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PERMA: 5 Areas to focus on for a Happier Life.

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

Introducing Positive Psychology's PERMA model of Happiness.

Let's start with something fun.

Imagine you found an old IKEA teapot one day and gave it rub - and a big blue genie appears sounding a lot like Robin Williams. He says to you,

"Yo thanks for the rub, I'll grant you Five wishes so you can be happier, how would you like that bub?"

Besides having the shock of your life, what would your five wishes be?

Pulling upon a younger less-wise and more selfish version of myself, I'd probably scratch my head for a while and say:

"Dear kind IKEA genie, it would really make me happier if you could grant me these five wishes below..."

  1. I wish for a nice house on Sixth Avenue in Bukit Timah.

  2. I wish for an Aston Martin Vantage in white.

  3. Help me strike 4D. Just one big jackpot is enough.

  4. Make me a famous author, like Haruki Murakami.

  5. Lastly, please give me the athleticism of a young Michael Jordan so I can dunk on my friends.

The genie turns to me and says:

"From this day forth, your five wishes are hereby... NOT GRANTED! This was a test and you failed! You've yet again succumbed to your social ideals. Shame on you, you scumbag little human being".

The genie then disappears back into the IKEA pot and I take that silly pot and chuck it into the Singapore River.

"I wish I could help you with that, but even I'm not that powerful"

Just like what I shared about in a previous post, my Five wishes all stemmed from a very wrong approach to Happiness.

Many of my wishes were focused on some Future Desire, especially ones that conformed to social ideals and material wants. To achieve these desires, I would have to sacrifice much of my present happiness to work my arse off for it.

It's very much like how we might slog through a boring job or carry our boss's balls (testicles) so we can get promoted and be richer in the future. We're going to feel pretty lousy all the way until we get what we want.

However, real and actual long-lasting Happiness comes from spending time in activities that have both a present and future benefit.

Simple enough of a concept right? But yes I hear you saying:

"You talk big only! Sounds easier said then done lah!"

Well thankfully for all of us, Positive Psychology provides us with a blueprint for such Happiness. It tells us that there are Five areas that will not only make us happy now, but lead us to an optimistic and better future as well.

Positive Psychology gives us these Five Areas as a sweet little acronym: PERMA.

Positive Psychology deals specifically with the subject of well-being and how we as humans can live a life of optimal experience.

Of course, this differs from traditional Psychology, often known as Abnormal Psychology, where for the last century or so since the time of Sigmund Freud, the focus has been on healing us when our minds go all funny.

Thankfully around 1998, some important dude (picture below) recognised that Psychology needed to move its focus beyond how to fix humans and make them 'normal', but also what can be done to help humans reach their optimal potential.

The important questions it asks is "How can we make life worth living?"

Martin Seligman is often quoted as the Father of Positive Psychology. He's written several books that deal with the subject of wellbeing, such as Authentic Happiness and Flourish.

Old man Martin Seligman

After decades and decades of research starting from the 60's, he's actually found that there are really just five areas that we as human beings need to do well on to have a Happy and balanced life.

So let me take you for a quick tour on Seligman's PERMA model.

According to Seligman, lasting happiness and wellbeing is made up of five components.

Martin Seligman's PERMA model of Wellbeing
The PERMA model of Happiness

1. Actively Plan and Experience Positive Emotions in your Life.

Well, you might read this one and go like "Duh.... Of course if I feel more happiness then I will be happier lah!"

Yet, don't be mistaken into thinking that happiness is about being happy, ALL THE TIME.

Positive emotions are made up of a large list of feelings, beyond just being happy. Imagine your life filled with:

  • Contentment about your daily life

  • Purpose in the work and things you get up to.

  • Pleasure and enjoyment in doing the little things you enjoy

  • Calm from being at peace with your thoughts

  • Warmth and comfort in having good friends

  • Optimism about the future

Living your entire life around these elements will undoubtedly be a happier one. Real Happiness is experiential.

To really experience this entire spectrum of Positive Emotions, you have to actively plan and build habits that allow you to experience and create positive events in your life too.

I share many of such habits in this blog, much like:

Daily Vacations: Opening our eyes to the beauty of everyday.

Research has actually found that doing these activities can make us happier both in the short and long term.

This is not to say that negative emotions don't have a place in our lives either.

From an evolutionary perspective, fear, sadness, and anger are our first line of defenses against external threats. In the pre-historic times, think big scary dinosaur for fear; getting sad after your cave-buddy dies after eating a poisonous fruit; or getting angry when another cave-dude steals your cave-babe when all you want to do is procreate.

Negative emotions signal a threat, and calls us to quickly respond to it by preparing to fight or flight or freeze.

