By Ben Nadel on
As a therapist, Martin Seligman (former president of the American Psychological Association - APA) discovered something very interesting: if you remove the unhappiness from a patient, you don't get a happy patient; rather, you get an empty patient. This is a huge cause for concern because psychology has, for a long time, focused primarily on removing unhappiness (the traditional Disease Model of treatment). To address this problem, Martin Seligman founded the Positive Psychology movement. As outlined in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman believes that true well-being emerges not only from the removal of unhappiness; but, from the enhancement of five elements of well-being: P.E.R.M.A.
Happiness is a "concept." It is a state of being defined by other things. As such, it is nice to talk about, but somewhat useless when it comes to measurements and actions. We don't obtain happiness; rather, we seek the elements that allow happiness to ensue. And, according to Martin Seligman, the five key elements behind happiness and well-being are P.E.R.M.A:
- Positive emotions
The more we nurture these five elements, the more fulfilled our lives will be. And, what's important to understand is that these five elements work in fluid conjunction with each other. While some elements appear to carry more weight, this means that different individuals can find different paths to happiness; a person who spends their life highly engaged can feel just as much happiness as a person who believes that their life has a higher meaning and purpose.
While I found some of this book a bit tedious to get through, I was a big fan of a few of the exercises that Seligman discussed:
- What Went Well: At the end of the day, write down three things that went well during the day. Also discuss why those things happened and how they can happen more often.
- Active and Constructive Responding: When someone tells you something positive about their own life, respond in a way that gets them to relive that positive moment with you.
- Gratitude Letter: Think of someone who has improved your life and then write them a letter of thanks. This letter can then be read out loud to said person.
Each of these exercises is meant to enhance the various elements of P.E.R.M.A., and therefore well-being. And, as Seligman discusses in the book, these exercises can be even be highly effective in the treatment of depression.
One other thing that I found hugely fascinating was that in a review of many longitudinal health studies, Optimism appears to be the most consistent predicator of mortality. Now, that's not to say that health is irrelevant; rather, it just means that true optimism and feelings of well-being have a more consistent effect on mortality than any other indicator.
If any of this seems interesting, you might want to check out Martin Seligman's TED Talk on Positive Psychology. I got this book after being intrigued by his presentation:
I think one of the best take-aways from this book is the codification of happiness in terms of the five basic elements of well-being. Too often, we talk about happiness purely as a concept; and I believe this leaves many people still confused about what to do and how to get there. By looking at P.E.R.M.A. as the building blocks, we can give people a concrete model - a tangible way to think about their own flourishing.