With the release of his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman presents his new model for well-being under the codename PERMA. PERMA is an acronym for the five pillars of well-being that Seligman has identified through decades of research and thought on the science of human flourishing: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and (the newest addition) accomplishment.
My first reaction when I learned of the PERMA model was that it neglected to consider the importance of physical health to well-being. Movement, exercise, fitness, mobility, touch, and so on are all physical aspects of life that are critical to well-being, and yet they seem to be left out of the PERMA model. Did Seligman allow his psychologist experience to narrow his field of vision to only the psychological domain?
I had the opportunity to hear Martin Seligman explain how he chose the 5 pillars of PERMA at the recent Leading to Wellbeing conference held at George Mason University. Each of these five components is something that people pursue intrinsically and independently of the others. According to Seligman, people pursue meaning, engagement and accomplishment for their own sakes, and not only to experience more positive emotions.
Seligman mentioned that he had heard a lot of criticism for the absence of physical health in his model, and he thought long and hard about including it. But he believes that physical health is pursued ultimately as a means to one of the PERMA ends, and not as an end of itself. I think this is still good fodder for debate, and one could argue that we have a need for physical well-being that transcends the psychological aspects of PERMA. But it does provide a clearer framework to understand the PERMA model, and to begin to ask questions of how elements of physical health and PERMA might interact.
What would Physical PERMA Look Like?
Positive Sensations: People need and want to feel good physical sensations. We yearn for physical experiences that feel good in the body. We enjoy orgasms, chocolate, massage, the sun on our face, the wind through our hair and the sand between our toes. Positive physical sensations are some of the biggest contributors to experiencing positive emotions.
Engagement (Physical Flow): It is relatively easy to think of moments of flow that can occur in different domains. Some flow experiences are purely psychological, intellectual, or social. But there is clearly an opportunity to experience physical states of flow by becoming engaged in challenging physical activity. Supporting Seligman’s idea that well-being ultimately comes through psychological pathways, Csikszentmihalyi noted in his book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience., that “flow cannot be a purely physical process: muscles and brain must be equally involved.” See my article on Flow here.
Physical Relationships: Thinking about the physical side of relationships brings up an interesting question. Science has clearly shown the importance of connections and relationships for psychological well-being. But one could argue that people also need and intrinsically seek out physical contact and sexual contact independently of their need for social support and interaction. This is an area where the psychological and physical aspects are so intermeshed, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Meaning (Physical Purpose): People often attach their senses of identity to their physical appearances, for example their body weights or their racial appearances. Some suggest that physical appearance has a huge impact on the development of personality. There is also a sense of physical well-being based on functional health, that is, how our physical capabilities either help or hinder the lifestyle we want to live and the goals we want to pursue.
Accomplishment: The idea of physical functional health leads to the possibilities for physical accomplishment. People pursue physical accomplishment both directly in terms of health and fitness goals they have for their own bodies, and indirectly by training their bodies to help them achieve other physically demanding objectives in work and in play.
Models are Limited
Categorical models like PERMA are helpful for summarizing complex and interrelated theories and distilling them into something that is easier to digest and apply to the real world. But it is hard to contain the complexity of human well-being in a simple model. I still tend to think that there are physical aspects of well-being that warrant attention independent of the psychological aspects, much as I could argue that lower life forms intrinsically seek out physical fitness and survival even without our advanced, emotionally expressive brains.
Identifying how physical well-being relates to flourishing through the other five pillars does not disqualify it from possibly warranting its own pillar. These “pillars” are more matrixed than they are categorical. In his new book, Seligman shows how several of the pillars can be related to all the others. Relationships are tied to Meaning and Engagement, Accomplishment is tied to Positive Emotions and so forth. PERMA is more of a latticework than a series of independent pillars. And there may still be room for physical health to be woven into the framework.
