19 September 2011

The ingredients of well-being: PERMA 2051

I have followed the work of Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, for about 36 years! I first became aware of his work when I was getting my master’s degree in psychiatric mental health nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Seligman is often referred to as the father of positive psychology. Early in my career, I was interested in his theory of “learned helplessness” as a model for explaining depression. Over time, Seligman shifted his focus and began to study and create theories of optimism and authentic happiness.

Recently, he has refined and amalgamated his thinking and created a theory of well-being, which he explains in a new book titled Flourish. In this work, he proposes that well-being involves five measurable elements: Positive Emotions (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M) and Achievement (A), or PERMA.

Working with colleagues and students at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman has developed a number of measures and interventions to support positive accomplishment, resilience and well-being. Listen to his remarks as he shares how he is using knowledge created to influence and stimulate change in education and therapy, including military settings. I particularly like his notion of the complementary pair of post-traumatic stress ~ post-traumatic growth syndrome. I also admire and appreciate his visionary goal that, by the year 2051, 51 percent of the people of the world will be flourishing.

Personally, after reading the book, I have decided to take up the practice of two evidence-based exercises that seem to influence and support one’s well-being: the Gratitude Visit and the Three Blessings Exercise.

The Gratitude Visit involves conjuring up an image of someone still alive who did or said something that changed your life for the better, and you never properly thanked him or her. The task is to write a 300-word letter of gratitude to that person with specific details about what they did and how it affected your life. Once you have written the letter, surprise him or her with a visit and personally deliver the letter. Read it out loud to and then discuss the content and your feelings for each other.

The Three Blessings Exercise is also a useful practice to develop. This involves reflection and appreciation. Every night, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep to write down three things that went well today and why they went well. Writing about what went right rather than what went wrong is likely to support your PERMA and increase your feelings of well-being.

I believe nurses around the world already understand the importance of PERMA for health and well-being. Seligman has provided specific measurements, tools and resources that may help and support the work nurses do to develop resilience and promote well-being in themselves and for those for whom they care. With the support of nurses who flourish, I believe his 2051 PERMA Vision will be realized.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. (New York: Free Press).

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.