasing meaning in life, but this amounts to little unless suitable interventions can be devised in order to action these increases. Many existing interventions focussing in this area have been designed specifically for the treatment of mental health disorders (Frankl, 2014; Wong, 2010), and leading theorist and researcher into meaning, Dr. Wong (n.d.) has recently written of positive psychology: “Unfortunately, meaning-oriented interventions remain underdeveloped, as compared to happiness-inducing interventions and strengths-enhancing interventions.” (p.2). It could be argued that it is now more than ever that positive psychological interventions focussed on increasing meaning in life amongst non-clinical populations are needed in order to act as a buffer against anxiety and depression (Debats et al., 1993). Statistics published this year in the United Kingdom (UK) indicate that antidepressant prescriptions have more than doubled in the last ten years (HSCIC, 2016), along with “…some evidence that mild to moderate mental health disorders are a growing
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cause of sickness absence…” from work (Shiels et al, 2013). Creating effective interventions to act as a buffer against these so-called “plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness” (Monbiot, 2016) require the identification of sources of meaning however.
Theorists disagree regarding where we can find meaning in life. Wong (1998) identifies seven sources: relationships, intimacy, self-transcendence, achievement, self-acceptance, fairness and religion / spirituality. Many others agree that self-transcendence and spirituality are key (Ivtzan et al., 2013; Koltko-Rivera, 2006; Passmore & Howell, 2014; Seligman, 2004; Steger, 2012). However, it has also been shown how different personalities may potentially find meaning in different ways (Lavigne et al., 2012). More recently, Shin, Steger, & Henry (2016) have shown a strong correlation between self-concept clarity and meaning in life. Another study by Schlegel et al. (2009) also demonstrated the potentially close relationship between having a clear cognitive understanding of who you are and experiencing meaning in life. The same study also suggested that authenticity, or the ability to bring this self-concept out into the world was also an essential building block to increasing meaning. It is to these two variables which the current study will turn in order to establish a potential intervention to increase meaning in life.
Self-knowledge has traditionally been associated with true wisdom for over 2 thousand years: “Know thyself” was reported to have been engraved over the entrance of the Temple of Apollo in ancient Greece (Wilkins, 1917), and was championed by Aristotle. But although there has long been an understanding of the grave importance of this knowledge, “Of all moral precepts KNOW THYSELF is perhaps the most re-markable for a twofold and somewhat paradoxical reason. None has more deeply impressed the imagination, while none
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has been understood, or misunderstood, in a greater variety of ways.” (Beare, 1896). Beare points to the problem of defining the ‘self’ as well as gaining knowledge of that ‘self’. A key feature of this problem of definition has been that it is seen as impossible to know oneself when one is the same self that one wishes to know. Gecas (1982) felt that the self was a process instead of a structure, of which the product was self-concept. The idea that one can have a concept rather than certain knowledge of self has gained traction with other theorists and researchers (Boucher, 2011; Campbell et al., 1996; Kraus et al., 2011; Schwartz et al., 2010; Shin et al., 2016). In terms of increasing clarity of self-concept, theorists and researchers have generally cited two main sources. Introspection has long been cited (Hixon & Swann, 1993; James, 1890), but this method has been criticised as creating further confusion rather than clarity (Wilson et al., 1995; Wilson & Dunn, 2004). The second method is through explicit feedback from others. In a comprehensive review of both potential sources, Bollich et al. (2011) pointed to a lack of studies examining this potential pathway to increasing self-concept clarity and identified it as the more profitable of the two. They point to a close and trusting relationship with another person outside of the individual’s immediate family being the ideal source of feedback and suggest that although this relationship with a trusted other is important, that ideally insight into oneself is more readily believed when it comes directly from oneself. This echoes Maslow’s (1943) theory relating to self-actualisation, along with the humanistic theory of Rogers, (1951) in which the helping partnership between therapist and client is built on trust, empathy and respect and where control of the process and therefore autonomy remains with the client.
