The PERMA Model, or Theory, of wellbeing was formulated by psychologist Martin Seligman and published in his 2011 book Flourish 1. The PERMA Model consists of five pillars; Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment and is central to Seligman's hypothesis that human beings can build resilience through enhancing optimism over pessimism. In this article, we will explore Seligman's PERMA Model and offer means by which you may enhance your own level of optimism while reducing pessimism, increase your resilience in the face of dramatic change, and improve your performance in life and work.
Martin Seligman says that although he is referred to as the father of positive psychology, he arrived in that place after many years of research on failure and helplessness 2. In the 1960s he was part of a research team that discovered what we now term “learned helplessness 3. In controversial electric shock experiments on dogs, rats, mice, and even cockroaches, the researchers found that the animals would eventually learn to accept it, making no attempt to escape. They also discovered that human beings do the same thing under similar stress conditions.
Learned Helplessness Experiment
In a 1975 experiment undertaken by Seligman and colleague Donald Hiroto 4 research subjects were randomly assigned to three groups. Upon failure in a task, the first group were exposed to a loud noise that they can stop by pushing a button. The second group were exposed to the same noise but have no control over it. The third group were the control group and heard no noise at all.
The following day, the research subjects were presented with a new situation again involving loud noise. To turn the noise off, all that each participant group needed to do was move their hands about 30 centimetres to press the stop button. The people in the first and third groups figured this out and easily learned to avoid the noise. However, those in the second group typically did nothing. On the first day's trial when they failed, they were exposed to loud noise, realised they had no control over it and became passive. On the second day's trial, expecting more failure, they didn’t even attempt to escape. They learned to be helpless.
Learning To Be An Optimist
Seligman says that about 33% of animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never develop helplessness. He wondered what it was about them that makes this the case. They discovered through empirical research that the answer is optimism. They subsequently developed questionnaires to assess levels of optimism or pessimism. Seligman says;
We discovered that people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. (“It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”) That suggested how we might immunise people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure: by teaching them to think like optimists.
The PERMA Model
As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman and colleagues launched a new field of research focused on enhancing wellbeing in people's lives. They recognised that although relieving suffering was a worthwhile pursuit for psychology, it is not the same as a pursuit focused on enhancing wellbeing. The researchers understood that human strengths, performance excellence, and flourishing are just as authentic and worthy of investigation as human distress.
Seligman and colleagues gave birth to the field of Positive Psychology. They aimed the rigours of scientific research toward the exploration of factors that enable individuals and communities to flourish. Their research was based on the basic question; what is human flourishing and what factors enable it?
Each person will extract happiness, contentment, enjoyment etc. to varying degrees from each of the five pillars of wellbeing. A life well lived will be different for one person than another. According to Seligman, we take many different paths to flourishing. The PERMA Model is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is to say, It doesn't dictate choices or values to people, but rather describes the factors enabling flourishing to occur in people's lives.
Here is a brief outline of Seligman's PERMA Model. Bear in mind, these components are mutually causative and overlapping in effect.
P – Positive Emotion
The PERMA Model says that the route to wellbeing is hedonic. This does not mean that indulging in alcohol or drugs, or other means of distraction from what's happening is good. Rather, the PERMA Model says that self-induced positive emotion or that derived from enjoyable activities feed into positive states.
Within personal limits, each of us can increase our levels of positive emotion. In considering the past, for example, we can generate positive emotions through gratitude and forgiveness. We can develop our present moment positive emotion by paying attention to right-now positive aspects. By bringing our minds to hope and optimism for the future we can generate positive emotion also.
A genuine positive mindset view can help us in our personal relationships, our performance at work, and inspire those around us to be more creative and innovative. There is a constant flow of positives and negatives in life. Focusing on negatives increases our chances of developing anxiety and depression. Focusing on the positives tends to take the everyday experience to a better place.
