On Physical Flourishing

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

, ,

18 Responses to On Physical Flourishing

  1. oz May 17, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    Perhaps Martin Seligman has no idea about exercise. I’d like to know when was the last time her experienced an exercise high. He seems to do exercise from necessity as opposed to the understanding the joys of exercise.

    The truth is probably unpalatable (bad pun) but imagine a positive psychologist acknowledgement that exercise, nutrition and sleep were the foundations of a good life. What would they have to talk about?

    By the way you might be interested in my PERFORM model which includes exercise, sleep and nutrition as a fundamental of wellbeing.


    I’d also really love to see the research supporting his PERMA model

  2. Jeremy McCarthy May 17, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Actually Seligman was turned on to exercise by Ray Fowler who motivated him to start wearing a pedometer and getting his 10,000 steps a day and I think he’s been a pretty devout walker for the last few years. Seligman has become a big advocate of exercise as a way to get wellbeing he just sees it as one of the means and not the ends, which is what the pillars of PERMA represent.

    I think your PERFORM model overlaps quite a bit with PERMA so I would imagine much of the research is similar. Yours adds energy and resilience and his adds meaning but they are not mutually exclusive.

  3. Lisa Sansom May 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    I am completely with you Jeremy – and I’m not especially physically active or working in the spa industry! 😉

    I’m also not convinced that accomplishment should be its own pillar. I think that if you push on the accomplishment pillar, it will fall into either happiness (it feels good in the moment to accomplish or achieve) or into meaning (it’s part of my identify, my contribution to the world – I am a competitive bridge player; my accomplishments are making a long-term impact). Seligman’s stories about bridge players, for example, who are so hell-bent on winning that they will cheat and derive no positive emotion from it are, I would suggest, working on the meaning pillar though perhaps in a faulty way – they see themselves as competitive and winning bridge players (a source of meaning in their lives and identity) and so cheating is a way to maintain it (dare I say, to reduce cognitive dissonance in the event that they might lose?)

    Besides – who says that Marty’s elemental model of flourishing is the appropriate one? Why do all of the pillars have to be so isolated that you would pursue one at the expense of others, or pursue one for its own sake? Again, Marty seems to be getting into the Descartes mind-body separation. Can we be beyond that now?

    My little incoherent soapbox…

    🙂 lisa

  4. Sara Firman May 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Your comment that ‘it is hard to contain the complexity of human wellbeing in a simple model’ is the central point for me. A model that can really reflect, support and encourage the fullest expression of each person’s individuality (including physical appearance and physicality) has the greatest potential of all.

    In the past four years I’ve been introduced to one that has been greately misunderstood since, as with so much, the popularized version is a generic one-size-fits-all. Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, Richard Tarnas, James Hillman, Thomas Moore and so many others who have honored the richness of the human soul have explored this language too.

    What it tells us is that each person, at different times in their life, will experience and explore quite unique potentials and that none of it is ‘wrong’. It becomes so only when we measure all that we do against a cultural norm, and as individuals try to fit ourselves to that.

    The factors that pull a person away from their own being or their ability to act from that unique center are key. The model can be looked at from all sorts of angles, including a person’s physical appearance and physicality. It sees illness (succumbing to it and recovering from it) as something having meaning and purpose for that individual.

    You don’t really need a model at all if individuality and personal development are truly honored. But for those us who have lost touch with that and are tempted to believe in a static ideal, the impossibility of this as imaged by an astrological birth chart is a transformative thing.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy May 17, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Thanks Lisa! In the comments on PPND somebody mentioned that maybe mental and physical flourishing should remain separate categories just like mental and physical health. But I’m with you, we need to start moving beyond this false separation of the mental and the physical. Have you ever challenged Marty to a game? 🙂

  6. Jeremy McCarthy May 17, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Sara, you are so right on (as usual.) The nice thing about positive psychology is it looks at positive deviance as opposed to negative deviance, but it is still looking at deviation from the norm as opposed to the individual expression of humanity. But I still like thinking about positive deviance because it gets us in the mode of thinking about what is possible in stead of what is wrong.

  7. oz May 18, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    Jeremy – its time to get over Seligman – he’s a dinosaur. He really is stuck in Descartes thinking. Think about it – he thinks his positive health movement is different from positive psychology. Guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks

  8. Marie-Josee Shaar May 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    Loved your article, Jeremy! In particular, loved the video game analogy. Sitting all day is completely unnatural and devastating for the body on many levels. It leads to sleep difficulties, poor nutrition, low morale and physical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Since we burn next to zero calories while sitting, it is also likely to lead to obesity and its wide ranging host of undesirable consequences. See my article “Why Couch Potatos Are Tired” on Positive Psychology News Daily for more info on this.

    So I’m with you. Flourishing is a big word and a big goal. We’re not only talking about doing well here; we’re talking about being much better than that! And to me, much better isn’t achievable without paying attention to the fact that we are physical beings who need to move!

    Thank you for another great article, J! Love it!

  9. Jeremy McCarthy May 18, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

    Hi Oz, I have to disagree with you about Seligman. Although I am critical of one aspect of his theory in this article, and I agree with you that we need to move beyond a dualist notion of wellbeing, I thought his book was excellent and he continues to inspire growth and development of a science that I think is having a positive impact on mankind. I can think of very few people who could match Seligman in intellect, vision, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to bring his vision to reality.

