Traditionally, a major focus of psychology has been to relieve human suffering. Since World War II, great strides have been made in the understanding and treatment of mental health disorders. Relieving suffering, however, is not the same as flourishing. People want to thrive, not just survive.

The skills that build flourishing are different from the skills that alleviate suffering. Removing the disabling conditions is not the same as building the enabling conditions that make life most worth living. (The words “flourishing” and “well-being” are used interchangeably. We do not use the word “happiness” because it means different things to different people.)

Suffering and well-being are both part of the human condition and psychology should care about each. Human strengths, excellence, and flourishing are just as authentic as human distress. People want to cultivate the best version of themselves and live a meaningful life. They want to grow their capacities for love and compassion, creativity and curiosity, work and resilience, and integrity and wisdom.

When Dr. Seligman was president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, one of his presidential initiatives was the building of a field called Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the factors that enable individuals and communities to flourish.

PERMA Theory of Well-Being

What is human flourishing and what enables it? Dr. Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being is an attempt to answer these fundamental questions. There are five building blocks that enable flourishing – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment hence PERMA– and there are techniques to increase each.

Different people will derive well-being from each of these five building blocks to varying degrees. A good life for one person is not necessarily a good life for another. There are many different routes to a flourishing life.

Positive Psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, we are not telling people what choices to make or what to value, but research on the factors that enable flourishing can help people make more informed choices to live a more fulfilling life that is aligned with their values and interests.

Here is a brief definition of each of the five building blocks:

Positive Emotion: This route to well-being is hedonic – increasing positive emotion. Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g., by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g., by savoring physical pleasures and mindfulness) and our positive emotion about the future (e.g., by building hope and optimism).

Unlike the other routes to well-being described below, this route is limited by how much an individual can experience positive emotions. In other words, positive affectivity is partly heritable and our emotions tend to fluctuate within a range. Many people are, by disposition, low in experiencing positive emotion. Traditional conceptions of happiness tend to focus on positive emotion, so it can be liberating to know that there are other routes to well-being, described below.

Engagement: Engagement is an experience in which someone fully deploys their skills, strengths, and attention for a challenging task. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this produces an experience called “flow” that is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are just sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully absorbed in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and the perception of time is distorted in retrospect, e.g., time stops. Flow can be experienced in a wide variety of activities, e.g., a good conversation, a work task, playing a musical instrument, reading a book, writing, building furniture, fixing a bike, gardening, sports training or performance, to name just a few.

Relationships: Relationships are fundamental to well-being. The experiences that contribute to well-being are often amplified through our relationships, for example, great joy, meaning, laughter, a feeling of belonging, and pride in accomplishment. Connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. Support from and connection with others is one of the best antidotes to “the downs” of life and a reliable way to feel up. Research shows that doing acts of kindness for others produces an increase in well-being.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are social beings because the drive to connect with and serve others promotes our survival. Developing strong relationships is central to adaptation and is enabled by our capacity for love, compassion, kindness, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, self-sacrifice, etc.

Meaning: A sense of meaning and purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. There are various societal institutions that enable a sense of meaning, such as religion, family, science, politics, work organizations, justice, the community, social causes (e.g., being green), among others.

Accomplishment: People pursue achievement, competence, success, and mastery for its own sake, in a variety of domains, including the workplace, sports, games, hobbies, etc. People pursue accomplishment even when it does not necessarily lead to positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.

Each of these five building blocks contributes to well-being and:

Is pursued for its own sake, not as a means to an end

Is defined and measured independently of the other elements

The Benefits of Well-Being

Research demonstrates that well-being is not only valuable because it feels good, but also because it has beneficial real-world consequences. Compared to people with low well-being, individuals with higher levels of well-being:

  • Perform better at work
  • Have more satisfying relationships
  • Are more cooperative
  • Have stronger immune systems
  • Have better physical health
  • Live longer
  • Have reduced cardiovascular mortality
  • Have fewer sleep problems
  • Have lower levels of burnout
  • Have greater self-control
  • Have better self-regulation and coping abilities
  • Are more prosocial
  • Research has identified optimism as one of the key contributors to well-being. Studies show that optimism brings many benefits compared to pessimism, including:
  • Less depression and anxiety
  • Better performance at school, sports, and work
  • Reduced risk of dropping out of school
  • Better physical health outcomes, including fewer reported illnesses, less coronary heart disease, lower mortality risk, and faster recovery from surgery.

Some references for the above research: Alarcon et al., 2013; Diener & Seligman, 2004; Brand et al., 2010; Chida & Steptoe 2008; Nes et al., 2009; Chemers, Hu, Garcia, 2001; Seligman & Schulman, 1986; Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, & Thornton, 1990; Helgeson & Fritz, 1999; Kubzansky, Sparrow, Vokonas & Kawachi, 2001; Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen 2001; Dillon, Minchoff, & Baker 1985; Fredrickson & Joiner 2002; Fry & Debats, 2009; Haar & Roche 2010; Howell, Kern, & Lyubomirsky, 2007; Kasser & Ryan 1996; Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Ostir, Markides, Black, & Goodwin 2000; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Salovey, Rothman, Detweiler, & Steward, 2000; Segerstrom, 2007; Shen, McCreary, & Myers, 2004; Stone et al., 1994; Williams & Shiaw, 1999.

Institutional Applications

The science of well-being has important implications for institutional applications:

Schools can educate students for flourishing as well as for workplace success. The skills of well-being can be taught.

Parents can cultivate their children’s strengths, grit, and resilience.

Workplaces can improve performance as well as raise employee well-being.

Therapists can nurture their patients’ strengths to prevent mental illness and enhance flourishing, as well as heal damage.

Communities can encourage public service and civic engagement.