It has generally accepted that authenticity is an essential element of meaning in life and well-being (Goldman & Kernis, 2002; Ivtzan, 2015; Kernis & Goldman, 2005, 2006; Martela & Steger, 2016; Seligman, 2004). Both Maslow (2013) and Rogers (2012) believed that
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authenticity was achieved though congruence between an individual’s internal and external realities. Kraus et al’s., (2011) research suggests that people with greater levels of perceived social power, or “…disposed to greater control of their environments and freedom of self-expression” (p. 974) tend to experience higher levels of authenticity and self-clarity consistency. It appears therefore, that in order to increase levels of authenticity, an individual must once again feel in a position of control and autonomy, which could come from a therapeutic relationship based on humanistic principles. Wong (2010) feels similarly that his, “Meaning Therapy belongs to the humanistic-existential tradition” (p.87), but as mentioned previously, this therapy remains developed for clinical populations alone. It is life coaching which has taken these humanistic principles and applied them in non-clinical settings.
Green et al. (2006) described life coaching as “…a collaborative solution-focused, result-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of life experience and goal attainment in the personal and/or professional life of normal, nonclinical clients…” (p.142). In the same study, research suggested that levels of self-insight and mental health were increased through a series of life coaching sessions. Compared to executive coaching, which is generally reserved for corporate settings, life coaching has been relatively ignored by researchers however, and has traditionally remained comparatively unregulated. It has even been, according to Naughton (2002) in danger of being dismissed completely. Even within life coaching, there are huge disparities in terms of coaching style and content making definition difficult. Generally however, life coaching focusses attention on the coachee’s present and future situations, and lasts for a limited number of sessions. This is in stark contrast to psychotherapy and counselling, which tends to focus on past events, and last for a much longer period of time. When considering a suitable meaning focussed intervention for non-clinical populations, time and cost are an important feature, given limited budgets and
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time constraints of both individuals and organisations within this space. Grant & Palmer (2015) have recently argued that counselling psychology is the ideal medium through which to deliver both positive psychological and coaching psychological interventions. Although there is evidence supporting the claim that a psychological background is useful within the coaching space (Lai & McDowall, 2014), it could be argued however, that by limiting delivery of these interventions to those with counselling psychology training, widespread proliferation of these interventions would also be limited. It is recognised that although psychological experience is useful, and although research by Grant (2014) suggested that the quality of the relationship between coach and coachee was not an important contributor towards a successful coaching outcome, most theory and research points to the quality of the relationship being more important than the psychological knowledge and experience of the coach. (Bluckert, 2005; Bozer & Joo, 2015; Lai & McDowall, 2014).
Evidence based life coaching and coaching psychology are currently on the rise, and recent studies have shown how life coaching can help young people increase levels of meaning and purpose in their lives (Pritchard & Nieuwerburgh, 2016) as well as helping act as a buffer against mental health issues (Robson-Kelly & Nieuwerburgh, 2016). Although this recent research has pointed to a coaching relationship being important in the development of meaning and purpose in life, there has been little research directly investigating the use of life coaching as a positive psychological intervention to increase meaning in life amongst non-clinical populations. There has also been little research into the key determining features of a coaching process which is successful in doing so. This study asked the question whether life coaching based on a humanistic-existential approach could be effective in increasing self-concept clarity, authenticity and the presence of meaning in life in non-clinical populations, as well as whether levels of self-concept clarity and authenticity are key predictors of meaning in life. It was hypothesised firstly that participants would demonstrate significant
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increases in the presence of meaning in life after the coaching intervention, secondly that levels of self-concept clarity would correlate with the presence of meaning in life and thirdly that authenticity and the presence of meaning in life would also be correlated, both before and after the coaching intervention.
A recent systematic review which investigated coaching psychology research called for “…more rigorous empirical studies… as most of the existing coaching studies (approximately 70 per cent) were under- taken by qualitative methods such as case studies and interviews” (Lai & McDowall, 2014). Phenomenological research lends itself well to investigating coaching and meaning in life due to coaching outcomes being highly subjective in nature. Although qualitative research allows for a rich tapestry of data however, a quantitative approach allows for an investigation of the efficacy of the life coaching sessions in more controlled circumstances. Coupled with this, the likely bias of the researcher, being also the only coach in this research was somewhat mitigated. This study’s goal is to investigate an objective shared truth about life coaching’s influence on meaning in life rather than individual perspectives. Although it is likely that through using a quantitative approach, the study’s data reflects a limited view of the outcomes of coaching, it was decided that this was necessary in order to open the door for more detailed research in the future.
