Tempio Voltiano in Como, Italy, before performance at wohasu2023

Setting the scene: a foreword

Reflective practice in coaching is a way to grow as a coach. It is an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to improve as professionals and a person. Coaching is, after all, not just about “doing” but also about “being”, i.e., who we are as coaches and how we “show” in a coaching session. As coaches, we are also encouraged to self-reflect regularly by our professional, ethical codes of conduct.

Most often, reflections critically evaluate a session where something didn’t go quite so well. However, this is not the only reason we should use self-reflection. Sometimes, this can be about light bulb moments or observing someone excelling at something. In their book Creative Reflective Practice, Clare Beckett-McInroy and Sameera Ali Baba (2021) refer to these as accidental reflections. The unconscious and intuition may play into “creative reflection”, about which they say (Beckett-McInroy & Ali Baba, 2021, p. 89):

Reflection stimulates creative thought through quizzical and innovative approaches that support positive transformation as opposed to short-lived change. This transformation is about bravery, trailblazing, embracing revolution.

This article is the product of my own reflective practice and me trying to make sense of an experience at an event that I would describe as brave, trailblazing and revolutionary. In the case of this article, it was less the desire to reflect creatively, but the creative element (i.e., art) that stimulated reflection. Reflective practice doesn’t stop at the reflection, however. To have the desired learning impact, the reflection needs to be captured somehow so we can learn about our learning (Beckett-McInroy & Ali Baba, 2021). Finally, we can also share our reflection as I do here. And who knows, maybe my own attempt at sense-making may inspire you too to reflect, learn and grow too.

Science and fun: It’s either/or – or is it?

I love a good story!! I don’t care too much about the medium as long as it is well done – a book, a poem, a theatre play or a movie, even stand-up comedy. I have to admit, that I have been intrigued especially by researchers and scientists who entered the realms of performance and/or entertainment. BBC radio is a treasure trove for such crossover “performance science” with programmes like “Natalie Haynes stands up for the Classics” (yes, classics like Homer etc), “Simon Evans goes to market” (on economics) or “The infinite monkey cage” with Brian Cox and Robin Ince on all things science.

However, I have so far not seen anything like “performance science” at a positive psychology (PP) or coaching conference. Even doing a laughter yoga session at an academic conference to illustrate the character strength of Humour (yes, humour is a proper science “thing” from the world of positive psychology with quite a bit of research behind it, in case you wondered), I sometimes couldn’t help getting the sense that people were a bit dubious about the actual humour science, and “really, shouldn’t science be more serious?” Nevertheless, feedback has usually been positive, and in a way confirming some of the science behind humour, playfulness and laughter.

Where the “but shouldn’t it be more serious” came up, I have often wondered if it hasn’t more to do with people’s preconception that work and enjoyment are mutually exclusive, that learning is about hunkering down and stuffing your brain with “knowledge” instead of having fun. And yet, we keep telling people that they should choose professions and research areas they enjoy – but just not too much? But I digress.

Why do I mention laughter yoga and humour? Because laughter yoga in the way my colleague Jannie Stricker and I use it at the Humour Angle and the Pop-up Laughter Club (you can also find our Conversations with a Humour Angle on YouTube @pop-uplaughterclub4906) uses play acting (i.e., performance) and storytelling to leverage elements that we know can contribute to subjective wellbeing (SWB), or simply: a person’s happiness. However, up until now I haven’t considered our sessions as performance science. This may be about to change, and it all began with a breakout session at the World Happiness Summit 2023 (Wohasu for short) in Como. Let me explain.


Let’s gather round

Little information was shared about the title or content of a breakout session with Robert Biswas-Diener at #wohasu2023. (For those who don’t know him, Robert is an eminent researcher and expert on all things PP and PP coaching.) I felt as excited like a fan who has all the books of their favourite author on the shelf and finally gets to meet them at a book reading (which reminds me that I should have brought one of his books for him to sign… ah well, next time!).

Performance positive psychology at Wohasu2023, Tempio Voltiano

The venue for the session was the stunning Tempio Voltiano in Como (see picture). The chairs for the audience were arranged in a circle in the beautiful rotunda, around a red blanket that sat like a fire in the centre and around which a community might gather. I could have gotten the hint of what was to come at that point but naturally didn’t. And maybe, taking my seat without any clear expectation was what made it so impactful, at least for me.

The session began with little preamble, other than the request not to video it. Then came a stunning 1-hour performance by one researcher and his red blanket (that doubled as various props) while we, the audience, were swept along in the best storytelling traditions of old.


“Alas, poor Yorick!”

