I was overjoyed this past month to hear Martin Seligman, “father of positive psychology” speak at a commencement address about a model of happiness consisting of five components that together spell out the acronym, “PERMA.” These are: P for positive emotions, E for engagement, R for relationships, M for meaning, and A for accomplishment. At Martin’s web site, authentichappiness.org, you can see where your sense of humor fits, and how you and those you care about are doing in terms of happiness. These five components are tremendously important to an overall and lasting sense of flourishing–and are more at the core of what positive psychology is all about than pursuit of (often fleeting) positive emotion happiness.
I’m glad to see that Martin Seligman is working to educate and train more than one million people serving in the United States Army, helping to improve levels of happiness in the armed forces… as well as assisting service men and women realize that growth is possible after traumatic stress, and that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t the only outcome–most people are able to ‘dust themselves off’ and rise above previous setbacks, even when multiple traumatic events have occurred.
Surprisingly, positive emotion is not the true key to PERMAnent happiness, as it’s something having to do with our set ranges of highly heritable general happiness. Positive emotions such as optimism can be taught, and when we learn to raise our levels of positive emotions, we get the benefit of viewing the world as a generally more positive place. Negative emotions such as depression and anxiety are reduced, when people learn to better handle stress in their lives. A simple exercise that has been proven highly effective at improving positive emotions is to every day before going to bed for the night, write down three things that went especially well that day, along with reasons why you believe those things went so well. This idea of “hunting the good stuff,” as one US soldier enrolled in Seligman’s program put it, is acknowledged by many soldiers suffering from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to make a tremendous positive difference to the point of eventually being able to identify as post-traumatic growth veterans, as mentioned in the New York Times article, Post Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side:
“Seligman’s theory is that if soldiers can be taught to approach a situation as General Cornum did naturally — with gratitude for being alive rather than distress at being taken prisoner — then they might learn to become resilient, too. A core principle of the program is seeing an event as neutral, neither bad nor good, and focusing instead on your reaction to the event.“
The quality of Engagement is something we have a fair bit of control over, as it’s the degree to which we are fully engaged in activities where we lose track of the world thanks to feeling at one with what we are doing. When we’re using our highest strengths to just match the challenges that come our way, we’re in a state of flow. This kind of engagement gives us a kind of natural high, and a sense of sanity based on feeling good about working with our moral and character strengths such as kindness and fairness (which are different from talents such as having perfect pitch or a high IQ that are means to an end). People who use their strengths more have been scientifically evaluated to feel more in a state of flow… and some strengths, such as self-discipline, have been shown in scholarly studies to be twice as good at indicating subsequent scholastic success in college as IQ scores. You can find your signature strengths at Martin’s website at authentichappiness.org — and Seligman recommends utilizing your highest signature strengths when doing things you might not otherwise enjoy. You can recraft your tasks and activities with your greatest strengths to start better enjoying all parts of life, by being better engaged. I took the (free!) VIA Survey of Character Strengths assessment this past month, and discovered my top five strengths include: Spirituality, Hope, Perspective, Curiosity and Gratitude.
The third ingredient in PERMA is relationships, and it’s also something we have the ability to improve. Intriguingly, there is a measurement by which 60 American corporations were evaluated for economic success and the ratio of positive to negative words that are said in those companies, and it’s called the Losada Ratio. It was found that corporations where the ratio of positive single words to negative words is 2.9 and greater are flourishing, whereas those in which the ratio of positive single words to negative single words was between 1 and 2.9 were stagnating, and those with ratios where negative words exceeded positive words were going under. Ratios of positive to negative words need to be substantially higher than just 2.9 to 1 in romantic relationships, with a ratio of 5 positive words to every 1 negative word providing for strong marriages that likely won’t end in divorce. The idea here is that we have to provide some kinds of critical feedback to those closest in our lives, and when the background environment is predominantly positive, our relationships thrive so people really hear us, rather than treat us as the enemy. We can make active constructive remarks when hearing good news from friends and family, by asking questions that help the person relive the experience from the point of view of their highest strengths… asking what the real reasons were that they think these good things happened to them.
Meaning is the act of belonging to and serving something that we feel is larger than we are… and having a sense of purpose in the world by serving something larger. When we are altruistic, and do something for others, we live according to the extremely social side of human nature. Doing something helpful for someone else is empirically the most effective way to boost our mood. Finding ways to make best use of doing what we love to do, or utilizing some of our unique strengths while being of service to something bigger than ourselves is especially rewarding and uplifting.
Having a sense of accomplishment, mastery and achievement is another area we can influence. All five of these elements are measurable. The ability to set and achieve goals provides us with the ability to see measurable results in our lives, and recognize that we’re able to do what we set out to do, when our goals are measurable and realistic.
I hope you’ll enjoy watching and sharing my YouTube video summary of Pursuit of PERMAnent Happiness–and please feel free to leave comments either on this blog or on my YouTube video page!
I hope you’ll ask “How good can it get?!” while contemplating ways you can increase happiness in your life… envisioning more and better positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments to come!