However, things go very wrong when we focus too much on negative emotions, whether in the past, present or future.

For example, spending your time thinking about that time an asshole colleague did a annoying thing to you at work, or something your 'friend' said behind your back; or getting anxious about giving a major presentation in the next few days.

Negative emotions do have a role as it helps us to learn and prepare, but as you can determine logically with that smart brain of yours, they shouldn't take control of our lives.

2. Keep your mind engaged and get into a FLOW State.

What on earth is this Flow state?

Think about the last time you were doing an activity where Time seemed to melt away and minutes and perhaps even hours passed by seemingly in an instant.

It was a pretty challenging experience but you didn't feel stressed about it. You were simply able to immerse your entire conscious experience to the task, mustering your skills to get the finish line.

When you've completed the activity, you come out feeling that it was a rewarding experience. A wave of happiness washes over you. You've stretched your competencies to the next level. Moreover, it was an activity that you simply enjoyed.

The Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term FLOW to name such states of experiences.

Flow activities encompass a wide range of activities.

These include activities we may already have a high level of skill at, for example getting immersed in our jobs, a mastery of a sport or a game of chess; as well as those that we may be at the beginning stage of, such as learning a new language or a new skill like creative writing or programming.

The important factor is that you are stretching your mind or body to the limit to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile, while still enjoying the experience.

It engages our minds and allows us to feel like we are using our time well!

On the flip side, we often do the opposite and spend time doing passive and less effortful activities.

This is such as binge-watching all sixteen episodes of a Korean Drama in one seating, even though it's not all that interesting. Or spending hours on social media scrolling through post after post.

It is so ironic that we label such activities as times of leisure, but yet when you think about it, how much of those times do you start feeling sian and irritated after a while?

There's a condition called Psychic Entropy. It happens when people become more discontented with their experiences and the forward momentum you need in life is lacking. This frustration with life might even lead to something more serious down the road.

3. Cultivate your Positive Relationships:

We humans are a social species.

Since we were mere monkeys, it has been ingrained in all of us to build social connections. We seek out deep bonds with other humans and depend on these connections to find love, intimacy, and fulfill our emotional and physical needs.

You'll be amazed by how much evidence has accumulated telling us that having satisfying relationships with friends, family and wider circle of communities can lead to increased happiness, better health, and overall longer lives.

Researchers have even found that having good social ties can lead to a longevity benefit equivalent to a smoker kicking the habit, and twice the longevity benefit from exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight.

Want to live longer? Have really good and positive relationships then!

On the flip side, prolonged social isolation and loneliness has an actual structural impact on our physical brains.

In fact, research has found that loneliness can actually reduce the size of our brains in areas directly linked with decision-making, memory and the ability to process emotions.

From an evolutionary sense, being alone and isolated issues the biggest risk to us being eaten by predators, be it a dinosaurs or a pack of wolves. When we are at risk of being isolated, our body's stress responses as well as our pain centers activate themselves, warning us to quickly reconnect socially with someone or a group.

Nowadays, since the dinosaurs have all been killed by a giant meteor, social connections aren't so much important as a physical form of protection, but act instead as emotional buffers.

We rely on each other for love, laughter, confidence, and in sharing the good ol' times. It is probably the case that when we look back on our lives, the brightest and happiest times are the ones when we are in the midst of our loved ones. It's true.

However, as we know, not all relationships are going to be a bed of roses all the time.

Firstly, there are meaningless, rotten relationships that we cling on to, where they offer little positives or exist purely for the sake of enabling our own bad habits.

This can be that buddy you only meet up with to engage in alcoholic binges; friends that you've grown out of and who now have vastly different value systems; or that asshole that only meets you when they need something from you.

If we are truly committed to fostering a life of happiness, we might want to audit these relationships and decide if they are worth keeping.

Secondly, there are relationships that we cherish but have been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs.

Possibly at this point in time, the negatives might even dominate the relationship. Living in such a situations is no doubt tough as walnuts and there is no simple strategy to tackling these.

Really, it might have to start with a conversation based on openness and trust, with a focus on what returning to a positive relationship might look like in the near future.

Communication is also integral, and there could be a mutual agreement to focus on more Active Constructive Responding, rather than criticizing or shutting down the other party.

Cultivating the habit of expressing gratitude and kindness not only brings positives to the other person, but also reminds you of why you’re in this relationship.

Lastly, if you or the other person agree there is a more serious issue at hand, seeing a professional or counsellor together while remaining supportive of each other might bring the relationship back on track.

Most important of all though, the foundation of positive relationships means that there exist the motivation in both you and the other person to make it positive.