Physical Fitness Belongs
I still argue for physical fitness to be included for one simple reason. Imagine a person who could achieve PERMA through engaging in an online video game. The video game is designed to be enjoyable to play, creating positive emotions, and being completely engaging. The game is social, so meaningful relationships are formed, and people work together in teams bonding online and creating real friendships that translate to the real world. And the goal of the game is to solve real world problems such as ending poverty, or hunger, or pollution, so there is a real sense of meaning and accomplishment that comes from playing the game.
But the person who gets all of their PERMA from playing this game would never have to move their body, never have to go outside and connect with nature, and never have to touch another human being. Can joyful, engaged, friendly, meaningful, highly accomplished pepple be considered to be flourishing while allowing their bodies to waste away? I don’t think so.
What do you think?
References and Recommended Reading
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial. Quotation from page 98.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Pillars courtesy of Wally Gobetz
Baby Massage courtesy of Valentina Powers
Surfer courtesy of Jeremy McCarthy
Cat Circle of love courtesy of Glosen Teh
Climbing Mt. Fuji courtesy of Ken Lee
Roman’s Amazing Dad, age 77 courtesy of rita la vida
Great post, Jeremy. I was just discussing this exact question with a few current and former MAPP students earlier this week. Thanks for writing it up publicly so we can start a wider discussion.
I tend to side with the first of your arguments here – that well-being can be experienced and assessed on two dimensions, mental and physical. I’ve tried working out what PERMA looks like on the physical dimension, and I think you raise some good examples here. I’m not quite sure about meaning and purpose, though. I don’t think it’s tied up with physical appearance/identity, but the functional health idea could work. Then again, it could be that PERMA is not the right acronym for physical well-being or flourishing. Just as we have different markers of physical and mental illness, it seems logical that we would have different markers of physical and mental well-being (with some overlap, of course). I think Marty calls them “health assets” in his new book.
I’m still pretty convinced that physical health should NOT be a separate element of PERMA, though, and I think your example helped me clarify my reasons for why. Where do personal values and goals play into determining whether someone is flourishing? If someone values four of the five elements of well-being but not the fifth, does that mean they have no chance of flourishing if they don’t actively pursue all five? Think of cultural differences here – some cultures don’t place nearly the same value on accomplishment as we do here in the U.S. (and some put more, obviously). If some individuals in that culture decide not to pursue accomplishment, if they instead fill their lives with “only” positive emotions, engagement, relationships, and meaning, are we to say that they are not flourishing? Similarly, what of low affect individuals or cultures, where positive emotions take a big back seat to accomplishment and meaning?
That brings me back to your example. Let’s say this individual is striving to become the best player in the world at this particular game. She’s got grit in droves, and she’s putting in well over 10,000 hours developing expertise at this game. If she is personally satisfied with that goal – if it meets all of her personal values – are we to say that she’s not flourishing merely because she’s not using her body as much? Mind you, she’s still likely developing extremely great hand-eye coordination and expert dexterity (and with the new video game systems, she could be moving quite a bit). But even if she isn’t, do we just throw out the rest of her well-being?
I think a counter-example would be an individual with an incurable physical illness or disability. Does that person have no chance of flourishing because his body is wasting away even though his mind might be sharpening and growing?
Marty says the mark of an element of well-being is that it is something that a significant number of people, a significant percentage of the time, pursue that element “for its own sake.” Even if it doesn’t bring any of the other elements with it. I think that implied in this argument is that we pursue greater and greater amounts of it “north of zero”, as we like to say in positive psychology sometimes. I’m not convinced that health is one of those things. Yes, we pursue more health when we are sick so that we can return to “normal health”. And yes, many of us often pursue even greater health beyond just being not sick. However, I think that health beyond zero, or fitness as we tend to call it once we get past the zero point, is “functional health” like you’ve described above. It is “fit”-ness to be able to do the things we want to do, to derive the downstream benefits of having a more physically fit body. To be able to accomplish more, to be able to experience the joys of physical activity, etc.
Apologies for the long post – but gratitude for getting me thinking this morning and for prompting me to write some of my thoughts out.
