As busy, stressed-out professionals we all want to increase our well-being and feel better. Yet finding time for self-care can be extremely challenging, and even if you can carve out an hour somewhere, where should we be targeting our well-being efforts? Which areas of our lives should we focus our precious time and energy on to get maximum well-being results?
There are hundreds of activities and strategies that have been shown to increase overall well-being. You could theoretically spend all day meditating, doing yoga, petting your cat, volunteering for charity, or doing any of the other hundreds of wellbeing-boosting suggestions. But will they actually create a lasting improvement in your overall well-being or just keep you temporarily entertained or relaxed? How can you identify which well-being strategies will work to give you the overall boost you need without wasting your time on those that won’t?
Decades of research by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, has narrowed well-being down to five key dimensions. Each of these dimensions plays a significant role in overall well-being and happiness; identifying which dimensions are personally important to you or in which you are significantly lacking will help you determine where to focus your time and attention to give you measurable and lasting improvements.
The PERMA model
The five dimensions of happiness and well-being identified by Seligman are Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement; also known as the ‘PERMA model’.
Perhaps the most obvious of the five dimensions (and the one that the majority of well-being strategies focus on) is positive emotion; our ability to take a positive, optimistic view of life and experience positive and uplifting feelings. Seligman’s research has shown that an individual’s tendencies towards optimistic thinking have a significant impact on overall happiness and well-being, and acts as a protective factor against depression.
Have you ever become so absorbed in an activity that you’ve completely forgotten about the time? Activities or interests that we find completely absorbing and that stretch us creatively and intellectually are essential for the second dimension of well-being; engagement and flow. ‘Flow’, or the mental state of being fully immersed with energized focus and a deep enjoyment in a task, was named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975.
Flow states are an ‘optimal experience’ during which the individual becomes completely engrossed in the task, losing all sense of time, other people, distractions, and even bodily needs. Ever been so wrapped up in something you forgot to eat or go the bathroom? Flow is an active state, and requires the individual to be actively engaged in the task (so watching TV or mindlessly scrolling on social media do not count as flow experiences). Flow states often result in high levels of gratification and have been shown to significantly increase overall well-being.
The types of activities that produce flow states vary from person to person, and are heavily influenced by the individual’s interests and ability level. Activities that produce intrinsic enjoyment, that offer a balance between challenge and skill/intellectual ability, and that have some element of goal-setting/progress markers are most likely to produce flow.
Our relationships with other play a central role in our lives. As social creatures we thrive on connecting with others. Starting with our family in our infancy and then extending to friends, peers, colleagues, and others in the community, our social relationships are closely intertwined with our happiness and well-being. Add to this the advent of social media and you’ve got an increasingly complex web of relationships and communication impacting your well-being on a moment-to-moment basis.
From an evolutionary perspective, relationships and inclusion into social groups was critical for survival. Being cast out or isolated from the safety of the tribe meant certain death and research has shown that when we are at risk of becoming isolated from others, the pain centers of our brains begin to light up in anticipation. Today, we are less at risk of being physically cast out to survive on our own in the wilderness, but are still vulnerable to isolation in other ways. Seeking out well-being strategies that enhance your positive relationships and neutralize negative ones are especially important for long-term well-being and happiness.
“But you could make so much more MONEY working somewhere else.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this, from multiple people, when talking about my career in the non-profit world. Yes, it’s 100% true that I could go get a job at XYZ Corporation, sit in a little cubical, and in a few years be making double, if not triple in salary what I’ve made in the non-profit world. Honestly, I’d rather just dig a hole and get in it now. The thought of churning out meaningless paperwork for profit for some big conglomerate is literally a fate worse than death to me.
For those of you like me, finding meaning and purpose in your work and life contributes massively to your happiness and sense of well-being. While previous generations may have been satisfied with a stable job, fair pay, and decent working conditions, Millennials and Gen Z’s are increasingly drawn seeking out opportunities for social impact and making a difference.
Understanding the greater purpose behind your work increases satisfaction and overall well-being. This needn’t be restricted to just your paid employment; not everyone can afford to choose purpose over pay, especially if they have a family to support. Choosing well-being strategies that help you identify meaning in other areas, such as within your family, local community, or your contribution in other ways can help boost your levels of life satisfaction and give you a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
Achievement and Accomplishment
One of my favourite Tony Robbins quotes is “happiness is progress”. Setting goals, making progress, and achieving targets is the final dimension of the PERMA model. Accomplishing things in life, whether big or small, gives us a sense of competence, fulfilment, and pride, and increases our overall satisfaction in life. The achievement dimension is closely linked to the others; for example accomplishing tasks and building skills are integral to the flow experience, and creating a positive impact as an outcome of achieving a goal results in the fulfilment of your purpose.
Well-being strategies such as goal setting, productivity, and overcoming procrastination contribute to your ability to take action, build momentum, achieve your goals, and boost your long-term happiness and well-being.
Applying PERMA in your own life
The PERMA model acts as an excellent guide to determine where you need to focus your well-being efforts and what kind of well-being strategies will give you the most bang for your buck in terms of impact and lasting results. PERMA combinations are unique to the individual; some individuals may prefer a balanced PERMA, with each ‘slice of the pie’ being roughly the same size, whereas for others, one dimension may dominate and need much more attention in order to create an overall sense of happiness and well-being. There is no pre-set ‘optimum ratio’; you determine how big each slice of the ‘PERMA pie’ should be.
For me, achievement and meaning are the bigger slices of my PERMA pie. As someone that excelled academically as a child and grew up achieving awards and certificates, my sense of well-being and happiness is tightly interwoven with my levels of success and achievement. If I am not making recognizable progress with regular markers of accomplishment, I very quickly become dissatisfied and my happiness and well-being levels decline. Thus, my well-being strategies involve goal setting, taking on new challenges/reducing stagnation, and finding ways to regularly acknowledge my progress. I also have to make sure I’m not being too hard on myself and choose well-being strategies that promote acceptance and patience when progress is slow.
Similarly, there needs to be a purpose and meaning to what I’m doing. I get completely frustrated with work that has no real value or purpose. I chose to go into the non-profit sector in my career and have always felt strongly that there needs to be a real, positive purpose behind whatever I am dedicating my career to. I’ve always said ‘I could never sell washing machines’, meaning that I could never work for a business that was purely about making a profit (sorry to any washing machine sales people out there!)
So for me, evaluating my life in terms of PERMA means recognizing that achievement and meaning are of higher importance to me and allocating my well-being efforts and strategies accordingly.
So where should you focus your effort?
Spend some time thinking about each of the 5 dimensions and consider the following questions:
- Which dimensions of PERMA are most important to you?
- Which dimensions are you least satisfied in?
- What well-being strategies are you currently utilizing in each dimension?
- Are you spending too much time focusing your well-being activities in one dimension at the expense of the others?
- Are you spending enough time and effort focused on the important dimensions?
For each dimension, decide its relative importance. You might want to rank them from 1 to 5, or give each dimension a percentage of the ‘PERMA pie’. Once you have decided the relative importance of each dimension, think about your current levels of satisfaction in each area. You might want to create a diagram such as the one shown to visually represent this.
This should give you an idea of where to focus your well-being efforts; the more important the dimension and lower your levels of satisfaction, the higher the priority and greater the impact will be on your overall well-being and happiness. Once you know where to focus, you can choose specific well-being strategies that will target your highest priority areas and create the greatest gains in well-being.
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