  10. Jeremy McCarthy May 18, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    Thanks Marie-Josee, Your article on couch potatoes is excellent so I hope my readers will check it out: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/marie-josee-salvas/2010062411993. I agree with you– the reasons most people don’t go to the gym are the same reasons people should (for example being too tired/not enough energy.)

  11. oz May 19, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Jeremy, PERMA is about outputs – things that people intrinsically do (supposedly). PERFORM is about interventions that help people have enjoy a good life. So there is a big difference.

    Re Seligman – I have heard to guy speak once and read his books – its the same old same old – he has a very narrow perspective on the world.

    The other thing to remember is that PERMA has evolved from PEM. There is huge controversy about the A component – is it really separate – I’d love to see the factor analysis that suggests its a standalone.

    PERMA reflects Martin Seligmans beliefs – and imagine the sort of person who would leave Relationships out of a model (well his first model) – I suspect somebody who doesn’t value relationships.

    Bottom line is a model of wellbeing that doesn’t accommodate exercise, nutrition and sleep has to be wrong.

  12. Jeremy McCarthy May 19, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Oz, thanks for clarifying the difference between PERMA and PERFORM. I have a better understanding of it now. Regarding your note that any model that doesn’t accomodate exercise, nutrition and sleep has to be wrong–I agree with you. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that PERMA “doesn’t accomodate” these. I’m just arguing that they should take greater priority, but they already exist as a means to PERMA flourishing. This same point is being made in the comments on Positive Psychology News Daily so I’m going to attempt to address it in more detail there.

  13. frank July 6, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks Jeremy for a wonderful post, which lives up to the standard of your blogging and contributions to the PP mailing list.

    I agree with “mens sana in corpore sano”, especially because they are not separated but interconnected in a circle, which we can turn into virtuous or vicious, depending on what/how we do and don’t do. I also agree that PERMA is a very important step for facilitating well-being, and it is supported by a wealth of honest research. Flourish is one of the few books I read this year which was really worth reading word by word, and I say this very seldom.

    Thanks also to all the other commentators for valuable feedback. One word for Oz: I like the distinction between inputs (in my work, I call them seeds and nourishment) and outputs (I call them fruits). Too often we are focused only on fruits. However, we also need to remember that fruits contain the seed of what will then become input, together with nourishment.

    There are plenty of acronyms out there… In 2009, I summarized an approach to cultivate joyful living for the benefit of all beings with AmAre:
    * A – Aware and Accepting
    * M – Meaningful and Motivated
    * A – Active and Attentive
    * R – Resilient and Respectful
    * E – Eating properly and Exercising

    In Italian, AmAre means “to love”; in English, interconnectedness: (I)Am (we) are. I do covered physical health has a keystone to well-being. I did not include relationships, because they are covered by being Aware of what is Meaningful and Acting upon it. They are also covered by the word AmAre itself.

    Instead of trying to prove one acronym is better than another, let’s join forces and time to facilitate well-being. Keeping in mind this: I have heard plenty of acronyms, many of them very helpful, at least in making people thinking about what matters. The main difference is that when Dr. Seligman talks, many many many people listen and act upon his inspirations. This also means he takes a lot of heat from critics, for sure much less than I get and likely less than you get.

    While I would never put anyone on a pedestal, based on my experience we all gain by respecting other views which (as Jeremy pointed out) usually complements, instead of exclude, what has already been said.

    Thanks! Peace and metta,


  14. Jeremy McCarthy July 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    Thanks Frank, beautifully said. I love the work you have done on AmAre and I really like those categories. But I also agree with you that there are a million different acronyms out there. As you suggest, sometimes we forget that the acronym is not the real thing. Just like a globe is not the earth, it is a model to help represent something in a way that is smaller, simpler and easier to navigate than the real thing. These “maps” or “tools” can be helpful, but we get into trouble if we start thinking that every question can be answered with five easy letters. Thanks for reading and contributing!

  15. Lisa McLoughlin June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I particularly like Dr Dan Siegals’ Healthy Mind Platter :


    It seems to include all key the ingrediants for Wellbeing… What do you think ?

  16. Jeremy McCarthy June 7, 2012 at 12:06 am #

    Thanks Lisa for sharing that website. I like how all of the elements relate to time which is key to wellbeing.


  1. The Yoga World Gets Judgmental | The Psychology of Wellbeing - January 24, 2012

    […] [or insert other activity here],” they will say, “but it’s just too risky.”Physical flourishing comes when we challenge our bodies to go beyond what they are normally capable of.  Sometimes this […]

  2. The Yoga World Gets Judgmental | elephant journal - January 26, 2012

    […] Physical flourishing comes when we challenge our bodies to go beyond what they are normally capable of.  Sometimes this means going outside of our comfort zone where the risks of injury are greater.  But this is also where the benefits lie.  Ultimately, I think Broad’s article is good for yoga, as it will cause both instructors and practitioners to have a more cautious (and perhaps realistic) approach to their practice.  The appropriate response to Broad’s article is not one of defensive judgment.  We can recognize the sensationalism of our media, but let’s also learn from the stories being shared. […]

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes