Insights from positive psychology reveal the factors that can help people be happier and more satisfied.
Wellbeing has many facets. One theory of wellbeing – set out by Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of positive psychology, in his 2012 book Flourish – identified five key elements which underpin people’s happiness and life satisfaction. These are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment, or PERMA for short. Psychologists have since built on this, adding a plus – healthy behaviours – which also contribute to wellbeing.
Though we live in a complex and demanding world, people may experience higher levels of wellbeing if they focus on these important factors in life.
Mind your mindset
To improve their wellbeing, people must first believe they can make a change. Psychologists have found that the beliefs we hold about our abilities and potential are predictive of future outcomes, including wellbeing. The renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has identified two key belief systems that relate to these beliefs: fixed versus growth mindset.
If we hold a fixed mindset, we assume that our character, intelligence, and abilities are static and can’t be changed. This could manifest in us believing that we cannot, for instance, influence our future wellbeing.
A growth mindset is one in which we see we have capacity to change. We may, for instance, believe that wellbeing can be achieved through increased effort and skill development. Research has shown that a growth mindset allows people to navigate stress and challenges better and can lead to higher levels of wellbeing.
Values – or what we consider important in our life – have a big bearing on our life and wellbeing. Values can act like an internal compass, pointing us in the right direction. Research shows that when we set goals and take action aligned to what is most important to us, we experience higher levels of wellbeing, personal fulfilment and happiness.
The world around us overloads us with messages telling us what we should see as important. In modern society fame, wealth, image, popularity and success are highly valued. These derive from external world and are often called extrinsic values.
The pursuit of these goals can sometimes mean that our health, community connections, wellbeing and relationships are overlooked. These are known as our intrinsic values – the ones that matter most to many people.
Research has shown that when we place an overwhelming emphasis on extrinsic, as opposed to intrinsic values, wellbeing suffers. Engaging in pursuits and activities that regularly connect us to intrinsic values is important. Mindfulness meditation, connection to nature, community involvement and meaningful relationships are activities that can help us to connect with our values.
Psychologists who study motivation and behaviour change find that to achieve lasting change, people must first bring an intent, thought or goal to this change of direction, and then activate this intention through actions or behaviours.
Focussing on and taking action to promote the six elements of PERMA+ mentioned below can be a way to enhance wellbeing :
- Positive Emotion: engaging in hobbies, interests and activities that elicit laughter, smiling, fun, play and positive feelings.
- Engagement: identifying personal strengths and passions, and activating these through purposeful activity in your work, education and personal life.
- Relationships: building healthy relationships and connections with others based upon shared interests, values and mutual respect for each other’s needs.
- Meaning: identifying and connecting to the factors that provide meaning and purpose in your life, and finding ways to express these through action.
- Accomplishment: setting achievable and meaningful goals, linked to what is personally important, and celebrating both the process and outcome of these tasks.
- Plus healthy behaviour: health-focused action, such as undertaking physical activity, improving sleep quality, focussing on nutrition and cultivating positive stress management techniques and an optimistic worldview.
For most, cultivating our capacity for optimal wellbeing is a journey. Holding a growth mindset with an ongoing connection to intrinsic values, and taking action on the PERMA+ elements can help promote better wellbeing. The journey can sometimes be difficult. But if you are experiencing lower wellbeing over a sustained period, or are suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety or mood problems then seek professional support.