Traditionally, a major focus of psychology has been to relieve human suffering. Since World War II, great strides have been made in the understanding and treatment of mental health disorders. Relieving suffering, however, is not the same as flourishing. People want to thrive, not just survive.
The skills that build flourishing are different from the skills that alleviate suffering. Removing the disabling conditions is not the same as building the enabling conditions that make life most worth living. (The words “flourishing” and “well-being” are used interchangeably. We do not use the word “happiness” because it means different things to different people.)
Suffering and well-being are both part of the human condition and psychology should care about each. Human strengths, excellence, and flourishing are just as authentic as human distress. People want to cultivate the best version of themselves and live a meaningful life. They want to grow their capacities for love and compassion, creativity and curiosity, work and resilience, and integrity and wisdom.
When Dr. Seligman was president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, one of his presidential initiatives was the building of a field called Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the factors that enable individuals and communities to flourish.
PERMA™ Theory of Well-Being
What is human flourishing and what enables it? Dr. Seligman’s PERMA™ theory of well-being is an attempt to answer these fundamental questions. There are five building blocks that enable flourishing – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (hence PERMA™) – and there are strategies to increase each.
There are many different routes to a flourishing life. People will derive well-being from each of these five building blocks to varying degrees. A good life for one person is not necessarily a good life for another. Positive Psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, we are not telling people what choices to make or what to value, but research on the factors that enable flourishing can help people make more informed choices to live a more fulfilling life that is aligned with their values and interests.
Here is a brief description of each of the five building blocks of well-being:
Positive Emotion: This route to well-being is hedonic – increasing positive emotion. Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g., by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g., by savoring physical pleasures and mindfulness) and our positive emotion about the future (e.g., by building hope and optimism).
Unlike the other routes to well-being described below, this route is limited by how much an individual can experience positive emotions. In other words, the experience of positive emotion is partly heritable and each individual's emotions tend to fluctuate within a range. Some people are, by disposition, low in the extent to which they experience positive emotion. Traditional conceptions of happiness tend to focus on positive emotion, so it can be liberating to know that there are other routes to well-being, described below.
Engagement: Engagement is an experience in which someone fully deploys their skills, strengths, and attention for a challenging task. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this produces an experience called “flow” that is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are just sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal.
In such an activity, concentration is fully absorbed in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and the perception of time is distorted in retrospect, e.g., time stops. Flow can be experienced in a wide variety of activities, e.g., a good conversation, a work task, playing a musical instrument, reading a book, writing, building furniture, fixing a bike, gardening, sports training or performance, to name just a few.
Relationships: Relationships are fundamental to well-being. The experiences that contribute to well-being are often amplified through our relationships, for example, great joy, meaning, laughter, a feeling of belonging, and pride in accomplishment. Connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. Support from and connection with others is one of the best antidotes to “the downs” of life and a good way to bounce back. Research shows that doing acts of kindness for others produces an increase in well-being.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are social beings because the drive to connect with and help others promotes our survival. Developing strong relationships is central to adaptation and is enabled by our capacity for love, compassion, kindness, empathy, self-sacrifice, teamwork, and cooperation.
Meaning: A sense of meaning and purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. There are various societal institutions that enable a sense of meaning, such as family, religion, science, politics, work organizations, justice, the community, social causes, among others.
Accomplishment: People pursue achievement, competence, success, and mastery for its own sake, in a variety of domains, including the workplace, sports, games, hobbies, among others. People pursue accomplishment even when it does not necessarily lead to positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.
Each of these five building blocks contributes to well-being and:
Is pursued for its own sake, not as a means to an end
Is defined and measured independently of the other elements
The Benefits of Well-Being
Research demonstrates that well-being is not only valuable because it feels good, but also because it has beneficial real-world consequences. Compared to people with low well-being, individuals with higher levels of well-being:
- Perform better at work
Have more satisfying relationships
Are more cooperative
Have stronger immune systems
Have better physical health
Have reduced cardiovascular mortality
Have fewer sleep problems
Have lower levels of burnout
Have greater self-control
Have better self-regulation and coping abilities
Are more prosocial
Research has identified optimism as one of the key contributors to well-being. Studies show that optimism brings many benefits compared to pessimism, including:
Less depression and anxiety
Better performance at school, sports, and work
Reduced risk of dropping out of school
Better physical health outcomes, including fewer reported illnesses, less coronary heart disease, lower mortality risk, and faster recovery from surgery.