Hi Jeremy, I am interested in the comment “According to Seligman, people pursue meaning, engagement and accomplishment for their own sakes, and not only to experience more positive emotions.”
I wonder how much is driven by positive emotions and how much by other factors – I wonder what these other factors are and how important they are in relation to positive emotion – I suspect positive emotions are the key driver. Perhaps Perma needs to be emphasised with a capital P.
I’d also have to say the guru has it wrong re exercise – and what about sleep and nutrition. These are all enablers that help you with PERMA. Simply put without these in place you are unlikely to have the physical or emotional energy to even contemplate PERMA. How many people do you know who are too tired to maintain relationships etc?
I think your argument is wrong for the following reason: IF you could live all your life in this game, eat through it, etc. and live until 100 years without sickness, just very incredibly weak, you would be ok!! It is only because we want to avoid sickness (bad feelings) and dead, and because we have to do other things appart from playing, that we would want to do excercise. IF really your game satisfies all of PERM in a high level of satisfaction!
Jeremy, I agree with you and admire your post for bringing out all the reasons why physical elements should be included. As a thriving senior citizen, I know how important physical movement is because everyday we seniors lose a little bit of our abilities as we age.
The only way to be flourishing is to spend some time in movement every day, in fact considerable time must be consciously devoted to using our bodies. If we don’t use it, we will lose it even more rapidly. This isn’t just a matter of ‘feeling good’ and it’s certainly no longer a case of ‘looking good!’
Exercise, whether in a gym, walking in nature, or in daily tennis as I like to do, is not a luxury, it’s a must-do if we want to sustain functioning and vibrancy. It’s the number one way to keep our brains healthy as well. What good is psychological well-being if you can’t think straight or remember what you were going to say? Without regular physical movement, the brain ages more quickly.
Games are great, especially for the mind and even socially, but sitting at a computer all day is bad for your heart and other muscles. You may flourish in all areas, but if you don’t pay attention to physical needs you can’t sustain the other dimensions. We are whole human beings, not divided up into pillars or categories of functioning. It’s all connected and you can’t have the other 5 without physical well-being being accounted for.
Sorry, I think Seligman missed the boat on this point. It’s brilliant work for sure, but he underestimates the importance of physical needs.
What a great, thoughtful response!
I agree with you about the physical as an essential component to flourishing.
We are, after all, first and foremost, physical beings.
While the psycho-social world we inhabit is, in most hierarchical schema, at a more elevated level than the physical, our genetic history shows we are more than 98% identical to our simian relatives and, I believe upwards of 90% identical to plants.
If we have a neurological disorder, such as muscular distrophy or diabetes or are morbidly overweight, or in constant pain, these impact our (and our loved ones) ability to thrive. I think we can thrive without hitting all of the areas, and there is clearly synergy among them. Thriving in at least one area is clearly necessary but thriving in some, but not all, may be sufficient
As to the relationship among Dr. Seligman’s pillars, let’s remember that such constructs are just that, constructs, maps to a territory.
Alfred Korzybski, quoted by Gregory Bateson in “Mind and Nature a Necessary Unity” (E.P. Dutton ’79 pg. 30) asserts that with regard to language in general and conceptual schema in particular that “The map is not the territory and the name is not the thing named”.
Bateson, Korzybski and others point out that language is an attempt to map, create meaning, from the sensory data we have access to. We make distinctions and name things and construct meanings among the things we name. We are born into a world of social constructs which forms the context of our world and we create our own meaningful world in within those bounds.
However, there is a universe of phenomena that exists prior to our map of it, that is the territory. That is the reality of the phenomenal unarticulated whole of existence that exists independent of human cognition of it.
I am sure your viewpoint of someone concerned with spa experiences, the overwhelmingly positive physical experience of a spa, as pre-verbal, sensory experience is quite convincing that the physical is an important gateway to a sense of thriving.