A total of 38 participants were recruited using a number of different methods in order to increase the randomness of the sample. Adverts offering free coaching sessions (Appendix D) to help increase meaning in life were posted to online groups on Facebook (www.facebook.com) and LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) as well as being left in local cafes and posted through letterboxes in several different areas of Bedford in the UK. Out of these participants, nine did not complete the full intervention and second questionnaire, although
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their initial questionnaires were included in order to measure the correlation between the variables. Participants were 68.4% female, with an average age of 36. 60.5% were in employment, with 28.9% in self-employment. The rest of the sample either classed themselves as ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) (2.6%), in training (2.6%) or retired (5.3%). 47.4% had obtained a university or college degree, and 31.6% university or college educated but below degree level. 57% classed themselves as spiritual but not religious, 21% as religious, and 18.4% as not religious or spiritual. 60.5% were white British, with an additional 23.7% classing themselves as “other white background”. 5.3% were of Indian heritage, 2.6% black Caribbean, 2.6% Bangladeshi and 2.6% other black background.
The Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006) was selected in order to measure both presence of, as well as search for, meaning in life. It contains two five item subscales, one measuring presence of meaning and one measuring the search for meaning. Items are rated between 1 (absolutely untrue) to 7 (absolutely true). It was concluded that whilst life coaching may not influence the presence of meaning in life, it could well influence coachee’s motivation to search for increased meaning in their lives and as such, both subscales were included. Statements therefore include, “I am looking for something that makes my life feel meaningful” as well as “I understand my life’s meaning”. In terms of reliability, Chronbach’s alpha was used to determine high reliability in terms of the presence sub-scale (α=0.92). In terms of the search sub-scale, this was also shown to be reliable (α=0.88).
In order to measure levels of self-concept clarity, it was decided to use The Self-Concept Clarity Scale (J. D. Campbell et al., 1996), a 12 item scale which measures the extent to which individuals feel that they have a clear understanding of themselves. The items are rated from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) and include “In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am.” and “Sometimes I feel that I am not really the person that I
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appear to be.” This scale has recently been used by Shin et al., (2016) in conjunction with the Meaning in Life Questionnaire to help demonstrate a strong relationship between self-concept clarity and meaning in life across 285 college students. Within this study, the questionnaire reported a good reliability using Cronbach’s alpha (α=0.77).
Finally, in order to measure authenticity, The Authenticity Scale (Wood et al., 2008) was chosen. Susing et al’s (2011) recently recommended that this would be a useful tool in the development of evidence based coaching, although it is “…inherently limited…”(Susing et al., 2011, p. 20) and would ideally benefit from a peer-report counterpoint. Only 4 items which form the outer congruence (authentic behaviour) sub scale were used (items 1, 8, 9 and 11). This was decided due to the close similarities between inner congruence and self-concept clarity. The scale ranges from 1 (Does not describe me at all) to 7 (Describes me very well) and contains statements including “I think it is better to be yourself, than to be popular.” and “I am true to myself in most situations”. Reliability was found to be good using Cronbach’s alpha (α=0.86). A copy of all original questionnaires, as well as the questionnaire used for this study can be found in Appendix C.
All coaching and data collection was completed between June to October 2016. Participants were given life coaching over a course of three one hour sessions, with a minimum of one week and a maximum of three weeks in between each session. In each case, participants completed all three questionnaires prior to the first coaching session, and then completed the same questionnaires immediately after the third coaching session was complete. The coach / researcher was not present during these times in order to reduce the chances of response bias.
