August 5, 2020

PERMA — The Scientific Way to Find Happiness

Happiness is a universal human goal.

And, while most of us are cheerful some — if not most — of the time, we don’t always know reliable ways to find happiness. That’s where the PERMA model can help. 

Sure, we may know some shortcuts, like eating ice-cream and watching Netflix, but such ways to find happiness are shallow and shortlived. It’s fun for a while, but we know it’s not the secret to long-lasting satisfaction and contentment.

It seems weird that many of us don’t have a clear idea of how to achieve something as important as long-term happiness.

Society likes to sell us on the dream that material possessions and fancy goods can bring us happiness. They may bring us pleasure in the short-term, but once the novelty wears off, you get bored with your latest gadget, car, coat, or pair of sneakers. Then you need to buy something new to maintain the high, like a junkie chasing their next hit.

That’s not healthy or sustainable.

Happiness may seem readily available and easy to obtain short-term. But deep, lasting satisfaction — the kind that makes you feel content and at peace with the world — can be elusive.

Because here’s the thing; finding happiness is counter-intuitive. It can’t be bought or owned. It is not something tangible you can hold on to. You discover it indirectly by doing things for which happiness is not the primary goal. 

That’s right; happiness, which is so integral to living a fulfilled life, is a by-product of doing other things. There are many ways to find happiness but you can’t go chasing it. You have to create the conditions for it and let it come to you.

The psychology of happiness

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who was instrumental in bringing positive psychology into the mainstream in the nineties. His research into happiness led him to develop the PERMA model, which identifies the main factors that contribute to a person’s wellbeing and happiness as being:

Positive emotions, such as satisfaction, pride, excitement, awe, happiness, and joy.

Engagement in activities that build on personal interests. Regular involvement in tasks that lead to a flow state by offering the right level of challenge.

Relationships. Receiving, sharing, and spreading positivity with other people.

Meaning. Finding meaning and pursuing a purpose in things that are greater than oneself.

Accomplishments. The pursuit of success and mastery. These can be individual or community-based, fun, or work-related.

Seligman advised that you should spend your time pursuing activities that embrace these qualities. They will create the conditions that will bring lasting happiness and fulfillment. He emphasized that you should engage in these pursuits for their own sake rather than for the express purpose of improving your wellbeing. His key point is that happiness is not something that should be deliberately aimed for; rather, it is the product of a life well-lived.

If you want to be happy, do not make happiness the goal that your actions are centered around. Instead, focus on living a life where you are engaged in meaningful tasks and have healthy relationships with people you care about. That is what will create the conditions that allow you to find contentment along the road.

Putting it into practice

The PERMA model is a wonderful auditing tool to use if you want to get more out of life. Look through the five areas it covers and see which one(s) you would like to have more going on in. Work towards those and you should naturally become happier in the long-term as a result. 

Here are some specific, simple, high-leverage actions that I have found to be of great benefit when seeking fulfillment (ways to find happiness, if you will):

Direct your energy into accomplishing things — big or small — that feel rewarding. Engage in activities that allow you to experience flow states and develop your skills. Work patiently, incrementally, on long-term goals. Don’t seek easy fixes and short-term dopamine hits. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Be proactive about dealing with things that impact negatively on your life. Don’t complain.

Be an active member of a community. That may be your family, a friendship group, your local community, a professional network, or an online group based around a common interest. Help people in that community. Doing things for others is one of the most effective ways to make yourself feel good.

Write down something you are grateful for every day, either in a journal or your phone’s notes app. Reflecting on the positive things in your life and acknowledging them daily is a proven mood elevator that supports a long-term positive outlook on life. Think of gratitude as the currency of happiness. Or, in the words of Eckhart Tolle:

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”

Don’t try to change things you have no influence over. Focus on the things you have control over and where you have agency.

Stop focusing on yourself. Be curious about other people and the world around you. Pay attention to the little things.

Practice forgiveness. Not just with others but with yourself. 

The cumulative effect of a life lived this way should be a feeling of wellbeing, contentment, and gratitude. The elements of happiness are simple in principle but not necessarily easy to maintain in practice. 

Still, you don’t need to be perfect. Just do what you can when you can, and don’t be hard on yourself. Give yourself permission to switch off occasionally and forgive yourself when you fall short of your expectations. That will be plenty.