This well-being theory, otherwise known as PERMA, is a revamped version of the happiness theory presented by leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman. The goal is not merely to make it through life, but to flourish.
“The aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life.” – Martin Seligman
Positive psychology is intended to be about choices. We choose things that make us feel good for the sake of feeling good. We make choices that allow us to use our skills (our strengths) and experience a state of flow. And we also choose to do things that give our lives more meaning and purpose.
This post first highlights something referred to as the “authentic happiness theory,” which highlights these choices, and then addresses a refreshed take on positive psychology with what’s now known as the “well-being theory.”
The Authentic Happiness Theory
Martin Seligman, a researcher at the forefront of positive psychology, introduced three kinds of happiness in his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness. The three “paths” to happiness are:
- Pleasure (feeling more positive emotions than negative emotions)
- Engagement (using your signature strengths daily to achieve flow)
- Meaning (leading a life in service of something larger than yourself)
In 2002, Seligman declared that the fulfillment of each orientation — seeking pleasure, engaging strengths, and meaningful service — led to life satisfaction. While scientific studies support this theory, research also shows that these three orientations are not equal. It seems that focusing on engagement and meaning are much better predictors of life satisfaction compared to leading a life of pleasure.
In 2005, Seligman began to rethink happiness and shifted his perspective on what positive psychology really meant.
The PERMA Theory of Well-Being
The goal of positive psychology in the authentic happiness theory is “to increase the amount of happiness in your own life and on the planet.” The goal of positive psychology according to the well-being theory is “to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and on the planet.”
Seligman realized that there were some elements missing in the authentic happiness theory; thus, the well-being theory, also known as the PERMA theory, was constructed.
The PERMA theory lists five measurable elements that contribute toward well-being:
- P: Positive Emotions
- E: Engagement + Flow
- R: Relationships
- M: Meaning
- A: Achievement
You’ll notice that three elements are carried over from the previous happiness theory: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. You can read more about these three elements here.
The Importance of Positive Relationships & Achievement
Our need and tendency towards relationships is part of who we are as human beings; it’s a biological need and an evolutionary concept. Cultivating positive relationships also supports the other four components of well-being.
Achievement involves the pursuit of success and mastery, and not just as end-goals. Seligman argues that many people pursue accomplishment for its own sake, even when there’s no positive emotion or meaning tied to it.
It’s important to note that Seligman did not just tack on two elements to the happiness theory to construct this new theory. The addition of relationships and achievement tied up loose ends present in the happiness theory.
The goal here with the PERMA theory is not just to lead a good and happy life, but to establish an overall flourishing sense of well-being.
How PERMA is Different
The original theory is based on maximizing happiness through the three factors of pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
In PERMA, well-being is defined by positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Our goal is to flourish by maximizing all five of these elements. The focus is to flourish in each category versus achieving an end goal of happiness through each category.
This well-being theory is more about the journey of achieving our goals.
While life satisfaction is the measure of the happiness theory, each of these five elements becomes the measure for the well-being theory. Each element contributes to well-being but no single element defines well-being by itself.
Also, in the first theory, the strengths and virtues — there are 24 of them — are the supports for living an engaged life. In the well-being theory, these strengths underpin and contribute to all five elements, not just engagement. When we deploy our highest strengths, we can experience more positive emotion, more meaning, more accomplishment, and improved relationships.
Do you know what your signature strengths are? Find out on the Authentic Happiness website. Hover over the Questionnaires tab and click on VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Then you can start using your strengths in all realms of your life, and you can flourish.
Read more about the PERMA theory here.
Please share your thoughts, insights, and any experiences with me in the comments.
Share this post with someone who might be interested in positive psychology.
Free wreath clip art by Angie Makes, lettering by Aim Happy.