It should be kept in mind, however, that denial of difficulty and challenge rarely if ever helps take us to a more positive place. Even though difficult to accept defeat, acceptance of conditions as we experience them is the starting point for greater wellbeing in our lives.
E – Engagement
Work, sport, business, hobbies, even washing dishes or working have the potential to engage us like nothing else. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, says that this produces an experience that is so gratifying that we are willing to do it for its own sake. Even if you took away the prospect of payment or reward, we would still engage in the activity. The reward of the Flow experience is enough in of itself.
Flow Theory says that when we have sufficiently developed skills for the task when we are in the pursuit of a clear and definite goal, we have access to immediate feedback, there exists an opportunity for Flow. In these activities, we become fully immersed in the moment. Self-consciousness disappears, and our perception of time becomes distorted or even stops.
We can experience Flow in a deep conversation, compiling a research paper, writing a book, skydiving, playing the guitar, or gardening. The world is our playground, we simply need to find that thing that engages us like nothing else and throw ourselves into it.
R – Relationships
Personal relationships and social interactions are crucially important in the creation of a meaningful life. We are socially developed animals, whose virtual survival here is dependant on the bond we create with other humans. Therefore, our basic need for a meaningful relationship is at the core of wellbeing.
Our family and social connections to others give life purpose and meaning and help develop critical psychological skills such as resilience. Relationships help us navigate the bad times and amplify the good. Research has shown that performing acts of kindness for others less well off than us produces an increase in wellbeing and sense of belonging for both parties.
M – Meaning
Why am I here? Why do I even bother? What's the point of life?
People who are engaged and fulfilled tend not to ponder these questions. It is when we find ourselves at low points in our lives that we question our existence. Years chasing success for its own sake, pursuing material and financial gain, for example, can give rise to the lack of meaning in one's life.
Having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, engaging in work or sport that consumes our interest is, therefore, critical to mental and physical wellbeing. We
A sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger like a social movement for environmental change, or a community group that help the aged, these things provide meaning and purpose to our lives.
But it's not only bigger movements of mind that can afford meaning in life. Try gardening or tending to a vegetable plot. How about painting, pottery or writing? These things are ongoing solo creative projects and provide immense pleasure and meaning to many people's lives beyond the individual.
A – Accomplishment
I just spent four years working towards a BA degree. When I started completion seemed a long way off, but now, as I reflect on the work done and the grades achieved, there is a particular sense of accomplishment. It feels good.
The PERMA Model of Wellbeing says that happiness exists for people who pursue achievement, competence, and mastery for the sake of it. We pursue accomplishment even when it is not necessarily enjoyable at a given point in time. However, with commitment and dedication, the final result, the realisation of the goal, can lead to positive emotion, meaning and satisfaction.
Happiness is difficult to define and some researchers steer away from it as an official term. As such, psychologists refer to wellbeing and similar terms. However, Peter Warr at The University of Sheffield in the UK says that happiness and unhappiness are central to our existence 5. It has real meaning for people, so it's relevant to talk about it directly. Martin Seligman's PERMA Model of Wellbeing is a possible route to happiness but it must be understood that overall wellbeing is dependant on so much more than simply being happy.
Engagement in challenging tasks is enjoyable even though we may feel stretched and tested. Reaching the end, reflecting on what we have done to get here having achieved the goal, is an enjoyable experience. Therefore, happiness is more than just a smiley face and a brain flooded with endorphins.
Life is not supposed to be plain sailing. As the old saying goes, “smooth waters never a good sailor made”. We've got to be willing to enter the fire of the challenge and be prepared to be burned, otherwise, life becomes predictable, boring and monotonous.
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- Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.
- Building Resilience. (2020). Retrieved 28 June 2020, from https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience
- Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: critique and reformulation. Journal of abnormal psychology, 87(1), 49.
- Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of personality and social psychology, 31(2), 311.
- Warr, P. (2019). The psychology of happiness (1st ed.). London: Routledge.