Today’s article is also published on Positive Psychology News Daily.
With the release of his new book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being,” Martin Seligman presents his new model for wellbeing under the codename PERMA. PERMA is an acronym for the five pillars of wellbeing that Seligman has identified through decades of research and thought on the science of human flourishing: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and (the newest addition) accomplishment.
My first reaction when I learned of the PERMA model was that it neglected to consider the importance of physical health to wellbeing. Movement, exercise, fitness, mobility, touch, etc. are all physical aspects of life that are critical to wellbeing, and yet they seem to be left out of the PERMA model. Did Seligman allow his psychologist experience to narrow his field of vision to only the psychological domain?
I had the opportunity to hear Martin Seligman explain how he chose the 5 pillars of PERMA at the recent “Leading to Wellbeing” conference held at George Mason University. Each of these five components, are all things that people pursue intrinsically, and they pursue each of them independently of the others. According to Seligman, people pursue meaning, engagement and accomplishment for their own sake, and not only to experience more positive emotions.
Seligman mentioned that he had heard a lot of criticism for the absence of physical health in his model, and he thought long and hard about including it. But according to Seligman, physical health is pursued ultimately as a means to one of the PERMA ends, and not in and of itself. I think this is still good fodder for debate, and one could argue that we have a need for physical wellbeing that transcends the psychological aspects of PERMA. But it does provide a clearer framework to understand the PERMA model, and to begin to ask questions of how elements of physical health and PERMA might interact.
What would physical PERMA look like?
Positive Sensations: People need and want to feel good physical sensations. We yearn for physical experiences that feel good in the body. We enjoy orgasms, chocolate, massage, the sun on our face, the wind through our hair and the sand between our toes. Positive physical sensations are some of the biggest contributors to experiencing positive emotions.
Engagement (Physical Flow): It is relatively easy to think of moments of flow that can occur in different domains. Some flow experiences are purely psychological, intellectual, or social. But there is clearly an opportunity to experience physical states of flow by becoming engaged in challenging physical activity. Supporting Seligman’s idea that wellbeing ultimately comes through psychological pathways, in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csikszentmihalyi noted that “flow cannot be a purely physical process: muscles and brain must be equally involved” (p. 98; see my article on Flow here.)
Physical Relationships: Thinking about the physical side of relationships brings up an interesting question. Science has clearly showed the importance of connections and relationships for psychological wellbeing. But one could argue that people also need and intrinsically seek out physical contact and sexual contact independently of their need for social support and interaction. This is an area where the psychological and physical aspects are so intermeshed, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Meaning (Physical Purpose): Peoples’ sense of self-identity is often attached to their physical appearance (e.g. body weight , racial appearances.) Some suggest that physical appearance has a huge impact on the development of personality. There is also a sense of physical wellbeing based on “functional health” or how our physical capabilities either help or hinder with the lifestyle we want to live and the goals we want to pursue.
Accomplishment: The idea of physical functional health leads to the possibilities for physical accomplishment. People pursue physical accomplishment both directly in terms of health and fitness goals they have for their own body, and indirectly by training their bodies to help them achieve other physically demanding objectives in work and in play.
Categorical models like PERMA are helpful for summarizing complex and interrelated theories and distilling them into something that is easier to digest and apply to the real world. But it is hard to contain the complexity of human wellbeing in a simple model. I still tend to think that there are physical aspects of wellbeing that warrant attention independent of the psychological aspects (much like you could argue that lower life forms intrinsically seek out physical fitness and survival even without our advanced, emotionally expressive brains.)
Identifying how physical wellbeing relates to flourishing through the other five pillars does not disqualify it from possibly warranting its own pillar. These “pillars” are more matrixed than they are categorical. In “Flourish,” Seligman shows how several of the pillars can be related to all the others. Relationships are tied to Meaning and Engagement, Accomplishment is tied to Positive Emotions and so forth. PERMA is more of a latticework than a series of independent pillars. And there may still be room for physical health to be woven into the framework.
I still argue for physical fitness to be included for one simple reason. Imagine a person who could achieve PERMA through engaging in an online video game. The video game is designed to be enjoyable to play, creating positive emotions and being completely engaging. The game is social, so meaningful relationships are formed, and people work together in teams bonding online and creating real friendships that translate to the real world. And the goal of the game is to solve real world problems such as ending poverty, or hunger, or pollution, so there is a real sense of meaning and accomplishment that comes from playing the game.
But the person who gets all of their PERMA from playing this game would never have to move their body, never have to go outside and connect with nature, and never have to touch another human being. Can a joyful, engaged, friendly, meaningful, highly accomplished person be considered to be flourishing while allowing their body to waste away? I don’t think so.
What do you think?
References and recommended reading:
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being