Positive psychology was established in 1998 by psychologist Dr Martin Seligman. It draws on learning going back as far as Plato and Socrates, which incorporates aspects such as well-being, optimism, happiness and personal fulfilment.
According to Christopher Peterson, a co-founder of positive psychology, it is:
“The scientific study of what makes life most worth living.”
The important thing to notice here is the word “scientific”. Positive psychology has a basis in science, and this is what sets it apart from positive thinking and general optimism. If you’d like to learn more about the science behind the theory, have a look at the website of The University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, which can explain it far better than I am able to!
Are You Flourishing?
In psychological terms, flourishing means feeling good and functioning well. Felicia Huppert, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Director of the Well-Being Institute of the University of Cambridge, defines the 10 features of flourishing as:
- Positive emotion
- Emotional stability
All of these elements together produce a mindset of mental toughness.
So how do you reckon you score on these 10 factors in your life? If your scores are low, you might find yourself languishing, which is a state of disengagement and low functionality.
PERMA – A Foundation for Flourishing
In 2011, Dr Seligman published “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being“, in which he introduced the PERMA model. It shares some elements with Felicia Huppert’s list, but also includes the idea of accomplishment.
This route to happiness is largely to do with experiencing pleasure and enjoyment, along with a sense of optimism. Notice that well-being is not just about being happy all of the time, but also encompasses your resilience in dealing with challenges, and knowing that you can deal with tough times when they happen!
Engaging in activities that provide us with enjoyment helps us to grow as people and build our skills. Being utterly absorbed in something to the point of shutting out the world around us leads us to a state of flow. I’m sure you can recall a time when you’ve been wrapped up in an activity with everything going so perfectly that you were on cloud nine.
Forming positive relationships fulfils our needs as a sociable species to feel intimacy, love and a connection with others. Our networks offer us a sense of belonging and support, and so create well-being.
Having a purpose in life increases our motivation. It gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning and gets us through difficult times. Without a purpose it’s easy to lose direction and focus, and we drift from one thing to another, gaining only fleeting happiness along the way.
A sense of accomplishment comes from having goals and ambition, and pushing yourself to achieve those goals. When you’ve had to work hard for something, it means more to you than if you came by it easily. This aspect ties in very closely with coaching in general and is one of the reasons coachees gain such satisfaction from the coaching process and attaining their goals.
You can hear Dr Seligman speaking about PERMA in this short Youtube video from the SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre.
So, where does all this get you?
Who doesn’t want to feel happier? Seeking happiness is an end in itself, but studies have shown that well-being has positive health benefits too. In fact, health is often added to PERMA as the sixth element to make it PERMAH. This fact sheet published by the UK Department of Health has some interesting statistics on the relationship between well-being and health, and cites the research behind it. As does this one on what works to improve well-being.
As a measure of your own happiness perhaps you’d like to consider the 10 most common positive emotions listed by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, in her book “Positivity“:
How many of these can you identify in your day to day life?
If the answer is “not many”, what do you think you could do to foster more of them?