Dr. Martin Seligman is someone you’ve probably heard me mention or write about before. He’s the father of positive psychology and a big influence on myself and the authors I’ve read.
He most recently wrote Flourish, a book on well-being theory. It’s an evolution of his older theories on happiness and positivity. The key concept is the acronym PERMA.
(P)ositive emotion - characterized by simple pleasures like eating ice cream or longer-lasting gratifications like mastering an instrument or excelling at work.
(E)ngagement - finding flow, the zone. Where you lose track of time from being so thoroughly engrossed in what you’re doing. This is most often found via exercising your strengths.
(R)elationships - easy enough to understand. Healthy platonic, professional, and romantic relationships are healing and energizing.
(M)eaning - the belief that what you are doing matters. This can come from work, relationships, and achievement. It can also be described as finding purpose and working toward a common good or for a higher power.
(A)chievement - reaching goals, getting results. Work is an area where a lot of people find achievement. And this feeling can also result from hobbies, relationships, and personal goals.
The PERMA model fills in holes in Dr. Seligman’s previous work, which focused on a more narrow slice of well-being: positivity. And while those works were rewarding to read and they offer actionable steps to living a happy, more fulfilling life, they left something to be desired. Flourish attempts to fill in those holes.
After spending the last year endeavoring to put this philosophy into practice, I came away yearning for a sense of completeness or wholeness that seemed out of reach. PERMA is about seeking change; seeking more. Whether it’s external or internal, it doesn’t address a central issue with being human: feeling incomplete or not whole no matter what you do.
I am suggesting that attaching too much worth to an outcome, a result, or a change in circumstance will always lead you back to the same place–eventually craving more change, more results.
A couple of minor but vital additions I would add to PERMA are an extra N and A:
(N)on-attachment - results and outcomes are important, but they are moving targets. Reaching them today will only leave you satisfied for so long. Then, it’s on to the next rung of the infinite ladder. Attaching a sense of completeness or wholeness to change is tantamount to chasing your own tail (something I know a lot about).
(A)cceptance - the practice of allowing what is to be without judgment and without wanting more or less. It’s listening to the voice of the mind, observing it and recognizing you are separate from it, and directing more awareness toward the source of that voice to better understand why it is speaking in the first place.
The main idea then is not to dismiss PERMA. Practicing PERMA will make you more resilient to life’s challenges. Studies show it’s more effective at treating depression than relying on pharmaceuticals. PERMA will make you happier. It just doesn’t last.
That’s because we’re talking about feelings. Feelings are always fleeting. Fleeting feelings kept our ancestors alive. Complacency and contentment don’t serve survival well.
A voice in our head always says, “What next?”. That’s what motivates us toward PERMA in the first place. Then, it’s always on to the next thing. Recognizing and accepting that incessant urge is key. It reveals the fallacy of attaching too much hope that accomplishing the next thing, whatever that may be, will finally leave us sated. That’s false idol worship.
Only through acceptance and non-attachment are we already enough. That we are complete and whole even when: we lack positive emotion; we are not engaged; our relationships feel strained; we struggle to find meaning, and we fail to achieve. There’s a strong sense of well-being inherent in knowing that.
Ambition is built into us. Let’s recognize that. With that being so, it’s on us to practice acceptance; accepting the endless drive for more will never cease. And by doing that, it’s easier not to attach too much value to the outcomes in our lives. Outcomes that, at best, will always only provide a temporary reprieve from our psychology.