Making a PERMA change

Ella Rhodes reports from Professor Martin Seligman's keynote at the Society's Annual Conference.

While Martin Seligman is well-known for his recent work on positive psychology, he trained and grew up with the work of Freud and Schopenhauer still the basis of much thought in the field: it was assumed that the best we could hope for was to not be miserable. At the start of a rousing keynote Seligman suggested that had he encouraged psychologists and politicians to focus on wellbeing 30 years ago, most would have walked out of the lecture theatre.

Happiness and wellbeing aren’t the absence of misery, Seligman said. As a therapist he encountered many previously-depressed patients whose depression measures ended up at zero post-treatment, but rather than being happy these people seemed empty to him. Building positive emotion, engagement and meaning are completely different from getting rid of sadness and anxiety – they stand in the way but don’t alleviate these things, he said.

Seligman and his colleagues had been focusing on eliminating the negative but now his theory of wellbeing encompasses five elements, summed up in the mnemonic ‘PERMA’.

The first of these is Positive emotion. But happiness isn’t the full story: as Seligman pointed out, there’s no changing curmudgeons into cheerleaders. To truly understand wellbeing, Seligman says, we must consider Engagement and flow, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.

Seligman said psychologists should be helping clients to build all those elements of PERMA over and above eliminating disorders. Each of the elements are measurable and teachable, he added, and researchers can even trawl a person’s social media feeds for their use of PERMA or non-PERMA-related words to seemingly reveal quite a lot of telling information.

There are many ways which we can apparently boost our wellbeing, and PERMA. Seligman said there were around 10 exercises which 10 months later have been shown to reduce depression and increase life satisfaction over and above placebo level. One of these is the now-famous ‘Three Good Things’ exercise, whereby people write down three things that went well during the day each evening.

Regarding relationships, Seligman said sex and marriage therapy was the worst kind to do: the outcomes are abysmal, and the couples lie to you and each other! ‘The one thing you can do is have them form an alliance against you!’ Marriage therapy often teaches couples how to fight better, but there’s been a move to looking at how couples celebrate together instead. Seligman gave the example of a wife coming home after a promotion: rather than ignoring her success, or congratulating her and moving onto another topic, research suggests asking deep questions about this success and her strengths isn’t only good for the wife or individual but for the relationship itself.

Seligman said meaning, within the context of PERMA, meant belonging to, and building, something bigger than yourself. To achieve accomplishment, he added, self-discipline and grit were far more important than talent. How is PERMA now used? Seligman and his colleagues, as part of the International Positive Education Network, began helping teachers learn how to use PERMA and integrate it into their teaching. One of Seligman’s colleagues has looked at the effects of these programmes in Mexico, Bhutan and Peru and found improvements in wellbeing and results on standardised tests. Similarly the US Army now has all its Drill Sergeants teach PERMA to new recruits.

Seligman said it was important for governments to take note that people vote in line with their wellbeing – in Donald Trump’s election victory, for example, people who were struggling in life voted for him. Seligman said life satisfaction accounted for about 8 per cent of the variance of Trump’s victory. He concluded that while he’s in support of a Psychology for alleviating misery, the subject, and politics, needed to be about more than the zero scores seen in recovered patients. Seligman said we are in the midst of a secular and religious vacuum, and the building of human wellbeing could fill that. 

- At the Conference, we interviewed Professor Seligman for a future edition.

You can find lots more coverage from the Society's Annual Conference here, including more about the online world, and coming up in the July print edition. Find out about our 2018 event.  

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