Over the last couple of decades, a few different happiness theories have emerged from the science of positive psychology. The good news is that we are starting to have a long list of scientifically proven, practical strategies to increase happiness. The bad news is that there is still a bit of a mess with regard to pin-pointing the best theoretical model to explain the underlying bigger concepts of these strategies, how many there are, which ones are most important and how they relate to each other. However, what they all have in common is that they capture what our human needs are and suggest that fulfilling these needs will result in happiness.
The perhaps most comprehensive and established happiness theory to date is the PERMA model of happiness by Professor Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, in order to achieve happiness, all of the five components of the PERMA model must be realised. Here is what they are.
PERMA is and acronym that stands for positive emotions (P), engagement (E), relationships (R), meaning (M) and accomplishment (A).
1) Positive emotions: feeling good
Most people intuitively associate happiness with positive emotions – feeling good, or experiencing pleasure. This is just like the hedonic type of happiness described above and easy to understand intuitively. Experiencing positive emotions is important for the enjoyment of daily tasks.
2) Engagement: finding flow
Have you heard of ‘flow’ experiences before? Flow is a term that was coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes a state in which we are completely immersed in an activity we do and enjoy – to the extent that we lose track of time and forget about the things around us. These experiences of being completely absorbed by an activity we enjoy doing are important as they increase our intelligence, creativity and emotional capabilities, all of which lead to enhanced happiness.
According to Seligman, we can achieve engagement if we live a virtuous life by embodying the six universal virtues and cultivating the 24 associated character strengths proposed by him. Living in line with any of them will increase our happiness.
3) Relationships: authentic connections
Humans are social creatures. In fact, one can fairly accurately predict someone’s level of happiness by examining the strengths of their social relationships – whether they have a fulfilling social life or not. One of the neurocognitive insights into this phenomenon is that when we are at risk of being lonely, the pain centres of our brain are activated. From the perspective of human cognitive evolution, this makes sense as we are naturally driven to reproduce and need not only a partner to do so, but a good social network, too. It takes a village to raise a child, right? Living in a group with meaningful connections increases the likelihood of survival.
But our relationships do much more than that: They provide a sounding board and support; they make us feel connected; they stimulate us cognitively and with that build our resilience and reduce our cognitive decline as we age. All things considered, they play a big part in our success.
4) Meaning: Purposeful existence
Purpose in one’s existence can be found through spiritual beliefs, through self-actualisation and identifying meaning in the connection to future goals. Seligman refers to a meaningful life as one in which one contributes to something bigger than oneself – a definition, which clearly contrasts and complements the concept of hedonic wellbeing.
A purposeful existence not only leads to more happiness, but also to increased resilience.
Seligman proposes to extend practices of flow by applying one’s strengths in a creative way and for something that is bigger than oneself. “Investing oneself into creative work creates a greater sense of meaning in life and accordingly, a greater sense of happiness”.
The last aspect of Seligman’s PERMA model is the idea of achieving goals in life. Having personal accomplishments throughout life leads to more self-esteem and self-efficacy and contribute to a flourishing and thriving life journey. It is important to aim for the right kind of goals, such as that they are in line with your values and hold the potential to make you happy. As psychologist and happiness expert, Shawn Achor, said, “happiness is not just a mood – it’s a work ethic.”
How are these five happiness components met in your life? What is one simple thing you can do today to improve the least represented aspect?
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