Historically, psychology has been concerned with alleviating distress with the assumption that once distress was alleviated, happiness and greater well-being would ensue. While the logic here is reasonable, for many the alleviation of distress was not enough to promote happiness. Further, some people may not experience distress, but these same people do not necessarily experience happiness either. How is happiness generated? This is a question that psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D. researched in an effort to disseminate specific information.

Seligman has identified five elements that are important for happiness- positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. The acronym for these elements, PERMA, is the term that they are most often referred to.

Let’s look at each element and how it looks in everyday life. 

Positive emotions – the experience of positive emotions comes from pleasurable and/or interesting activities.  Watching a good comedy, solving a puzzle, playing in the sand, eating good food, watching a sunrise are activities that are likely to generate feelings of joy, contentment, excitement, relaxation, etc. The experience of positive emotions helps neutralize negative emotions. Remembering a day at the zoo or looking forward to going to the zoo can offset the stress of a challenging day at home, work or school. Experiencing positive emotions helps increase productivity at work, boosts health and immunity, strengthens relationships and promotes creativity. We can increase happiness by learning to experience positive emotions or increasing the positive emotions we currently experience. 

Engagement – is when one becomes so absorbed in an activity that the sense of time is lost.  Engagement is most often experienced when we are king work that we like or are good at. Thus, it is important to identify one’s strengths, talents and virtues so that these can be practiced in everyday life. Sewing, athletics, music, dancing, and hobbies are all activities in which one may experience engagement. The activities of engagement help us feel valuable and confident.

Relationships – having satisfying relationships is highly correlated with happiness. Human are social by nature. In relationships, we receive support, share our joy and pain, gain a broader perspective of the world and grow. There is no substitute for the growth potential of good relationships. 

Meaning – refers dedicating ourselves to something greater then us – religion, a social cause, community action or professional goal.  People feel happier when they feel that they are working in a way that is consistent with their goals and values. One might identify working with the economically disadvantaged, the wrongfully convicted, domestic violence, etc. Once an area of meaning is identified, opportunities to work with in that context can be pursued for a greater sense of involvement.

Accomplishment – striving for success is important for a sense of well-being and happiness. We need to be able to look at our lives and be proud of what we have done. Setting goals and achieving them is the path to a greater sense of accomplishment. Successfully completing goals creates positive expectations for the future making the success of future goals more likely. In turn this names us feel better about us and may even promote one to encourage others to achieve success.

In order to increase your happiness and well being, identify ways to include or improve each PERMA element in your life. You may choose to do addition reading in the area by going to www.authenichappiness.org and talking to your therapist about PERMA.

Submitted by Holly Houston, PH.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist