There was a lot of interest in the article I wrote last month called “How to Bounce Forward from Adversity” in which I discussed positive psychology. Whereas traditional psychology has focused primarily on helping unwell individuals to get to a state of normal functioning, positive psychology explores how we can go beyond “normal” to optimize wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Today I’m going to share some of the most effective ways to do this. The core elements come from Martin Seligman, sometimes considered the founder positive psychology. Seligman is known for the PERMA model of wellbeing, which stands for: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. We’ll look at these and some valuable additions from other psychologists.
Positive Emotions: This is as much a measure of optimal wellbeing as it is a means. Seligman emphasizes that seeking positive emotions alone isn’t especially effective, but that fully experiencing positive emotions is vital.
If positive emotions aren’t a prominent part of your psychological landscape, it’s worth looking and feeling into why. I believe positive emotions are part of our native state as humans, an expression of fundamental wellbeing, regardless of circumstances such as socioeconomic status. When they’re not naturally present, this tends to signal that there’s something in the way – such as limiting beliefs about one’s ability or deserving of happiness. We can change this.
Engagement: Having a sense of engagement, in which we may lose track of time and become completely absorbed in something we enjoy and excel at, is an important piece of wellbeing. It’s hard to have a developed sense of wellbeing if you are not truly engaged in anything you do
Psychologists Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff build on these first two methods through their model of positive experience called Savoring. Here’s how to savor fully and get the most out of your positive experiences:
- Sharing: find other people to share the experience and tell them how much you value it. According to Black Dog Institute, this is the strongest predictor of the level of someone’ pleasure.
- Memory building: do things to crystalize and save the moment, such as intentionally take mental photographs, keeping a souvenir of the event, and reminiscing about it later with others.
- Self-congratulation: this is a hard one for many of us because it entails telling yourself what a good person you are and remembering everything you’ve done to get yourself to this point in your life.
- Sharpening perception: this is practice to encourage the imprinting of the experience in your consciousness. Pay close attention and try focusing on certain elements and blocking out others, like closing your eyes while listening to music.
- Absorption: allow yourself to become totally immersed, not thinking, just experiencing fully
Relationships: Study after study has shown that healthy relationships are the single most significant predictor of happiness and longevity. We are social creatures and our connections with others help us flourish. They give us opportunities to share, to help, to be heard, to be witnessed, to touch, to laugh, to be co-inspired. I have a homework assignment for you. Today I want you to call or visit someone you haven’t been in contact with for a while. Both of you will benefit from this.
Meaning: There are plenty of ways to experience positive emotions and good connections without meaning, but for most of us, especially as we get older, this factor starts to matter more. Sometimes we can even have a “meaningless crisis” where we suddenly feel that nothing in our life has real significance. If we’ve spent the last decade getting stoned and playing video games, maybe such a realization is pointing to a need for some changes. But for most people, it’s a matter of attitude adjustment more than a life overhaul.
For instance, doing the core values, gifts, and life purpose work in our Dreambook can help you get aligned with your meaning, which you then bring into whatever you do. An early mentor of mine, Matt Garrigan, used to say, “Life is meaningless. You add the meaning.” While that might sound kind of fatalistic, he meant it to be liberating. It underscores the power to choose our perspective.
Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University writes about the distinctions between relating to your work as a job (you see your work as a means of income, a necessity), a career (you take a certain pride in what you do and hope to advance and succeed at it), or a calling (your work is a central, meaningful part of life and who you are, a forum for self-expression and gratification). These three orientations represent degrees of meaning, and a spectrum of overall life satisfaction. Being dedicated to something bigger than oneself brings to a special kind of fulfillment. Incidentally, Wrzesniewski emphasizes that the job itself is irrelevant to one’s orientation toward it. You could approach trash collection as a calling.
Achievement: In a world that sometimes hyper-focuses on achievement as the sole measure of a person’s worth, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about it and find ourselves unable to relax and play. But we need to strike a balance because accomplishing things, even small things, is essential to authentic wellbeing.
When we set out to do something and follow it through to completion we build confidence and self-trust, and it reinforces the feeling that we have some control over the trajectory of our work and overall life, which is another factor that yields greater wellbeing.
Play: Being able to play – doing something for no outcome other than play itself – is one I’d add to this list. Here’s an excerpt on play from our book, The Well Life:
George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” We know it’s hard to schedule time just for enjoyment, but play is important stuff. Playing and laughing are good for our cardiovascular health. They foster bonding with our family and friends. They’re relaxing. They promote development of social skills. They’re uplifting. They teach us cooperation. They help us learn to manage our emotions. They improve brain function, learning, and cognition. They relieve stress. They enhance healing. They stimulate creativity and problem solving. They keep us feeling youthful. Unfortunately, we tend to save playtime for after everything else is done. But it shouldn’t be seen as just a reward. Play is therapeutic.
Finally, one more that numerous others have added to PERMA is Vitality. Physical vitality and psychological wellness are interdependent. That’s not to say you can’t have one without the other, but many physical health factors such as high energy, good digestion, restful sleep, and adequate strength often translate to a better ability to do the other things on the list, as well as supporting a clear and open mind.
I encourage you to go through this list and choose one factor to dedicate yourself this coming week – ideally one that could use some attention. Set an intention to work on it each day, and write it down. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to reflect on (and, better yet, journal about) how this affected you.