Harness the Power of Positive Psychology

Draw on positive psychology to keep clients upbeat and motivated during hard times.

Positive Psychology

What makes life worth living? Among the answers are work, love and service. A playful attitude brought to bear on any of these adds to enjoyment and ultimately our judgment that life is being lived well. Health and fitness also make life worth living, as ends in their own right as well as means to other important activities. Again, if our pursuit of health and fitness can be spiced up with some fun, all the better.

While few would disagree with these assertions, matters become complicated when we try to make them concrete. People want to live a worthwhile life. They want to be healthy and fit. But if the way to achieve these goals is unclear, they not only remain elusive, but they become sources of discontent.

For some clients who join a gym or hire a personal trainer, everything goes as planned, and their stories have happy endings. But other clients start discouraged or become discouraged. They may cancel their workouts or go through them half-heartedly, offering up more excuses than repetitions. They may fail to exercise on their own, and their gym memberships may lapse. Discouragement is a vicious downward spiral, resulting in depression and plummeting self-esteem, not to mention ever-decreasing conditioning. The discouraged client becomes a former client, and everyone loses, including you.

Health and fitness professionals are well trained in exercise technique. They may be less well trained in how to work with discouraged clients, and professionals themselves may become discouraged and choose to focus only on clients who are perky and optimistic. The rich only get richer, right?

Not anymore. During the last decade, a new perspective has emerged called positive psychology. Specifically concerned with what makes life worth living, this scientific field has led to practical advice that actually works. Positive psychology arose in response to the past 60 years of science and practice in psychology with its almost exclusive focus on what goes wrong in life—and how to remedy it. Without denying the very real problems that people experience, positive psychologists believe that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of study. Positive psychology does not replace problem-focused psychology but rather complements and extends it.

Understand That Pessimism Is Not a Choice

I have spent the last 30 years studying pessimism and optimism. It is abundantly clear that pessimism has terrible consequences—for our feelings, our relationships, our success at school and work, and even our physical health. Optimism, by contrast, has wonderful consequences, the result of an active involvement with the world that pays dividends.

But no matter how frustrated you become with discouraged clients, resist the temptation to blame them for being the way they are. None of them has freely chosen to be discouraged. Rather, their pessimistic stance results from their past. Perhaps they have always been overweight. Perhaps gym classes or locker rooms in elementary school were sources of embarrassment. Perhaps previous attempts to become fit were judged failures.

Keep Talking to Your Discouraged Clients

When you begin working with clients, you speak to them about their health and fitness histories. You ask about goals and past failures in achieving those goals. But too often, these discussions are cursory. I suggest a deeper conversation, not only when training begins but throughout the time you work with a client. As a personal trainer, you cannot be a psychotherapist, but you do need to understand a client’s hopes and fears and in particular why he or she might be discouraged. This information will help you to plan workouts in ways that chip away at the sources of your client’s pessimism.

For example, is the client afraid of looking foolish? Every new gym member to whom I have spoken fears being catapulted off a treadmill, to the snickers of everyone in the vicinity. Many new members—especially men—do not want to lift puny weights in a room filled with seasoned exercisers grunting and grimacing. More generally, no one wants to fail yet again at becoming fit. Not trying provides an excuse that makes sense psychologically if in no other way. A good way to combat fears is to tackle them head-on by asking clients what they fear and then discussing with them how realistic their fears actually are.

Moreover, if you can walk (or trudge) a mile in the shoes of your discouraged clients, your own discouragement will decrease. You will be better able to sustain your own motivation and enthusiasm, both of which can be contagious.

Accentuate the Positive

As positive psychology proposes, it’s not all about problems. Ask your clients what they do well and what makes them happy. You will discover that all clients, whatever their fitness challenges, have strengths and assets in other domains that you can leverage—like a supportive spouse, active children or a deep religious faith. Along these lines, ask your clients about past fitness and health successes. If nothing else, at least these clients hired you, which means they’re not thoroughly discouraged and further—we can only hope—that they have discerning judgment!

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Christopher Peterson, PhD

Christopher Peterson, PhD, is professor of psychology and director of the Michigan Positive Psychology Center at the University of Michigan. He is among the world’s most highly cited research psychologists and an award-winning teacher. His 2006 book, A Primer in Positive Psychology, is the basis for a continuing education course on positive psychology that he helped develop for DSW Fitness (www.dswfitness.com).

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