So yes, I think the physical world is fundamental both as an additional conceptual pillar in Dr. Seligman’s very useful schema and perhaps as the figurative and literal foundation of our sense of ourselves.
Again thanks for your insights and photos.
Hi Reb, Really great comments and questions that stimulate a lot of thought. I think you bring up a great point about values but I think my perspective is that these things are for the most part are universally valued. To your point, however, people may prioritize certain pillars over others but having a life rich in all of these areas would probably indicate greater overall flourishing.
I don’t mean to say that someone with a physical disability or illness would not flourish, but ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, the person without a disability or illness would (almost by definition) have more flourishing than the person who is limited in this pillar. However many people who have limitations in one area (or lesser values for one area) may be able to achieve greater flourishing because of their emphasis on other areas.
Oz, I agree with you on the importance of sleep and nutrition, which I would include in the physical pillar. I’m not sure about how to quantify or “weight” positive emotions over others. I think Seligman’s point is that each of the PERMA pillars is based on intrinsic motivation for their own sake and not solely as a pathway to another pillar.
I didn’t really respond to your “north of zero” comment . . . only because I am still thinking about it. I think this is a very good point and maybe this is where the individual values come in. I like the way Marty describes it which is not so much that everyone actively pursues all of these things, but these are are all things that “everyone can say yes to more of.” Thanks Reb!
Javier, I agree with you. You could do that and you would be “ok.” The question is, “could you be better?” I think you could.
Patsi, thank you for your comments and for reminding us of ahow the element of time might play a role in this and how flourishing extends across the lifespan. We have to ask ourselves if we are only concerned with the quality of life or the quantity as well. These seem multiplicative in some way so it is really the quality of the quantity and vice versa.
I’m so pleased you wrote this article and raised the topic of physical health. When I work with clients I include a number of key ‘areas’ or themes which they might want to consider when working on improving their well-being / thriving / flourishing. I include the physical component because so often I have found that the physical wellbeing supports / enables other areas of their life to improve. E.g. a client who found that their lack of exercise affected their interest in work, they were grumpy in meetings, a less effective manager.
Your message reminds us that the components of overall psychological wellbeing are not separate ‘legs’ – they intertwine and intersect in different ways for different people. Some of those ‘legs’ become actions to achieve success in the other areas.
Whether physical complies with the PERMA criteria or not, when it comes to practical application, we can’t ignore the interconnections. I will continue to leave it in my little (non-evidence based) framework.
Thanks again – really enjoying this discussion!
Loved your article, Jeremy! In particular, loved the video game analogy. I agree fully with the argument, and I’m also on your page re: your response to Javier. To tie in back in with Reb’s question in the first post above (are we to say she is not flourishing merely because she is not using her body as much?), let me answer a big and bold YES!
Sitting all day is completely unnatural and devastating for the body on many levels. It leads to sleep difficulties, poor nutrition, low morale and physical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Since we burn next to zero calories while sitting, it is also likely to lead to obesity and its wide ranging host of undesirable consequences. See my article “Why Couch Potatos Are Tired” here on PPND for more info on this.
So I’m with you. Flourishing is a big word and a big goal. We’re not only talking about doing well here; we’re talking about being much better than that! And to me, much better isn’t achievable without paying attention to the fact that we are physical beings who need to move!
Moving is freedom, and it is joy. Anyone who thinks exercise only serves to avoid illness should rejoice: lots of good things for them to discover ahead!
jeremy – you might find this article interesting in the context that HRV is a measure of physical health and is a gateway to the benefits of positive emotions.
It’s time to move on from limited paradigms like PERMA
Here is the link to Marie-Josee’s “Couch Potatoes” article: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/marie-josee-salvas/2010062411993. Also check out today’s article by Theodore Cheung on mind-body dualism https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/theodore-c-k-cheung/2011051817409. Is there a theme beginning here? Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about mind and body as two separate entities.
Really interesting discussion here. Thanks again, Jeremy, for starting it.
