Increasing happiness (Part 6)
Martin Seligman is synonymous with positive psychology, which, in turn, is closely linked in the public mind with research into happiness and well-being.
As that connection would suggest, Seligman has devoted considerable time and effort to theorising and conducting research on well-being-related topics.
We mentioned him in a post very early in this series, in which we focused on his theory of the Three Happy Lives. To recap briefly, that theory speaks of the Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life, and the Meaningful life. The first of these refers to the pursuit of pleasure or those things we enjoy on a sensual, hedonic level (e.g., socialising with friends or eating food you like); the second focuses on pursuing activities that mesh well with our key character strengths (e.g., the ‘flow’ moments we experience when we engage in activities that are a good fit for our talents); and the third describes achieving a sense of meaning by putting those key strengths to work for something or some cause that you perceive to be bigger than you, i.e., not merely using those strengths for your own benefit.
While this theory continues to attract a lot of attention, Seligman has moved on somewhat, having subsequently refined some of its key ideas in his PERMA model.
He first presented the PERMA model in his 2011 book Flourish: Positive Psychology and Positive Interventions, billing its contents as amounting to “the elements of well-being”. PERMA itself is an acronym, drawn from those five key elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.
The logic of the model as proposed is that these five elements, if nurtured and developed, can help cultivate individual well-being and assist people in moving towards a life characterised by fulfilment, happiness, and meaning.
For Seligman, positive emotion refers not just to being able to smile and laugh, but also to the capacity for optimism, particularly as it relates to how you think of the past, present, and future. The logic is that if you can bring a positive perspective to how you perceive your life, then that correlates with better outcomes in terms of work and personal relationships, and, also, with improved problem-solving skills and greater creativity.
Also, this model makes a point of distinguishing between pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure, in this context, relates to satisfying bodily needs, e.g., thirst and pleasure, while enjoyment incorporates a cognitive element, i.e., intellectual stimulation and creativity. Positive emotion in such situations is linked to the perseverance necessary to accomplish demanding tasks. In other words, if you don’t enjoy such challenges, then you are far less likely to stick with them.
Engagement lines up very much with the idea of the Good Life. Here, the emphasis is on finding tasks and activities that we can become absorbed in, that lend themselves to a flow state. Because they will play into our key character strengths and talents, these activities will vary from individual to individual. The key common denominator with flow is that when you are ‘in’ this state, you are utterly absorbed in what you are doing, can lose your sense of time passing, and, most likely, will feel little or nothing in emotional terms. It is only after you emerge from this state and reflect upon the experience that you think of it as having been enjoyable. As for what facilitates flow states, it will depend upon the individual, but for some it may be writing, for others perhaps it is reading, or playing a particular game, or for the lucky few, their job. The point is that it is not a one-size-fits-all. What works for you may not work for someone else, but it will work for you, and that’s all that matters. The key thing is to find those activities that synch well with your strengths and facilitate engagement.
Seligman emphasises relationships as being one of the key aspects of human life. People are social animals, and arising from that, we yearn for connection and love, as well as strong and healthy interaction with family and others. There are very few pure hermits in this world. From an evolutionary perspective, isolation does not correlate with survival and the perpetuation of the species, so this may partially explain the distress that feeling isolated can cause for many of us. Meanwhile, the pure hermits are, perhaps, unlikely to reproduce, meaning that the preference for isolation is less likely to be handed down through generations. It may seem glib to express it in these terms, but it is precisely because of their preference for isolation that, in each generation, genuine hermits, individuals who yearn to be alone in the same way that most yearn for company, are few and far between.
Meaning lines up with the Meaningful Life outlined in Seligman’s Three Happy Lives. This emphasises the relationship between well-being and feeling like your life has meaning and purpose. Seeking out sensual pleasure is all well and good, and it can certainly contribute to happiness in the moment, but to move the experience of happiness as a transient emotion to well-being as an ongoing state requires something more substantial. This can mean having a sense of work as being important and serving a purpose, beyond merely logging the hours and cashing a pay cheque. The acquisition of such meaning is not an objective process. Again, as with so much in this area, it is related directly to how the individual perceives of their life and circumstances.
Accomplishment follows on from having goals and ambitions, and then making active efforts towards reaching them. Feeling a sense of accomplishment is not necessarily restricted to fully realising your ambitions. Instead, if you set realistic goals and commit to them, the logic is that knowing you are putting in the necessary effort and working towards your objectives can in of itself be satisfying.
So, what can we take from this? Theoretical models are all well and good (and are the stock-in-trade of academia), but if they stay on the page, then that detracts from their practical use. Seligman maintains that the observations and points made in the PERMA model are all grounded in the existing research literature and are therefore credible. The challenge, then, is to inform ourselves as to the model and its components, and then to attempt to take the insights and apply them in our lives.
How can we do that? There is no single way, but the most practical approach is to take the key points from each of the five elements, and attempt to incorporate them into your daily life. For example, consciously seek to cultivate a positive perspective in your home-life and at work, find those activities than engage you, take on realistic challenges, work on your relationships with family and friends, and, finally, find what contributes to your sense of meaning and purpose. Again, it’s all about the individual; what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but the key common denominator is committing to finding out and acting upon it.