Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
Meanwhile on Twitter
Loading latest tweet...
Ben Nadel at CFUNITED 2009 (Lansdowne, VA) with:

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding Of Happiness And Well-Being By Martin Seligman

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.


 
 
 

 
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin E. P. Seligman. 
 
 
 

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
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

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.




Reader Comments

Thank you for this blog post! These exercises are definitely good ones to follow! There are times when I would certainly have benefited from doing some of these, especially when I wasn't feeling so good about certain situations and where my life was going.

Reply to this Comment

@Ben,

yay, a life one! Thanks for sharing.

I must be an anti-social psychopath, because 3 of the 5 elements don't really affect me all that much in the following ways:

Relationships - I don't really care to have all that many relationships, personally. If I were giving a choice of doing something I was really, really passionate about (like soccer or martial arts) or spending time with someone and fostering a relationship with that person, I would probably choose the soccer or martial arts or whatever the other thing was. I have a few relationships and I am fine with the ones I have, but I guess I can be somewhat of a loner sometimes.

Meaning - I don't really spend a whole lot of time outside the box thinking about the meaning of life...I'm just living it!

Achievement - I have grown to the point in my life where I honestly think that if I never had anything else in terms of acheivement from this point forward, I think I would be fine. I think I just got burned out on achievement early on. Saying this, what I mean is, those things that others think of as "achievements"...things for which people give and receive accolades. There are other things that I would personally consider achievement that others would probably not...and those are the things that I want in my life. For example, not many people think that having kids or being a good parent is an achievement. Nevertheless, that's definitely something I want to experience. A lot of people think things like those are just things you should do anyway and don't consider them achievements...but those are the things that I want in my life and the things that make me happy (and would make me happy).

Engagement - Not really sure what this means. If I were engaged, I'm sure I would be happy as I am guessing I would have said yes and were doing it under my own consent (and wasn't forced into it).

Positive emotions - my happiness lies almost entirely in positive emotions.

Even though I don't have or have very little desire in the 5 elements of happiness described above, I am, by disclaimer :-), a very happy person. But I think my body chemistry is screwed up to cause this anyway.

Reply to this Comment

@Lola,

Yeah, I'm trying to put some of those exercises into effect :)

@Anna,

Always glad to share :) It's been a while since I went non-technical. As far as "engagement", they are more specifically referring to the concept of "flow". If you are interested in flow, check out the TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - he's the one who wrote *the* book on Flow:

http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html

It's a great presentation. It's about being engaged with your current activity in such a way that it is both challenging, but appropriate and interesting.

And, I'm glad you brought up that you are not in all 5 categories; there is no need to be. The 5 elements were nothing more that the key concepts that could be boiled down into their smallest parts.

In fact, if you watch Martin Seligman's TED Talk (in the blog post), he discusses one guy who was a complete failure in relationships; but, SO engaged with his work that he was just as happy (if not more so) than anyone else.

I think these 5 elements all exist in each of us in different amounts at different times. They are fluid. There is no need to have all of them in any way what so ever.

Reply to this Comment

@Ben,

Yeah, I noticed that, and I figured it was just taking you awhile to read and digest this book and/or you were extremely busy right now. Which is forgiveable. :-D

Thanks for explaining, especially the concept of flow and engagement. I guess I have a lot of that one as well. I'll have to watch/read the stuff on flow, though and educate myself. It sounds very interesting.

Reply to this Comment

@Anna,

Flow IS awesome. As a computer programmer, there's nothing like being in it. I don't always get there; but, when I do, hours can slip by without me thinking about it. In the TED talk, Mihaly has a great info-graphic showing where it along the spectrum of skill and challenge. I wish I could spend more time there :)

Reply to this Comment

@Ben,

Having been there / done that, I can agree a lot to the PERMA. And my grandpa, who died at 96, seems to agree with the book too. He was a truck driver, had four kids to support, no father since he was in 4th grade... Hard life all around, but he was a very Christian man and was very giving to others. He retired around 1971 so he lived nearly half a life without having to do the 9-5. Grandma died early '02. The past 4-5 years he acted like he was "ready to go," and I think that started the process. He died of cancer.

