What is PERMA, you ask? No, not Parma, the city in Italy famous for its prosciutto and cheese. PERMA is a well-being theory developed by Martin E.P. Seligman, leader in the field of positive psychology. Highlighted in his 2011 book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being,” PERMA stands for positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment and achievement. According to Seligman, “by focusing on these elements, we can flourish in life, and find the happiness we want.” (www.mindtools.com).
So, how does Seligman define these elements of well-being? Well, positive emotions including hope, warmth, pleasure, comfort, gratitude, love, fulfillment, etc., are essential ingredients for achieving well-being.
Engagement refers to being fully “in the moment” or completely engrossed in an experience.
Positive Relationships are vital to someone experiencing happiness since, by nature, humans crave social interaction.
Meaning is related to a sense of association to a higher power, religious affiliation or a connection with a humanitarian effort.
Accomplishment and Achievement denote a person’s desire to reach goals and attain success.
Now that you are aware of the components of PERMA, Seligman wants you to assess how they are manifest (or found lacking) in your life. For example, do you feel at peace (a positive emotion) while painting or satisfaction (another positive emotion) while playing with your grandkids? Can you throw yourself completely into a task like writing in your journal, listening to music or finishing a family scrapbook? Positive relationships, obviously the people in your family, should provide you with human connections and social interaction. Relationships you foster with co-workers, neighbors and friends are equally important. Meaning is linked to a personal attachment to something bigger—a higher power. Purpose and sense of meaning can be derived from religious practices, volunteering or dedication to a charity or personal cause. The element of achievement and accomplishment can be examined in terms of dreams reached or personal objectives and life milestones met.
Seligman says that, “No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it. Some aspects of these five elements are measured subjectively by self-report, but other aspects are measured objectively” (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletter.aspx)
So, what are the environments in which people can apply PERMA? “With well-being theory, Seligman says, the goal is to increase the amount of “flourishing” both in one’s own life and for others on the planet (Idea Fitness Journal, June 2013). So, it’s understandable that someone would first strive to “flourish” at home and work, where they can personally benefit from and witness results. However, social club leaders, charity organizers, team coaches and fitness professionals are also relying on techniques that echo PERMA. Even major corporations have instituted PERMA training courses to inspire teamwork and promote a positive workplace. The June 2013 Idea Fitness Journal offers good examples of PERMA applications, including ways in which physical fitness professionals, who are concerned with helping clients realize mental and physical health goals, have implemented programs specifically for senior clients. These practices encourage building positive emotions and positive thinking, social integration, meditation and community involvement. From using workout music that causes older clients be “present” in the moment, to nurturing relationships among class participants or even leading classes outdoors—a PERMA-based approach has proven to “support the need to honor and care for older adult clients, families and communities.”
In an article titled, “Building Resilience,” Seligman discusses how he and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania invented the Penn Resiliency Program for young adults and children. “The program has been replicated in 21 diverse school settings—ranging from suburbs to inner cities, from Philadelphia to Beijing. We also created a 10-day program in which teachers learn techniques for becoming more optimistic in their own lives and how to teach those techniques to their students” (Harvard Business Review, April 2013). The results of the initiative reportedly resulted in less anxiety and depression in children in teachers’ care.
Similarly, Seligman highlights working with Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., the Army chief of staff and former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, to implement a 2008 PERMA-based program in which the military could “measure resilience and teach positive psychology to create a force as fit psychologically as it is physically. This $145 million initiative called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) consists of three components: a test for psychological fitness, self-improvement courses available following the test and “master resilience training” for drill sergeants” (http://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience). Claudemir Oliveira, the founder and president of “Seeds of Dreams Institute” helps corporations utilize principles of positive psychology and PERMA. His company has taught such corporations as American Airlines, United Airlines and The Walt Disney Company to “focus on employees’ strengths, which results in the corporation being “happier more productive, more profitable” (www.seedsofdreams.org).
If you want to take a more committed approach to attaining well-being or a “richer” existence, consider ways in which you can assimilate the tenets of PERMA in your life. For more information or further research on PERMA and positive psychology, visit Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center website at www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/index.html or his homepage www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu