What does it mean to “be happy”? When I think back to the times in my life that I have said the words “I’m so happy”, I recall a mishmash of experiences. For example:
- Looking into my beloved’s eyes on a lazy Sunday morning
- Having a really nice slice of cake and cup of coffee
- Achieving a new move during my pole fitness class
- Cocktails and dancing with friends
If you were to look at my list you would think that this is a pretty random array of situations that may, or may not be similar for you. Happiness can seemingly be evoked by many things, so how then can we study it to understand any patterns and learn about how to create more happiness in our own lives?
The psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that happiness is made up of five different strands, all of which must be satisfied in order to experience lasting happiness or well being. This is known as the PERMA model:
Positive emotion - any positive emotion, for example, pleasure, gratitude, contentment, love.
Engagement - that feeling when you are intensely absorbed in a moment or task.
Positive Relationships - with friends, family and colleagues.
Meaning - can be different things for different people, but often it’s to do with the bigger picture and serving something more than just ourselves.
- Achievement - striving to be better and mastering some kind of skill.
Exactly how we meet each of these five strands will be different for every person, you will have your own unique way of satisfying each need. There are no right or wrong answers, but instinctively, you will know which activities or situations feel right for you.
Sounds easy right? Just meet all of your PERMA needs and voila! A one-way ticket to happy city...
Wait! Before you go away thinking you've cracked it, the PERMA model is actually more complex than it looks. This is because the five strands can oppose each other, it is very difficult to achieve all of them at once.
For example, even if you have the most amazing Relationship with your significant other, they can still be a pain in the bum which stops you from feeling Positive emotions.
Serving other people may be Meaningful, but it may not always be a Positive experience and it might leave you with less time to work on your Achievements or Relationships.
Achieving something worthwhile usually requires having to go through a lot of boring practice and multiple failures which can make you feel a million miles away from Positive.
Even my happy situations from my happiness list can oppose or block one another. The momentary pleasure of cake can undermine my gym and health goals. Cocktails and dancing with friends may mean that I’m looking into the toilet bowl on a Sunday morning, rather than my beloved’s eyes...
There is no one thing that will make us happy. Indeed, it is both prudent and liberating to think that everything can be both a source of pleasure and pain.
How then are we meant to navigate this complex picture? It helps to recognise that happiness is a constantly moving and unbalanced state, not a target or a destination. Thinking about our activities as different PERMA concepts can help to stimulate that balance.
It is sort of like spinning plates where each PERMA strand represents a different plate and the goal is to keep all five of the plates spinning at the same time. Spending time doing enjoyable things gets the P plate spinning. Spending time absorbed in a task gets the E plate spinning...you get where I am going with this.
When you stop focusing on your P or E or R or M or A plate it will fall. In other words, you can't just do one thing and have that plate spin indefinitely. When you stop actively working on it, it will keep spinning for a while but then it will lose momentum and hit the floor.
Where plates fall, unhappiness follows.
For example, the dedicated employee might Achieve fantastic career success but have no friends or close family to share it with because he neglected to nurture his Relationships. Or the student that always chooses to party instead of studying simply because she can’t say no to Positive, fun things, might struggle to Achieve good grades by the time graduation rolls around.
The art of happiness according to Seligman, is knowing which plates are becoming unbalanced and trying to catch them before they fall.
Thank you for reading! If you have enjoyed this post please share it with a friend and let me know in the comments below, which plates do you spend too much time on? Which are you at risk of dropping?