It has been demonstrated in the introduction people feeling higher levels of social control and autonomy are potentially more likely to experience higher levels self-concept clarity and authenticity. As such, the conceptual framework of this study and life coaching style were
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both based around Rogerian humanistic theory (Rogers, 1951) and Maslow’s (1943) theories of self-actualization, where a non-directive and empathic approach in a therapeutic relationship enables and empowers a client’s natural tendency to strive towards reaching their potential. In terms of applying this person-centred approach specifically to coaching, the sessions recognised the work and theories of Peltier (2001), in striving to create the core conditions necessary to ensure the quality of the coaching relationship. It also went beyond the humanistic and took into account the transpersonal approach (Assagioli, 2007) echoing the strong evidence for spirituality, religion and self-transcendence being important features of finding increased meaning in life (Ivtzan et al., 2013). Further to this, given that the focus of this study was on meaning and authenticity, an existentialist stance was adopted, taking into account recent theory and research in this area arguing for its effectiveness. (Fusco et al., 2015; Temple & Gall, 2016; Wong, 2009; Wong, 2010). The coaching style was therefore largely influenced by “Existential Coaching Skills: The Handbook” (Hanaway & Reed, 2014).
Although the coaching process remained faithful to the humanistic method of non-direction on the part of the coach, three coaching tools were introduced to all participants, who were then invited to engage with each of them. There was no obligation to do so however, and it was entirely their decision whether they used them or not. The first was a film entitled “Finding Joe” (2011), which introduces the concept of The Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 2008). There have been studies which have demonstrated the power of stories in encouraging the increase of meaning in life, through increasing self-concept clarity (McAdams, 2014; Sternberg, 2011). Through being introduced to the concept of a mono myth, or single storyline which Campbell believed ran through many through well-known stories and myths, it was hypothesized that coachees would in turn adopt this structure to their own individual life stories to increase internal self-concept coherence. Worth (2016) recently said of The
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Hero’s Journey: “…we know and recognise the structure of these stories and respond to them; they are deep within us.” (p.176). The film was introduced to coachees via an online link and they were invited to watch it prior to their first coaching session.
The second tool which was introduced to all participants was the Enneagram, a nine-type personality framework which is thought to have been in existence since 2500 BC. Allworth & Passmore (2008) amongst many others feel that personality assessment tools are of great importance in the coaching process to assist coachees to increase levels of self-awareness. This has been corroborated by research, which has suggested links between individuals using the Enneagram and increased levels of self-awareness (Sutton et al., 2015; Sutton, 2007) as well as spirituality and meaning (Kale & Shrivastava, 2003; Ventegodt et al, 2005). A web site link leading to an online test to assist them in discovering their type (“Enneagram Test,” 2016) was sent to all participants after session one, along with a document explaining the differences between each of the types (see Appendix J).
The third tool introduced to participants after session two was the VIA Survey of Character Strengths created by Peterson & Seligman (2004). This positive psychological intervention has been shown to potentially influence increases in wellbeing, life satisfaction, and meaning in life (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010; Proctor et al., 2011). It was also hypothesized that it would enable participants to increase levels of self-concept clarity. A link was sent to all participants to a 240 item self-report online questionnaire (“Authentic Happiness,” 2016) which they were invited to complete in order to determine their top character strengths from a total list of 24, including terms such as “Love of Learning”, “Gratitude”, “Hope” and “Curiosity”.
Once again, embracing the humanistic approach to the life coaching process, all participants chose the topic of each coaching session, which could include exploring the results of
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engaging with each of the tools, although there was no obligation to do so. Although several of the participants were under the age of 18, it was not expected that there would be any ethical issues arising from the research, but all participants were given a clear consent form and information sheet (Appendix E and F), and where necessary, parental consent was sought. At the end of the process, all participants were handed a debrief letter (Appendix G), which included clear guidance should any they feel any symptoms of depression, anxiety or any other adverse condition following the coaching intervention.
In terms of data analysis, all data was inputted into SPSS software. Having determined that the data was not normally distributed, a Wilcoxon Signed Rank test was used in order to measure pre and post coaching interventions across meaning in life, authenticity and self-concept clarity. Once again, due to the data being not normally distributed, a Spearman’s rho test was used in order to measure correlations between the three variables.
