All of us have experienced emotions, thoughts and behaviors that could fall into some category of “symptoms” (anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, obsessions, lack of motivation – the list goes on) that were impacting our lives in a negative way. The alleviation of suffering from these symptoms has been the goal of the field of psychology since its inception. However, in recent years some notable researchers have been looking into the other end of our human experience: well-being. Through rigorous research they have pondered the question: What leads to well-being in us humans? I’d like to share with you some of their recommendations for how to create authentic well-being for yourself.
One notable researcher, Dr. Martin Seligman, spent 2/3 of his career helping us gain more understanding about the causes of depression – sharing concepts such as learned helplessness that guided us in developing ways to manage symptoms of depression so they were less debilitating. About 10 or so years ago he switched gears and opened up a research and resource center at the University of Pennsylvania focused on Authentic Happiness. His research has focused on the question of what leads to not just an absence of misery, but the presence of factors that lead to a sense of well-being. From his research Seligman has put forth the PERMA model. Simply put PERMA is a model of how to create authentic happiness.
So, what is meant mean by authentic happiness? The definition centers around the idea of having a genuine, consistent state of contentment. A state is an experience that’s dependent on your situation and motives at any given time. Seligman suggests that you can create a patterned state of well-being. Other researchers have suggested that patterned states can become traits (more on this another time!). In his model of well-being Seligman presents 5 factors shown by research to contribute to an overall sense of well-being. Here is the description of them and some ideas of how to achieve them:
This factor focuses on your experience of emotions that demonstrate genuine happiness – joy, comfort, cheerfulness to name just a few. The idea is to increase the percentage of time you feel happy and content so that it is higher than the percentage of time you feel unhappy. The way to accomplish this is to learn the skills that amplify your positive emotions and strengthen and stretch them over time by applying the skills consistently. Being mindful and savoring the positive emotions is one way to do this.
Try this: Each night before you go to bed write down 3 things that went well that day. Research suggests that if subjects who did this for 6 months experienced significant reduction in depression and anxiety and a significant increase in life satisfaction!
Try this: Design a beautiful day for yourself. Then actively engage in the day you designed using the skills of mindfulness and savoring to enhance your experience of the beauty of that day.
Engagement (being in the zone)
This variable focuses on the idea of using your strengths. Strengths are characteristics that are valuable in and of themselves – they are not merely talents. Examples of strengths include: gratitude, sense of humor, curiosity, hope bravery, social engagement, self-regulation, kindness, perseverance. There are two steps involved with this factor:
1) Identify your highest strength(s) – Seligman has a questionnaire to help with this;
2) Recraft your life to use them as much as possible. This means using your strengths in your work, your love, your play, your parenting, your friendships.
The Engagement factor has to do with you fully immersing in using your strengths. Seligman refers to a concept made popular by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. Flow refers to being completely immersed in an activity with energized focus. It’s when you’re highest strengths just match your hardest challenges. You know when you are experiencing flow because time seems to stop as you are completely absorbed in the activity. You can experience flow at work, with hobbies, with play, with relationship interactions.
Try this: Find one activity that requires your deep attention and focus (this means you’re having to work hard at it) and then do that on a regular basis!
This factor really has to do with the quality of interactions in your relationships. The idea is that well-being is enhanced when you have more positive than negative interactions. This seems like a pretty common sense idea. But, there is some science to this. There is something called the Losada ratio. It’s defined as the sum of positivity in a system divided by the sum of negativity. The research says that to enhance well-being this ratio needs to be 3:1 in relationships (3 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction). The focus of interactions should be on active, constructive engagement.
Try this: Decide to outwardly celebrate at least 1 thing in a relationship each day. This means that you will need to outwardly demonstrate your celebration of the person or the event that occurred– and remember the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 3:1!
Meaning refers to the idea of using your strengths to feel a sense of belonging to, or to be in service of, something that is larger than you. It’s about identifying what makes your life and existence feel important and significant to you. Notice that I said “significant to you”. This isn’t about measuring yourself against any other person or ideal. It’s about doing what you decide is meaningful.
Try this: Life Summary activity: Create a vision of a positive human future as seen through the eyes of your (current or future) grandchild (or a child whom you love). The Life Summary would include what the child sees that you did to contribute to that positive human future. Note: Your contributions don’t need to be grandiose to give you meaning. Maybe your contribution is that you recycled diligently – whether it was convenient or not.
Achievement/Accomplishment (The formula: achievement = skill x effort)
This factor consists of having a sense of competence and mastery – in one or more areas of life. This factor focuses on the skill of self-discipline and grit (extreme persistence). Both are associated with well-being and both can be developed and enhanced. Research in this area suggests that self-discipline is twice as important as IQ and talent when it comes to measuring life success. The good news here is that self-discipline is a skill that anyone can develop!
Try this: Identify one goal you would like to achieve in the next 3 months. Set up a schedule that allows you to consistently practice that activity. Put an accountability measure in your plan (telling someone else your intention can be a good way to keep yourself disciplined). Then
According to the research, these 5 factors of well-being (PERMA) have been shown to be associated with higher levels of productivity, better health outcomes and more longevity. It seems the pursuit of well-being could be well worth the effort!
Fran Bieganek is a Licensed Psychologist practicing holistic psychotherapy and neurofeedback at Bhakti Wellness Center. She has been practicing for over 20 years and currently specializes in the areas of trauma, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, stress management, developmental transitions and well-being. She works with both individuals and couples. In addition to her therapy practice she has also taught Psychology courses at several colleges in Minnesota. She is currently accepting new clients and can be reached at 612-564-9947 or 952-859-7709 ext. 127 or by emailing her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.