Martin Seligman has a new theory. Who is Martin Seligman and why is this important? Dr. Seligman is the founder and one of the most prolific advocates of positive psychology. He is also a man for whom I have great respect. A maverick at heart, he flew in the face of a psychological tradition that looked for only disease and went on to develop scientific evidence about what leads to a positive and happy life.
He took his 45 years of practice and rigorous research and solidified his ideas into five main characteristics or variables which lead to a flourishing life. This article is an overview of PERMA – his acronym to help us remember these five characteristics. As each is discussed, I hope you consider measuring your own life in terms of the relative strengths of each. My family and I have found it to be of enormous help in keeping our minds on the positive. PERMA also gives us a tool for communication when something feels a little off.
Pleasure is of course what most people think about when they think of flourishing. Pleasure, the sensations that give life its juice, contains attributes of happiness, joy, satisfaction, etc.
Engagement or focus or flow, whatever you want to call it, is the ability to be single-minded on a task so that time, and even our awareness of ourselves, stops. This attribute is the reason we play games rather than passively watch media. In my own life, the degree to which I am engaged in a task has huge effects on how much pleasure I take from it.
Positive Relationships are the heart of both PERMA and of our lives. Statistics have always shown that we tend to do well when we are involved in positive relationships. In reverse we may wither, to the point of death, when isolated. Coming from an individualistic family as I do, this is one of the characteristics I have to work on the hardest, which is only to say that not every flourish-creating characteristic comes easily to us.
Meaning is something individual to each one of us isn’t it? Culturally bounded, very dependent on what we were taught was right and wrong, even on our spiritual or religious foundations, meaning underpins how we interpret the characteristics of our lives and determines much of our experience of the world.
Accomplishment, success, our ability to create the lives we want for ourselves and our family, drives much of the outputs of the Western world. When coupled with meaning, accomplishment forms much of the value on which people base their lives, at least in the Western world.
In each of the areas of life you can find success or experience failure. Also much of how we interpret whether or not we are flourishing will be determined by how we and other people around us see each of these. Just as relationship is the heart of this theory, feedback we get from others always has the potential to color our own view of our reality.
Future articles will look at each of these in more depth, will discuss how action research can be used to increase them, and will share some of Dr. Seligman, and my own, processes. Finally, the ways in which health and vitality interplay with PERMA will add to future discussions.