Traditional psychology focuses on identifying the source of a problem and trying to “fix it” to improve mental wellbeing. Though there is certainly a time and place for addressing what’s not working, it’s also beneficial to consciously explore what is working in your life. Positive psychology is simply the idea that working towards true mental wellness requires us to find the “good” in our lives and focus on doing more of that, rather than only zeroing in on fixing problems as they arise. Enter… positive psychology founder and mental health pioneer Martin Seligman’s theoretical model of happiness. Its acronym PERMA sums it right up - now let’s break down what it means and how we can apply it in our own lives.
Actively maintaining a positive outlook towards your life is a necessary condition for nurturing an enjoyable and satisfying existence. This isn’t to say that we can’t experience adversity or feel negative emotions; but only that we intentionally focus on positive thoughts and feelings rather than more often ruminating on negative ones. Maximizing the positive emotion in your life means finding what you love and doing more of that. It means that we acknowledge and accept negative feelings as they arise but that we don’t let them completely absorb us. The energy that we put out into the world affects who and what finds its way into our lives, so the more optimism we radiate, the more of it we'll attract back towards us. Experiencing regular positive emotion stems from doing and thinking about things that bring us joy or a sense of satisfaction.
Being actively engaged in your daily life may seem simple but isn’t actually always easy to maintain. You may have heard of flow, which describes your mental state when you’re intensely focussed on an intellectually stimulating and reasonably challenging task. Flow state is enjoyable and defines what it means to be engaged. For many of us, we might find certain tasks in our jobs subjectively rewarding - or maybe it’s a hobby, sport, or type of craft. The more we identify and fill our lives with activities that are the perfect combination of enjoyable and challenging, the more fulfilled we’ll feel.
Humans are social creatures who have an innate need for satisfying relationships with others. Simply put, the more connected and heard we feel in our relationships, the happier we’ll be. Though our culture often tells us that we need only rely on ourselves to achieve true success and happiness, it’s just not true. We’re designed to require authentic emotional connection and intimacy with others. It’s not the quantity of our relationships that matters but the quality. A diverse set of relationships in our professional, personal, and romantic lives brings us joy and support and promote our resilience when times are tough.
Understanding how we want to impact others and the world around us is another powerful factor in creating our best possible life. We feel better when we find a cause meaningful to us and dedicate some of our regular daily activities toward that effort. Though it most certainly doesn’t have to, finding meaning in our lives can also look like a sense of spirituality or religion - or a core set of beliefs about your purpose on the planet. To live a gratifying life, we must find what gets our engines revving and fills us with a sense of pride and hope.
Setting realistic, timely goals and following through to achieve them is profoundly rewarding. The motivation to continue to work for what you want stems primarily from the sense of achievement we feel when we complete a task we’ve set for ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, inspiration itself is not what fuels perseverance and motivation but rather the in-motion momentum of progress. Regularly setting achievable goals and completing them effectively is an important part of maintaining a happy and satisfying life.
Keep this acronym somewhere handy and maybe even set one or two small goals for each area to improve in. All the components of the PERMA model work together to create a richly diverse and satisfying quality of life.