Boosting your well-being
There are various models of well-being within psychology. One of the most commonly used is the PERMA model, developed by Dr Martin Seligman, which describes the core attributes of well-being to be:
Through this article I'll explore each of these aspects in terms of how they contribute to well-being, and how we can nudge the dial upwards through evidence-based interventions. I’ll also ask some coaching-style questions, which might be helpful to reflect on if you’re looking to increase your own well-being.
Like most models, PERMA is a simplified framework. And since it was first developed there have been calls for additional factors to be incorporated, including Health or Vitality (to create PERMA-H or PERMA-V). Perhaps most importantly, the specifics of what truly brings us happiness and well-being is individual to us all. But nonetheless, PERMA can be a great model for structuring our thinking about how we're doing and what matters to us, and how to maximise those things.
What do we mean by positive emotions? American academic Barbara Fredrickson identified the following forms of positivity: joy, love, gratitude, awe, serenity, amusement, inspiration, interest, hope and pride.
It almost goes without saying that experiencing these emotions would make us feel happy and increase our well-being. It feels a bit like a truism. But I found the list above really helpful as it helped me think about a broader range of emotions. Not just joy and love; but also awe, serenity and hope.
If you’re looking to increase the amount or frequency of positive emotions you experience, I’d recommend gratitude journaling. Noting down three things you’re grateful for, every evening before bed, is a great way of recognising the highlights of your day and appreciating the people and things in your life.
How often do you feel these different positive emotions?
Are there some that feel rarer than you’d ideally like?
If so, when are you most likely to feel that emotion – and how can you create more opportunities for it?
In this context, engagement – also called flow – means being immersed in what we’re doing. We’re so absorbed in what we’re doing that we lose track of time, maybe even forget to eat. For me, I find my ability to get into a flow state comes and goes (ebbs and flows, if you will!). Sometimes I can quickly become fully immersed in my work; other times, every sentence is a chore and I’m fighting a losing battle with my phone and other distractions.
So, how can you get into flow more often? It’s helpful to notice what types of activity help you get into flow, as is thinking about whether there’s a particular place or time of the day that best suits you for immersive work. Often, when we’re really engaged it’s because what we’re doing is playing to and cultivating our strengths. By this, I mean we’re doing something that we’re good at, that we enjoy, and that we get energy from. So, a great first step to being in flow more often is to actively seek out and make time for activities that play to our strengths, whether that’s at work or at home.
When do you feel most ‘in flow’ at work? What activities are you likely to be doing? With whom? And where?
And what about at home: when do you feel most engaged?
How does it feel for you to be in flow?
We’re social animals, us humans. We need connection, love, and physical and emotional contact. We need to talk, be heard, listen, and share experiences (good and bad). By cultivating healthy relationships we are giving a massive boost to our well-being, and offsetting the negative impact of unhealthy relationships. I don't know who said it (and it’s pretty cheesy!), but "happiness shared is happiness squared".
I’ve recently been working on how present I am when I’m with my little boy. It’s too easy for me to be slightly absent (thinking ahead to the next day, checking my phone, multi-tasking) – even when we’re playing or hanging out together. I’ve been working on savouring everyday moments with him, and it’s really helped me feel much more connected to him.
Which relationships in your life contribute most positively to your well-being (whether in your personal life or at work)?
How can you create (i) more time and (ii) better connection with your most important relationships?
Living a meaningful or purposeful life has huge benefits for our well-being. It helps build our resilience, it helps increase our engagement (e.g. in our work), and it increases our satisfaction with life. Of course, we all find meaning in different ways: it might be through our work, bringing up children, volunteering, through being part of a community or faith group, or something else. Usually, it’s by being part of and serving something ‘bigger’ than us.
It can be really great to think about how what we find meaningful in our lives. A great way to do it is to take ‘meaningful photos’ – 8-10 photos over the course of a week, of the things / activities / people you find meaningful in your life. No prizes for the quality of the photography! At the end of the week, look back over your photos and reflect on why those things are meaningful. Even better, share the exercise with someone else and talk about it together.
What gives your life meaning?
How can you use your strengths to best serve your personal purpose?
Which relationships in your life feel most meaningful to you – and how can you cultivate them further?
By working towards and achieving goals (whether big or small), we get a sense of progress, momentum and pride that in turn increases our well-being. It doesn’t need to be the achievement of massive milestones, or impressive goals. Indeed, achievement includes the concepts of perseverance or ‘grit’ - and we get even more positive benefit from achieving intrinsic (internal) goals like mastering a skill, than we do from achieving external goals like getting a promotion or winning in competitive sport.
When I was younger, I had a little notebook in which I jotted down all the things I’d done that were achievements for me. That notebook contains everything from ad-hoc feedback from a teacher and giving someone the benefit of the doubt (when I wasn’t really feeling kind towards them), through to passing my driving test and having a good day at my first ‘proper’ job. It’s been too long since I’ve added more achievements to it – I think I need to dig it out and start using it again.
What recent achievements are you proud of?
How can you notice and savour the accomplishment of smaller, sub-goals to boost your sense of achievement?
How can you make progress towards an upcoming goal?
Seligman’s model didn’t initially include Vitality or Health, but subsequent review and critique identified a gap in terms of some of the physical aspects of well-being: such as physical activity, nutrition and sleep, which have evidenced links to well-being. I particularly like Vitality, as to me it incorporates Health but also speaks to energy levels and zest.
Increased physical movement improves mental focus and clarity, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Nutrition (in particular eating lots of fruit and veg) has been associated with higher well-being, and good sleep helps our mental and emotional resilience (as any sleep-deprived new parent can attest).
How is your vitality (physical activity, nutrition and sleep) supporting your well-being at the moment?
What change(s) could you make to increase your well-being?
How can the people in your life help you with those changes?
Using PERMA to increase your well-being
PERMA (or PERMA-V) is a simple and easy-to-use model to articulate the different facets of well-being. If you’re looking to increase your well-being, it’s a great way of helping to prioritise your efforts.
To get started, I suggest scoring yourself out of 10 against each of the six indicators. For example, on a score of 1 to 10, how much Positive emotion am I experiencing in my life; and then repeating the process for Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement and Vitality.
Once you’ve done that, you can (a) identify where you want to focus, and (b) think about what might help you increase a score by just one: what would it look like, what would you need to do, and who can help you achieve it? It’s always best to start small, but by taking steps to incrementally improve just one of these indicators at a time, you can increase your overall well-being significantly.