In this article I will be discussing the PERMA wellbeing framework model (Seligman, 2011).
Wellbeing is a multidimensional concept, made of different elements related to one’s personal, physical, emotional, social and mental health. Being a broad umbrella term, it is useful to clarify its scope and key aspects. A well-established definition states that “wellbeing can be understood as how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole, how well someone’s life is going for them” (Mental Health Commission of NSW, 2017, p9).
It is useful to note the two sides to wellbeing, eudemonic, which focuses on meaning and self-realisation, where wellbeing has to do with the degree to which an individual is fully functioning. Hedonic wellbeing, is about the happiness element, defining wellbeing in line with its pleasure attainment and pain avoidance (Ryan, 2001). Wellbeing can also be explained as subjective because it is about experiencing a high level of positive affect, low levels of negative affect, and a high degree of life satisfaction (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Professor Seligman, founder of positive psychology and former head of the American psychological association, put forth the PERMA model, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. No single element defines wellbeing, but each contributes to it.
These five key elements or pathways build individual well-being and are the means through which individuals can pursue happiness. (Seligman, 2011). Well-being consists of nurturing one or more of these elements and combined are the best “approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake” (Oades & Mossman, 2017, p5).
“Wellbeing can be understood as how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole, how well someone’s life is going for them” (Mental Health Commission of NSW)
Also known as well-being theory, PERMA is a theory of willing choice with these five elements each of which has three properties as Seligman (2012) states. They are – it contributes to wellbeing, people pursue it for its own sake, i.e., not for obtaining other elements, it is defined and measured independent of the other elements (Seligman, 2012, p16).
The first element or pathway, the ‘pleasant life’ concerns the maximisation of positive emotions. Regarding the hedonic or pleasurable element, positive emotion comprises typical subjective wellbeing factors, such as comfort and pleasure. But positive emotion is more than simply ‘happiness’.
There are many positive emotions, such as hope, interest, joy, compassion, gratitude etc. Professor Fredrickson, a pioneer in positive emotions research, illustrated how they indicate one’s level of flourishing, and can be cultivated to improve wellbeing over time (Fredrickson, 2001). Her Broaden and Build Theory shows how positive emotions broaden our habitual thinking patterns and actions towards better results and feelings about life, leading to improved performance and growth, (Fredrickson, 2006).
The second element, engagement, similar to positive emotion can only be measured subjectively. The engaged life blends flow with engagement. During flow experiences, one is engaged with something they love doing, so intensely focused, that time seems to stop. Engagement in tasks that uses top character strengths and challenges them, produces ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989). (Seligman believes there are 24 universal human strengths, Seligman, 2004)
Engagement involves ‘attachment, involvement, concentration, and inclination towards activities such as recreation, hobbies, or work’ (Higgins 2006). It also refers to experiences which offer learning, meaning, positive feelings and improved performance (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2009). Engagement can be psychological, e.g., with concentration and engrossment in an activity (Schaufeli et al. 2006), or it can be cognitive, e.g., involving goal setting or self-regulation (Bandura 2008), or it can be behavioural, involving social involvement (Appleton et al. 2006) in a school, family, or work context.
Positive relationships is PERMA’s third element. This pathway covers the many different interactions and connection with others, such as family, friends, colleagues etc where one feels loved, valued and supported by others. Positive relationships lead to a sense of belonging (Sandstrom and Dunn 2014) and predicts emotional well-being and growth (Seligman 2002).
Actions of kindness, caring, cooperation etc contribute to physical health, self-esteem, mental health, as well as greater meaning, and relationships help individuals initiate and maintain happiness (Lambert & Pasha-Zaidi, 2016). In close relationships where couples enthusiastically respond to each other, a higher wellbeing and marital satisfaction is achieved (Gable, et al, 2004).
PERMA’s fourth element, the meaningful life, concern’s purpose in life and meaning and refers to “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self”, (Seligman, 2012, p17). Meaning is both subjective and objective. For example, an objective judgement of a fact or observation can go against your subjective judgement (assumption, opinion or feeling).
Meaning is also measured independent of positive emotion and engagement. Meaning can also be explained as comprising the use of strengths towards the fulfillment of something identified as important, such as promoting health, belonging to a religious group, developing meaningful relationships etc (Plante 2008; Seligman 2002).
Living with meaning in your life and working towards ones identified greater purpose naturally is different for everybody, as it includes judgments about the value and purpose of life (Hicks and King 2009). The closer one gets to being their ‘true self’, the closer they get to their source of meaning (Schlegel, et al, 2009). Having a broad life purpose facilitates focusing on what really matters to someone and is highly useful when challenges or adversities occur.
Accomplishment or achievement is PERMA’s final element. People who lead an “achieving life are often absorbed in what they do, they often pursue pleasure avidly and feel positive emotion when they win.” (Seligman, 2012, p19). Living with a sense of accomplishment signifies working towards and reaching one’s goals, achieving mastery in areas of importance, and having the quality of self-motivation to follow through on goals.
The achievement pathway entails successes gained by employing one’s skills and efforts towards goals. Winning, achieving, and pursuing mastery are thus means to happiness. (Lambert & Pasha-Zaidi, 2016). The concept of grit is useful here, which means perseverance and enthusiasm for one’s long-term goals. (Duckworth, et al.,2007).
Research indicates that high levels of the components of PERMA were shown to:
PERMA can be practiced in any environment to improve not only well-being, but to achieve goals such as increased productivity, creativity and better work performance.
As a result of PERMA focusing on feeling good, living with meaning, establishing positive relationships, achieving goals, and engaging positively with life, a more positive and motivated individual can gain immense positive life benefits.
Written by Aisha Meguid
Well-Being Teacher, Educator, Consultant & Coach
This article is an excerpt from an essay written during my Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (Melbourne University)