The first hypothesis predicted that there would be a significant increase in the presence of meaning in life following the life coaching intervention. Out of 29 participants who completed the second questionnaire, 24 perceived an increase in the presence of meaning in life following the life coaching intervention. There was found to be a statistically significant increase from an average rank of 7 before the coaching intervention versus an average rank of 15.75 afterwards (Z= -3.992, p <0.001). The null hypothesis could therefore be rejected.
In terms of the second hypothesis that self-concept clarity would positively correlate with the presence of meaning in life both before and after the life coaching intervention, a Spearman’s rank-order correlation was run. The results suggested a statistically significant strong positive correlation between self-concept clarity and the presence of meaning in life prior to the life coaching intervention commencing (rs = .374, p= .029) as Figure 1 (Appendix A)
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demonstrates. After completing the life coaching sessions, results report an even stronger statistically significant positive correlation between the two variables (rs = .526, p= .003). Thus the null hypothesis could once again be rejected.
The third hypothesis was that authenticity and the presence of meaning in life would also positively correlate, and once again a Spearman’s rank-order correlation was used to determine this. Prior to coaching, the correlation was deemed not strong nor statistically significant (rs= .270, p= .106). However, after the life coaching intervention, it was found that there was a statistically significant strong positive correlation between authenticity and the presence of meaning in life (rs= .621, p<0.001). As such, although there was a correlation in the post-coaching scores but not pre-coaching scores, the null-hypothesis could not be rejected.
It was further noted that there was no statistically significant correlation between self-concept clarity and authenticity, in either the post-coaching or pre-coaching results, and that further the search for meaning in life did not correlate with any of the other variables to a statistically significant degree. Interestingly, although there was seen to be a strong positive correlation between self-concept clarity and the presence of meaning in life, there was not a statistically significant increase in self-concept clarity after the coaching intervention. In fact, although more people reported an increase than reported a decrease (17 vs. 9), there was an average rank of 14.94 before versus an average rank of 12.74 after coaching. Given the strong correlation between this variable and the presence of meaning in life, this result is potentially perplexing and will be addressed in the discussion section below. Likewise, there was no statistically significant increase in authenticity after coaching, although once again more people reported an increase than a decrease (16 vs. 10). This meant a small difference in the average rank between 12.75 pre-coaching to 13.97 post-coaching.
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Finally, it was discovered that whether a participant was religious, spiritual but not religious, or neither spiritual nor religious seemed to have an effect on their perceived presence of meaning in life after coaching. A Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA was performed on the three religious groupings. In both pre coaching and post coaching scenarios, the group who classed themselves as religious were found to score the highest in perceived presence of meaning in life, followed by the group who classed themselves as spiritual but not religious, with the group who classed themselves as neither religious nor spiritual demonstrating the lowest score. Although the differences between the three groups pre-coaching results were not significant (χ2 = 4.596, p=0.1), the post-coaching results gave a statistically significant result (χ2 = 6.89, p=0.032). These differences are demonstrated in Figure 2 (Appendix B). This suggests that participant’s religious beliefs have an impact on the presence of meaning they perceive as having in their lives, which will be discussed in the next section.
This quantitative study was designed to investigate the effect of a series of life coaching sessions on levels of meaning in life, using a questionnaire format. In reviewing previous research in this area, it was hypothesised that three life coaching sessions would significantly increase the perceived presence of meaning in participant’s lives, and that evidence would show a strong positive correlation between self-concept clarity and authenticity with meaning in life through this process. In terms of the main hypothesis, the results indicate the presence of meaning in life was significantly increased across the sample. In terms of the secondary hypotheses, there was a statistically significant positive correlation between self-concept clarity and the presence of meaning in life both before and after the life coaching intervention. Further, there was a statistically significant positive correlation between
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authenticity and the presence of meaning in life after the intervention, but the correlation prior to the intervention was not statistically significant.
