The technical definition
PERMA is an acronym for a model of well-being put forth by a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, PERMA makes up five important building blocks of well-being and happiness:
- Positive emotions – feeling good
- Engagement – being completely absorbed in activities
- Relationships – being authentically connected to others
- Meaning – purposeful existence
- Achievement – a sense of accomplishment and success
Huh, what does that mean?
What do each of these mean in practical terms, and how can we recognize them in children? Moreover, how can parents help cultivate and strengthen these five key building blocks in their children? To answer these questions, let’s take a look at PERMA in more detail.
Positive emotions are among the many components that make up happiness and well-being, and one of the more obvious layers of happiness. Let’s begin by distinguishing between pleasure and enjoyment. While pleasure relates to satisfying bodily needs like hunger, thirst, or taking a long sleep after a tough day, enjoyment comes from intellectual stimulation and creativity. We see enjoyment in action when we observe children screaming with delight as they run and skip in the mud, or build snowmen and throw snowballs at each other. Enjoyment also involves being intellectually challenged and standing up to it. When 10-year old Jack was able to put a jigsaw puzzle together, which requires concentration and careful figuring out, smiles of contentment and enjoyment spread over his beaming face.
Positive emotions are good for children because they stretch the imagination. When children do something they enjoy or find interesting, they are more likely to persevere in the face of challenges, and spontaneously search for more creative solutions and opportunities. Positive emotions can also help undo negative ones; reminding Laura about the wonderful time she had at the beach yesterday is likely to offset her stress from a challenging day at school, for example. Generally, children are likely to do more of the activities they find stimulating and that bring enjoyment, and the effects last longer than those that generate short-lived pleasure.
Everyone has had the experience of becoming so absorbed in work or in reading a book that they completely lose sense of time or forget an appointment. We’ve also seen children becoming so involved in play that it’s not easy to get their attention, or to get them to stop. Achieving this state of flow or total engagement is natural, especially when people are involved in activities they love and are good at, such as dancing, playing sport, or pursuing creative activities and hobbies.
Although engagement in enjoyable activities comes relatively easy to most children, it is still important to provide opportunities for children to take part in activities that offer them experiences of engagement or flow. Such opportunities might involve putting together jigsaw puzzles, drawing and coloring, playing with toys, or practicing ballet or a musical instrument. The fact that such activities stretch the child’s intellectual and emotional limits and endurance, as well as require concentration and effort, is important. So, next time 5-year old Simon is completely absorbed with his train set, think twice before interrupting him. This level of engagement is healthy and productive to nurturing happiness.
Since modeling the desired behavior one wants from others is more convincing than talking about it, it’s also advisable that children see their parents engage in enjoyable but challenging activities. When children see the contentment it gives parents, they are more likely to persist and search deeper for creative solutions to challenges, be it on the sports field or when practicing novel musical notes, for example.
Happiness and psychological health are inextricably linked with close, meaningful, and intimate relationships. Fleeting social relationships with strangers as well as longstanding ones with peers, siblings, parents, extended family, and friends are all sources of positive emotions and support. According to research, one important function of social networks is that they can spread happiness, cheer and laughter like wild fire.
Encourage children to form friendships and to show willingness to be a friend who can be trusted and relied on. Children are at times more comfortable with sharing aspects about their lives and feelings with trusted peers rather than adults. This is necessary and ought to be respected by adults, since we tend to measure our successes and general quality of life in comparison to peers rather then the older or younger generations. Parents that have a circle of stable friends are good role models for encouraging children to form relationships of support with others.
True happiness, according to the psychologist Rollo May, comes from creating and having meaning in life, rather than from the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth. Loving someone and being loved is a meaningful phenomenon, for example, because such acts inspire people to live for, and take care of, someone other than the self. Living a meaningful life is, in essence, related to attaching oneself to something larger than oneself. It instills the sense that there is a larger purpose to life, and being a part of it confers meaning. Having such connections with something bigger is also an effective barrier against depression. Research shows, for example, that religious or spiritual people generally have more meaningful lives because they believe in and worship something greater than themselves.
Taking children with you to help distribute presents or food parcels at the local shelter, offering assistance at soup kitchens for homeless people, or volunteering to help clean the park are some examples of taking part in activities that go beyond merely living for oneself. These bring fulfillment and meaning that enhance well-being. Parents who dedicate themselves with passion and action to something larger than their own lives are teaching their children the value of a meaningful existence.
Having explicit goals in life, even small ones like reading for an hour everyday, and making efforts to achieve them are important to well-being and happiness. Achievement helps to build self-esteem and provides a sense of accomplishment. It also strengthens self-belief. Parents that actively set and try to achieve goals, such as daily exercise, for example, tend to have children who develop similar attitudes.
The mere effort one puts into reaching a specific goal in itself harbors satisfaction. Even if your teenager James didn’t reach the school’s football A-team, it’s good to point out that trying through diligent practice is something to feel good about. Notice the smallest achievements of your child – like tying his shoe laces by himself - and let him know how proud you are. The more this happens, the stronger a child’s self-belief becomes, which in turn spurs children to want to try harder, and keep on achieving. Such self- belief helps to build resilience in the face of challenges. Importantly, setting goals and putting in the necessary efforts to achieve them are just as important as actually reaching them; it is OK not to succeed the first time.
How do I use this in my life?
Look at well-being in a new light. Visiting a friend that is seriously ill in hospital is not a time for celebrations, generally speaking, and most of us would not equate the experience with happiness. However, the time you spend with that friend can strengthen a meaningful relationship. This in turn may deepen your overall sense of well-being. Remember, well-being is not a unitary phenomenon or experience, solely having to do with feeling good. Well-being has depth.
The awareness of PERMA can help you increase your well-being by focusing on combinations of feeling good, living meaningfully, establishing supportive and friendly relationships, accomplishing goals, and being fully engaged with life. Further nurturing these experiences in children can help them go beyond “surviving” to really “thriving” in life.