In all honesty, I can’t recall the various stories Robert weaved together in that hour. I remember it involved the meaning of courage for the Masai and nearly freezing to death in northern Canada (I think), and somewhere Indiana Jones featured too. What I do recall is that the stories felt like deeply personal experiences of his – although I could not be sure if they were scripted like a good play might be.

There could also have been moments where I disengaged, and I remember thinking at times “Gee, whySarah Bernhardt as Hamlet did he (i.e. Robert in the story) do that?!” But I didn’t. Instead, I journeyed all the way through the stories with the hero, through his “near deaths” and “rebirths”, or maybe the death of loved ones, or maybe versions of self before and after a transformational experience, all in best tradition of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. On reflection, when Robert exclaimed “Alas, poor Yorick” (honestly, I have no idea how he got from his story to Yorick from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but there you go… magic?), I couldn’t say whose mortality was lamented, only that they were all a “fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Hamlet act V, scene 1).

But here comes the clincher: Considering that I can’t recall the details of the stories, I nevertheless would pretty comfortably claim that they were about things like these: meaning and purpose in life; strengths like bravery, love of learning and curiosity; embracing the dark side of emotions (i.e., PP 2.0) or understanding systems and the challenges of joining a new system/cultural context. Why? Not because I heard it (though I may have?), but because I “experienced” this.


Adventure by proxy

When I left the venue and people asked how the “breakout session” had been, I wasn’t sure how to describe it. It left the kind of impression where you know that you experienced something profound, but you’re just not quite sure what has hit you (yet). And this is where (accidental) reflection comes in. I had followed the researcher/performer and his performance into the unknown of the breakout session – and thus unwittingly embarked on my own “adventure”. Self-reflection was an attempt to retrace my steps and tease apart what had happened, make sense and learn from it.

OK, so what happened in this breakout session that was so momentous? Looking at the ingredients, nothing much on the face of it. Robert combined:

  • Story telling
  • Acting and choreography
  • Leveraging the art and architecture of the venue
  • Performer (and their story) as the subject and object of art

The choreography with the circle and the blanket just worked, making excellent use of the art and architecture of the venue. The magic came with the storytelling, performance and willingness of the performer “to put himself out there” (for want of a better expression) and become object and subject of art that raised it from a talk on PP coaching to an immersive art form. In fact, I would go so far as to say this was PPP: performance positive psychology.


“What does my listening aim to accomplish?”

Art – like happiness – are abstracts where the beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. With happiness, we all feel happy differently and through different things. In art, we all make sense of an object, a piece of music, a poem or a performance in our own way that is aligned with our own personal and cultural values. When we engage with art at an experiential level, we enter the world of the unknown and may emerge with “knowing” that can be transformational.

For art to be more than an intellectual exercise, it demands more from an audience than just to watch or listen. And again, with the benefit of hindsight, Robert’s talk on the #wohasu main stage on the art and science of listening could have given me a clue for the breakout session. He suggested that being the audience is actually hard work and we need to be clear about our rationale for listening: “What does my listening aim to accomplish?”

Admittedly, I can’t claim any such intentionality for the performance that was to follow, other than I went there with an open mind and no expectation (although I did “expect” a more “normal”, educational presentation). I might have gone with a clearer intention, had I known what I let myself in for – but then, wasn’t it just the “unknowing” that made this experience possible?

I can definitely say that, having listened and engaged with the performance, it was and still is hard work as I write this. What does my having listened aim to accomplish? I would like to say that there is some rationale or intention behind my answer to this question, but I can’t even say that. And still, my answer would be decidedly: growth.


Grasping the abstract – a summary

Every growth spurt needs a pause every now and then. Let’s take a breather and see where we are.

Sometimes, art combines several forms, like performance art where the performance creates the art and/or brings otherwise static art to life; for example, performance poetry. And sometimes, art also brings science and its complex, abstract, heady concepts to life. Robert’s astonishing performance made PP tangible without mentioning it once (I think) by allowing the audience to immerse itself in the lived experience of PP through art rather than textbooks, journal articles and other “educational” sources.

But is the performance art of PP really science? Can it be if there is no mention of any references to scientific research or other ways to provide evidence for claims? I would certainly say it can in this case because I am 100% confident that Robert would be able to back up every PP aspect that featured in that performance. But by that token, it would stand to reason that not every set of PPP would automatically also be science or evidence-based. Just because a performance explores the domains of PP or because a PP researcher or practitioner tells a story, neither necessarily makes the art a science or the science an art.

So where does this leave us? Where do I go from here? Where will you go? Is there a way to bring some of this particular art of happiness into the “serious world” of science and apply it in practice? This is the topic for my next article.

closed theatre curtain




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