The PERMA Model Is a 5-Step Approach to Finding Happiness

We all want to be happy. According to recent analyses of the self-improvement market in the U.S. alone, as much as $549 million per year is spent on self-help books, and self-improvement as a whole could represent a $10 billion per year industry. But what are the actual psychological components that define happiness?

Since 1998, a new field of study has sought to answer this and other questions about human behavior. Positive psychology is "the scientific study of what makes life most worth living," and it examines the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life. The goal is to understand how to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word which refers to a contented state of being healthy, happy, and prosperous.

Related Video: 4 Neuroscience-Backed Happiness Tips

Quantifying Happiness

To help us think about what we need to do to flourish, positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman developed The PERMA Model and described it in his 2011 book, "Flourish." According to Seligman, PERMA describes five important building blocks of well-being and happiness:

  • Positive emotions – feeling good
  • Engagement – being completely absorbed in activities
  • Relationships – being authentically connected to others
  • Meaning – purposeful existence
  • Achievement – a sense of accomplishment and success

Seligman believes that focusing on all five of these elements can help people reach a life of fulfillment, happiness, and meaning. This model can also be applied to institutions to develop programs to help people develop new cognitive and emotional tools.

But knowing where to focus can be challenging.

"Generally, we have a consistent set of values, but we are constantly changing the way we rank those values based on what happens in our life," professional coach Stella Grizont told us on the Curiosity Podcast. Grizont was one of the first 150 people in the world to receive a master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology.

"You need to get really clear on describing your values. And values are the guiding principles for how you behave or the decisions you make," Grizont said. "Once we become aware of what it is that drives us, then we realize there are micro moments, opportunities [in our everyday life] for us to deepen them. Your most awesome life might be right there, but you're not always seeing it."

Grizont added that "a big mistake that I see people doing is trying to figure out 'what do I do next?' And I think the better question to ask is, 'How do I want to be?' Typically people will find that there are actually multiple possibilities they haven't explored yet because they haven't asked the right questions."

A Delicate Imbalance

For a country founded on the principles of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," the United States of America could do a better job of being happy. In 2007, the USA ranked third in happiness. In 2016, it was ranked 19th. An imbalance of PERMA may help explain why.

"In America, we've been very focused on 'doing' and success and achievement, and less so on relationships and connection," Grizont explained. "We see this when people move all around the world to focus on their career, and they leave behind family and friends and they have to start over. We're over-indexing on achievement. What happens at a party? One of the first questions you ask is, 'So what do you do for a living?' That is very American, and we work a lot of hours, and our relationships suffer. And people really matter."

The "relationships" facet of PERMA has also become more difficult to achieve as we increasingly rely on technology to communicate. "We're just not connecting on a real level. We're liking things on Facebook and we're texting, but in sociological terms, that's called 'social snacking.' It's not the full meal," Grizont added. "You're not getting really satisfied. You're not sitting at the Thanksgiving table and feasting on the abundance of love around you; you're getting a pretzel. In America, we have to find our way back to being face-to-face and connecting on a real level."

She continued: "More than 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, so we're missing so much data when we're not looking at each other. There's all this invisible data we just miss when it's a text or a 'like.' There's a lot of bio-feedback: When we're experiencing rapport with someone, for example, and we're walking, our steps start to synchronize; our breath starts to synchronize; and when we experience moments of love, our thoughts even synchronize. Our brain scans will actually mirror each other."

So if the United States wants to find itself among the top ranks of next year's World Happiness Report, then Americans may want to start focusing on relationships with their family and friends. "I think in America, we just have to — and I know this sounds so simple or ridiculous or trite, but — we've just got to learn how to love each other and accept each other," Grizont suggested. "That could really heal a lot."

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Read Martin Seligman's entire book on the topic by picking up "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

To learn even more about positive psychology and the science of happiness, listen to our conversation with Stella Grizont on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

Written by Cody Gough August 3, 2017

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