I 100% agree with everyone who has argued that physical interventions are a fantastic pathway to getting more well-being in our lives. There’s no denying that, and in practice I recommend it all the time (including to myself, when I’m not exercising nearly enough).
I still see it as a means to an end, though, much the same way that character strengths are. Character strengths have been a hallmark of positive psych interventions for years now, and there are piles and piles of research showing that exercising your strengths leads to all sorts of well-being outcomes. Marty knows this, yet the strengths don’t show up as an element of PERMA. Instead I think he says that they are underneath or around all of the pillars, because they are resources that can help us get more of each of the other elements.
This strikes me as the better analogy for physical health – it is a gateway for amplifying all of the other types of well-being in our lives (and a critically important gateway, at that) rather than being something we pursue simply for its own sake. I don’t argue that physical health doesn’t have a place in well-being or flourishing – I just don’t think the place for it is in the same category as character strengths rather than the same category as the PERMA pillars.
Thanks Reb, Really good comments. I appreciate you taking the time to debate because I think you are representing Seligman’s views on the subject and expressing them more thoroughly and eloquently than I did in my article. But I still think physical health and fitness is different than character strengths. For example, no matter how far down you go on the food chain, living creatures have a need to use, exercise and nourish their physical beings. In my opinion those needs would still exist, even in creatures whose brains may be too limited to have feelings about meaning, accomplishment or flow.
It seems to me this difference of opinion is a philisophical one, and depends on whether you believe in a dualist notion that who you are is something independent from your body, or that your body is part and parcel of what makes you you. I tend to believe the latter, but I can see how there is a sense in which we (and our wellbeing) can be greater than our physical bodies.
This discussion is really fun!
I again agree with you Jeremy. The 2 main things that differentiate plants and animals are 1-whether the creature has a brain and 2-whether it can move willingly. Plants are fed from the sun, the rain and the soil, so they don’t need to move. Consequently, evolution didn’t need to give them a brain. Animals (including humans) on the other hand have to find their water and food, and for that, we needed to be able to think (brain), and to get there (movement). Thanks to more recent research, we also now know that more movement leads to enhance cognitive function. So in my view, as long as you’re not a plant, movement is as important a part of your ability to flourish as your thought processes are.
In fact, whenever I find myself stressed or upset, a good jog usually brings me back to a better mental state much more efficiently and effectively than any amount of cognitive behavioral skills ever have.
On that note, given positive psychology likes to focus on what works rather than on what doesn’t, I’ve always wondered why CBT was considered part of it. When the problem lies with our thoughts, focusing on deviant thoughts really plunges us in an area of weakness. Exercise seems to be a more positive psychology-friendly way to go about handling poorly-managed emotional energy. (Now of course I’m not talking about serious traumas, but about making big deals out of manageable setbacks.)
MarieJ I have always wondered the same thing re CBT. Of interest is research suggesting that the B is more important. Interestingly B, like exercise, is dynamic. I suspect the essence of pp is about action which explains why hope and zest always come out on top in strengths work
I think you make some excellent points. Particularly, it’s hard to separate mind and body. After all, without a body to house the brain and support the workings of the mind, there -is- no mind. Philosophy and religion aside, when we die, the mind dies as well. Even if we could, as in the science fiction series Dollhouse, download our personalities to computer hardware, that hardware is simply a more static body. Equally, without the nervous system to guide the body, what actions can the body take? The relationship is wholly symbiotic. So both sides must be considered.
Your video game analogy is particularly interesting, however. It perhaps underestimates the power of virtual existence & identity. While you and I and the others commenting here are aware of the destructive power of a sedentary lifestyle, I’m not certain that those virtual worlds aren’t capable of so engaging the human mind that though still tied to our bodies, the body becomes a liability to certain people. The body is simply a burden, or at best, a vehicle that brings them to that virtual reality. These cases would, had they the opportunity, happily give up their bodies à la the anime Serial Experiment Lain and truly exist virtually.