Some references for the above research: Alarcon et al., 2013; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Brand et al., 2010; Chida & Steptoe 2008; Nes et al., 2009; Chemers, Hu, Garcia, 2001; Seligman & Schulman, 1986; Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, & Thornton, 1990; Helgeson & Fritz, 1999; Kubzansky, Sparrow, Vokonas & Kawachi, 2001; Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen 2001; Dillon, Minchoff, & Baker 1985; Fredrickson & Joiner 2002; Fry & Debats, 2009; Haar & Roche 2010; Howell, Kern, & Lyubomirsky, 2007; Kasser & Ryan 1996; Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Ostir, Markides, Black, & Goodwin 2000; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Salovey, Rothman, Detweiler, & Steward, 2000; Segerstrom, 2007; Shen, McCreary, & Myers, 2004; Stone et al., 1994; Williams & Shiaw, 1999.
The science of well-being has important implications for institutional applications:
Schools can educate students for flourishing as well as for workplace success. The skills of well-being can be taught.
Parents can cultivate their children’s strengths, grit, and resilience.
Workplaces can improve performance as well as raise employee well-being.
Therapists can nurture their patients’ strengths to prevent mental illness and enhance flourishing, as well as heal damage.
Communities can encourage public service and civic engagement.
Interventions have been empirically shown to increase well-being. To learn about these programs, click here. These programs have demonstrated effectiveness in improving well-being and optimism and in preventing and reducing anxiety and depression.
Implications for Public Policy
The science of well-being also has important implications for policy decisions by governments and other organizations.
Countries have relied largely on economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an indicator of national progress. There is growing awareness, however, that economic measures alone do not fully reflect a nation’s well-being.
During the industrial revolution, economic indicators were a good approximation of how well a nation was doing, when the fulfillment of basic human needs for food, clothing, and shelter was the primary goal. The more prosperous a nation becomes, however, these economic indicators are less effective as an approximation of how well a society is doing. Basic needs are largely satisfied in developed nations.
As societies meet these basic needs, differences in well-being are less frequently due to income and are more frequently due to factors such as social relationships, work satisfaction, and meaning. Research shows that making more money has rapidly diminishing returns on life satisfaction. Below the safety net, increases in money and increases in life satisfaction go up hand in hand. Above the safety net, increases in money produce smaller and smaller increases in happiness (Diener & Seligman, 2004).
Research indicates that people need supportive, positive relationships and social belonging to sustain well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2004). Economic indicators, however, do not measure the quality of social relationships and therefore omit this key contribution to well-being. The fact that strong social relationships are essential for well-being has many policy implications. For instance, school curricula can explicitly educate students about the importance of long-lasting social relationships, as well as teach the social skills that nurture supportive and intimate relationships. Organizations should carefully consider relocating employees because doing so can sever relationships and might be detrimental to well-being.
Economic indicators are out of sync with national well-being in developed nations. For example, since the 1950s, GDP in the U.S. has tripled per capita but life satisfaction has been virtually unchanged. There is a similar pattern in other nations. Over this same period, depression rates have increased 10-fold, and rates of anxiety have also risen (Diener & Seligman, 2004; Twenge, 2000). Paradoxically, higher rates of mental illness can increase GDP due to increased spending on hospitalization, crime prevention, and imprisonment of people with disorders.
Assessing the well-being of individuals with psychological disorders could lead to government and business policies that yield benefits to the individual, the organization, and the nation. Psychological disorders cause widespread suffering. Many disorders can be effectively treated yet a large proportion of people with disorders go untreated. Failure to treat these individuals can be costly in terms of well-being and lost productivity. More rigorous and systematic national well-being surveys could help shape the provision of mental health resources.
The science of well-being is theoretically, metrically, and empirically advanced enough to supplement economic indicators with well-being indicators. The precursors of national well-being measures are well underway. Since the early 2000s, there have been several nascent international initiatives to measure national well-being, including the OECD’s Better Life Index (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the United Nation’s World Happiness Report (Adler & Seligman, 2016).
If well-being is the overarching goal of a nation, multi-dimensional measures of well-being should therefore supplement economic indicators to more accurately represent how a nation is doing and to better inform policy. Public policy follows only from what we measure. If a society makes a great effort to measure economic output, people are likely to focus more attention on economic output, sometimes to the detriment of other values. If a society assesses well-being, people will focus more of their attention on well-being. We measure what we value, and we value what we measure.