Anyway, point being, he was active and mobile up until about a year prior to his death. Even then he was "fine" but deteriorating. Funny thing, I think the more TV he watched, the unhappier he was! If he had something to do, he was happy. He almost always had something to do!

But my parents and uncles are a different sort. I think they fall in to the "lack of unhappiness" category, and it shows.

Reply to this Comment

Martin Seligman is a very interesting scientist. You read his research on learned helplessness in intro psych and in your first course in learning theory. But those brief discussions give absolutely no indication of the sheer elegance of his experimental designs.

As for flow, that's only extreme attentional focus. (Sorry that was my area in grad school). What is fascinating is how many resources the person devotes to what they are attending to when they are in that state.

larry

Reply to this Comment

@Randall,

Your grandpa sounded like a inspirational guy. That's one of my biggest dreams - to be active until the end. I figure as long as I can keep that, everything else is manageable.

@Larry,

Speaking of the elegance of his experimental designs, in the book, he talks at great length about how much effort they put into controlling for all kinds of variations. They (he and his team) seem to really put a tremendous amount of thinking into the design to make sure that it actually yields meaningful, actionable results. It's some cool stuff!

Reply to this Comment

I had the fortune to meet Dr. Seligman during my grad student career at the APA annual conference in the late 90's. What you describe is about the best way to do psych experiments following Cook and Campbell's design guidelines. Unfortunately its difficult to pull off properly, especially when you're dealing with university student volunteers as subjects. But FWIW here's a link to a very good summary of this approach to experimental design:
http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/desdes.php

have a good one.
larry

Reply to this Comment

@Larry,

That's cool that you got to meet Seligman. I'm hoping to catch a talk of his some time. Hopefully he does speaking tours or something.

Reply to this Comment

Well ben if you're going to be at RIACon on August 6-7 you may be able to. Martin Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. The 2011 APA Annual Convention runs from Aug. 4-7 in Washington, D.C., so Seligman may be giving some talks during that time.

Its an idea.

Reply to this Comment

@Larry,

Holy cow - is RIA Con that close! For some reason, I thought it was at the end of the Aug.. Hmm, lots to think about ASAP.

Reply to this Comment

RIACon being that close slammed me too. I thought the same about the date. From what I remember it was initially announced for around the end of August. I wonder what was the reason for the date change.

Reply to this Comment

Can anyone define the word Happiness? What is Happiness we do not know because every single person has its own meaning of happiness. Finding the ways to be happy in life is only a way that can make everyone happy in this world.

Reply to this Comment

The earth is not the place to experience the ultimate happiness.

In fact, as you mentioned at the beginning of your article, when unhappiness is removed we have an empty individual. I would agree with that, because I believe that our present life is one where we appreciate things because of the presence of their lack of or opposite.

How to be happy to have a house if a person doesn't know what it is not to have one? How to know what happiness if a person does not know what it is to be unhappy.

The simple fact that many African people can be seen smiling does not really make sense if to be happy one has to study the principle enunciated by Martin Seligman.

Why is it that we are more happy after experiencing extended periods of lack of a particular thing (water shortage, lack of electricity for example).

I do not believe that the ultimate happiness can be experienced here where a person may need to feel or see or think about the opposite of something, on a continual basis, to realize that we should be happy for what we have.

Thanks for your post. It made me think about a particular chapter (#55) of the Qur'an, here is a video of its recitation by a reciter named Mishary Al Afasy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ekhyqu8LGpU

Reply to this Comment

Hi Ben Nadel,

Great post, and the book is indeed very informative. Especially the concept of flow and engagement is very educational!

Thanks for your post, and keep on the good work!
Kind regards
Tasha Smith - Depression and Treatment reviewer

Reply to this Comment

Post A Comment

You — Get Out Of My Dreams, Get Into My Comments
Live in the Now
Oops!
Comment Etiquette: Please do not post spam. Please keep the comments on-topic. Please do not post unrelated questions or large chunks of code. And, above all, please be nice to each other - we're trying to have a good conversation here.