My initial reaction is probably much as yours, imagining such cases feel this way -because- they’re ignoring the physical aspect of their nature as well as other aspects of PERMA. Their explanatory nature, in Seligman’s words, would be pessimistic. Yet I think that there is more to be explored here. Do we defend our undeniable synergy of mind/body simply because there is no other alternative, even for these virtual reality-dependent personalities? Or do we admit that much in the way of ascetics and yogis, they’ve found a way to transcend their corporeal form through a “manufactured” flow experience?
Hi Morgan, I love your comment and it definitely gives an interesting perspective to think about. I suspect you have hit on the thinking behind why Seligman didn’t include physical fitness in his model of flourishing. It reminds me of Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on education where he says that academics only think of their bodies as “a way to get their brains to meetings.”
Marty’s point is ultimately that physical fitness is not pursued intrinsically but in order to accomplish one of the other goals. Your example definitely challenges mine since in the case of the video game addict, they may still desire physical fitness, but only as a way of eliminating physical distractions from the playing of the game.
It could come down to an interesting philisophical debate around whether your body is a part of who you are. I agree with you that it is “wholly symbiotic” and so all of these definitions and categories are interesting for academic discussion, but don’t really define us holistically. Thanks for the interesting food for thought. (By the way this ties in to the article I’m writing for my psychologyofwellbeing.com blog next week on defining the “spirit” in “body, mind, spirit.”)
Even though we do have the cases of virtual addicts and others who forego the physical to whatever extremes for whatever reasons, I still feel that for most of us there certainly is a balance to be had between the body and mind in order to truly flourish. And it’s possible (perhaps likely) that for some of us our center of gravity lies in different positions along the scale of physical and mental. Yet, while virtual reality addicts are a growing population, (should we include television in that?), most people are probably closer to the middle of the scale where balance is concerned and probably at their best when both aspects of self are flourishing.
Admittedly, these are mostly my own suppositions. I think that in the long run your image of latticework may prove the most apt. Perhaps an archway with a PERMA keystone would make another appropriate metaphor.
I look forward to reading your article next week.
Great article! I am doing my dissertation on authentic happiness – I guess now it’s PERMA, and will make note of your article as I am studying marathon runners! I am hoping a few of you might be able to help me make some points…I have loads of research pointing to the fact that happier folks enjoy better health, but anything showing that healthier folks are happier? If you know of any studies to this effect, please forward!!! (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post here.
Many many thanks…And thanks to all the readers for their insightful comments which I am currently ‘digesting’.
Thanks Louise, I don’t know of any specific citations on that but I’m sure you will be able to find some. I now there is research showing how resilient happiness is to health issues but health problems can interfere with quality of life in a number of ways by disrupting economics, social relationships, limiting mobility, pain, pharmaceutical side effects etc. I look forward to hearing more about your dissertation.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really like all the comments.
I am in a very similar situation as Louise. I have just started analyzing my data which was collected in Brazil. It is about the mental benefits of green exercise near water. My supervisor wants me to use PERMA in my dissertation. I am trying to understand how I can connect it to my data once PERMA dos not involve physical activity. But the benefits of physical activity would involve PERMA. For example, Positive emotions: participants in my research have felt positive after having had contact with nature ( a simple walk).
Engagement: engage the life with physical activity. They believe that the contact with nature can inspire them.
Relationships: Participants stated that relationships have improved.
Meaning: This is a tough one. When we think about different cultures. For example, in Brazil, people are very religion. When they have contact with nature, they feel better, a sense of freedom which they also assimilated to the church. They believe that the need of dedicate them time every Sunday going to the church is very important for their life. In this situation, I would related their spirituality or faith as a “meaning”.
Accomplishment: there was an increase in motivation and determination after some goals were accomplished.
This is a qualitative research using IPA.
Here is another article I wrote about the experience of Samadhi that can occur in nature. It might help you to connect the M from PERMA to your research: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201207/starry-nights-and-samadhi.html. All the best!