The results indicating the significant effect of life coaching on the perceived levels of meaning in life corroborates the recent research of Pritchard & Nieuwerburgh (2016), which also suggested that coaching and positive psychological interventions encouraged three girls from an inner city London school to find increased purpose and meaning in life. The current study however, due to being quantitative in design, allowed for a greater number of participants, significantly adding to the argument for further research into the efficacy of life coaching moving forward. This study not only aimed to examine the effect of life coaching on levels of meaning in life however. It is one thing to demonstrate that an intervention is effective, but it was also deemed important to investigate what it was about this intervention which made it effective. Thus, an additional research question was asked, and the second hypothesis stated that levels of self-concept clarity would positively correlate with the presence of meaning in life both before and after the coaching intervention. As was seen, the null hypothesis was rejected, and the results therefore suggest that there is a significant link between a clear concept of self and increased presence of meaning in life. This result corroborates recent research by Shin et al. (2016) which also demonstrated this relationship, but builds upon it, showing how greater clarity of self-concept can potentially be found through life coaching. One could argue that rather than standing apart from meaning in life, self-concept is actually an essential element of ‘coherence’, identified by Martela & Steger (2016) as one of three ways to understand meaning in life. Their definition of coherence being the extent to which an individual feels their life makes sense could be seen to include not only outer coherence, in terms of one’s life journey, but also inner coherence and clarity, in terms of one’s self- concept.
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The third and final hypothesis stated that authenticity and meaning in life would be correlated, both before and after the coaching intervention. In this instance, it was not possible to reject the null hypothesis because although authenticity and the presence of meaning in life positively correlated after coaching, before coaching, the correlation was not significant. These results suggest that authenticity is not always a predictor of meaning in life, and perhaps is better conceptualised as an outward demonstration of meaning, and better associated with the concept of purpose. Van Deurzen & Hanaway (2012) echo this idea, where they see existential coaching being firstly: ‘…the ordering of thoughts, feelings, experiences and actions,…” (p.xix). It could be seen that the first half of this definition relates to increasing meaning coherence through increasing self-concept, which happens internally as previously discussed. The second half of their definition relates to authenticity and purpose: “…enabling people to bring their behaviour and actions in line with their best intentions, motivations and purpose” (p.xix). This also relates closely to both Maslow (2013) and Rogers (2012) ideas of authenticity being the congruence between an individual’s internal and external realities.
Although self-concept clarity positively correlated with meaning in life, it was reported that there was no significant increase after the coaching intervention. The importance of coaching in influencing self-concept clarity was suggested by Stober & Parry (2005) in their proposed unifying definition of coaching as being, “…evidenced by sustained changes in self-understanding, self-concept and behaviour”. The current study was not able to lend credence to the growing conviction in evidence based coaching that it is particularly through a humanistic slant that coaching is able to offer coachees an opportunity to develop their understanding of self. Through offering coachees unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 2012), and other Rogerian core conditions of acceptance, empathy and genuineness, it has been suggested that coachees feel able to explore their sense of self in a safe and trusted
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environment. This person centred approach allows them to keep a sense of autonomy and control, as previously outlined as being important in the development of self-concept.
In examining the current results, it is concluded that data produced by the Authenticity Scale and Self-Concept Clarity Scale were influenced by a ceiling effect which led to results not demonstrating significant increases in both of these variables after the coaching intervention. As an example of this effect, it can be seen that out of a possible maximum score of 28 on the Authenticity Scale, participants scored themselves at a mean level of 23.10 prior to coaching and 23.86 post coaching. In the pre-coaching group, six people gave themselves a full score of 28 and many more scored themselves in the mid to late twenties. This issue was discussed briefly in the methodology section, where it was remarked that Susing et al’s (2011) felt that the Authenticity Scale was, “…inherently limited…”(Susing et al., 2011, p. 20) due to being self-report only. The same could also be argued for all three of the measures used in this particular study. Without counterbalancing self-report questionnaires with peer-reporting, there is the danger of data being subject to significant bias. Given the restraints of the current study however, it was concluded that using peer reporting tools was not possible unfortunately.
One of the main problems of researching the effect of life coaching has traditionally been the lack of continuity between coaches’ coaching styles, along with multiple definitions of what life coaching involves. It is therefore exceptionally important moving forward that the main elements of successful coaching interventions are noted and researched further in order to increase the efficacy of the coaching profession overall, often identified as ‘Evidence-based coaching’ (Grant, 2005). In this case, the study investigated a coaching style which was identified as humanistic and existential in its approach. It also included the use of three coaching tools any of which, it is acknowledged, could have been completely responsible for
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the increases measured. As an example, previous research has shown that the use of character strengths as a stand-alone positive psychological intervention in an organisational setting has been linked to increases in meaning in life (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010). If this coaching tool were solely responsible for the current results, it would of course negate the effect that coaching relationship and style had on the outcome. It is argued against this however, and the current study echoes Passmore (2010) in reinforcing the importance of coaching tools as part of the coaching process, and that it is the combination of both coaching tools and the coaching process itself which led to the results obtained. It is however acknowledged that there is the potentiality of participants having been primed, thus effecting the current research results to some degree. Similar research in the future could identify how important the tools used are in a life coaching process to increasing the presence of meaning in life.
As mentioned above, another potential factor which could have had an influence on the outcome of the coaching intervention is the relationship between the coach and coachee. As previously outlined, it is the coaching relationship which is currently favoured as the most important predictor of successful coaching in theory and research. A coaching relationship relies significantly on the personalities of both the coach and coachee involved, and in a humanistic coaching process, the ability of the coach to express empathy has been identified as a key factor in corporate settings (Dagley, 2010; Gregory & Levy, 2011; Kilburg, 1997). This has also shown to be the case in psychotherapy and counselling in clinical settings (Elliott et al., 2011; Teding van Berkhout & Malouff, 2016). Should the current research be replicated using a different coach, or group of coaches, the results would be mediated by each coach’s ability to feel and express empathy. As such, it is considered important to note that the coach in this study practices mindfulness meditation on a daily basis, which has been previously suggested to increase levels of empathy (Birnie, et al., 2010; Kristeller & Johnson, 2005; Lamothe et al., 2016), and has further been identified as a key tool in enhancing
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coaching practice (Bell, 2013; Passmore & Marianetti, 2013). It is suggested that this daily practice was also a factor in the result, and further research in this area would also be beneficial.
An interesting and unexpected phenomenon was found in the data relating to the participant’s reported religious or spiritual beliefs and the presence of meaning in life. It was shown that those who classed themselves as religious scored the highest in the presence of meaning in life, although this was only classed as significant in the post coaching questionnaire. Similarly, those who were neither spiritual nor religious scored lowest. This corroborates Ivtzan et al’s. (2013) study into whether religion and spirituality influenced meaning in life, also using the Meaning in Life Questionnaire. In this study, it was shown that people who classed themselves as religious or spiritual reported higher levels of the presence of meaning in life. In their study however, it is shown how it is possible to be religious, but not benefit from this correlation if the participant follows what they class as “empty religion” (Ivtzan et al., 2013, p. 927), or being religious but not spiritual. It is therefore concluded that in the current research sample, the majority of people who classed themselves as religious, were also spiritual in nature. This potentially demonstrates the importance of personal self-transcendence in increasing the presence of meaning in life. It could also be suggested that religion allows for greater coherence in one’s life and acts as a system of meaning, outlined by Silberman (2005).
The main purpose of this study was to investigate a potential intervention to increase the presence of meaning in life because although there has now been a large quantity of research demonstrating the potential benefits of doing so, there are currently few meaning based interventions that have been developed for non-clinical populations. Results suggest the
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potential of using life coaching as an intervention in this regard but it is also clear that further research is required into life coaching as a potentially vital tool in order to create a buffer against increases in depression and anxiety in the general population. The current study further suggests that an effective coaching intervention can be reserved to a limited number of sessions (in this case, three one hour sessions) meaning that using life coaching is possibly more cost and time effective than other strategies such as counselling or psychotherapy.
This study has further suggested that self-concept clarity is intimately linked to the presence of meaning in life, and that life coaching is a profitable process in gaining a clearer concept of self. There is much more research needed in this area, both investigating the link between meaning in life and self-concept clarity as well as how life coaching can be used more effectively in order to activate increases in these areas. More large scale research in particular, involving multiple coaches would be very beneficial and enable a much clearer understanding of the true potential of life coaching to encourage increased meaning in life.
I would like to thank all participants who were involved in this study, along with my supervisor, Yannick Jacob for the positive support
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