4. Rediscover your life's Meaning and live it, each and everyday.

Man's search for meaning has been a search happening long before your Ah Gong's time.

As human beings, there is no doubt that we all seek Meaning in our own lives.

It gives purpose to each and everyday, providing direction as to where to focus our energies on and how to make the best use of the few decades of our precious life. Having a clear sense of Meaning provides fulfillment, giving us the sense that our lives have served a purpose, that our existence in this grand universe has been useful.

Yet, while finding Meaning in life seems to come naturally to some lucky people, many of us are still groping about in the dark trying to find that sense of purpose.

We can have the most busy beaver lives, having an impressive job that pays a great salary; and in our free time we schedule in an assortment of hobbies, even ones that get us in FLOW; while we also make sure to catch up with friends and family.

However without connecting these activities to a Purpose, when it all gets quiet, and when we're back home taking a look at ourselves in the mirror, we still see that empty shell of a lousy human being reflected.

The most probable reason we can't find Meaning is because we are looking for Meaning in all the wrong places.

More common nowadays, we look for Meaning and Purpose in our careers. That is not surprising, given our work takes up a third of our lifetime, or half of our waking hours.

When it's busy at work, we don't think too much about it, given our attention is fully immersed in the tasks delegated to us. It is during the lull and dull moments that we start to wonder

"What is the purpose of all this? Was this what I was meant to be doing with my life?"

We then start to wish that we could be doing what we've always wanted to do. What are they? Well, our Dreams and Aspirations of course!

Life would be so much brighter and happier if I could follow my dreams! We think.

However, if we search for Meaning in our careers with only the scope of ourselves in mind, ironically we will find ourselves in a life without any meaning.

Do check this article out if you don't believe me.

According to Psychology, a Meaningful life consists of belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.

It transcends the self, where we know we are using our full potential, in the shape and form of our individual strengths and virtues, in the service of something bigger.

Dreams and Aspirations are about what you personally want to do; Meaning is about how what you do can change and affect people and the world.

This is of course subjective, and you might be starting to yawn, thinking it encompasses boring old-people things like charity toward a specific community; researching for the cure of cancer; living life in service of a religion; actively participating in politics or environmental change like being green.

Don't be such a narrow minded clown lah buddy.

A Meaningful life also includes:

  • Writing stories that transport people to another world

  • Making amazing food that leaves people with a happy belly very happy.

  • Travelling the world and inspiring others to do the same.

  • Teaching people the skills you know well.

  • Knowing you are helping people live better or healthier lives.

  • Or even something as simple as living for your family and making sure your loved ones are happy and live good lives.

When we understand what Meaning entails, we can then decide how we want to use our personal strengths and abilities toward that specific greater goal.

It can be a full time endeavor, or even one we make best use of our free time to pursue. Whatever it is, with a clear sense of Meaning, our life's story starts to develop more purposefully and we start to feel ourselves expand and make an impact on the world around us.

5. Focus on Achieving the things that really matter.

Accomplishments and Achievements are the trophies of our metaphoric life’s wall. They mark the high points of our existence and form the milestones of our individual journeys.

Like Meaning, they are subjective to each of us, and come in both trivial and more significant forms.

Little Achievements can be peppered into our day-to-day lives like Tiny Victories. Despite being trivial, their cumulative impact can leave long lasting impressions on our wellbeing.

Things such as:

  • Delivering a well-received presentation at work

  • Beating your personal best on the track or in the pool

  • Winning a game of sport you are crazy passionate about

  • Reaching the finish line on that piece of work, personal project or assignment you’ve been persevering at.

These Little Achievements slowly but surely add to our self-esteem and resilience, making us more resilient, and to show more grit during the next challenge.

There is a simple but important concept in Positive Psychology called Savouring.

The idea behind Savouring is it helps us to better consciously notice and experience those moments of achievement. We pay special attention during the point of achievement, being mindful of our senses like how our body feels, how the air smells, or what is around us at that moment in time.

By doing so, Savouring enables us to lock that moment of achievement into our memory to enjoy over and over again.

There are also Big Achievements that we view as the cornerstones in our lives.

When we finally reach that goal that we have been pursuing for the longest time, that sense of relief and giddiness over the success overwhelms us.

Even then, some Big Achievements are more significant than others, and it often depends on the nature of the goal initially set.

Some goals that we set for ourselves are more for the sake of boosting our own Egos or some very long-term future benefit. These goals are mostly extrinsically motivated, much like seeking a sense of recognition from people and society to be viewed as rich and successful .

For example, we might have the goal of becoming a millionaire or own a Porsche convertible. To achieve these are of course no small feat, but research has found again and again that the pleasure and positive emotion we get once we obtain them is transient and short-lived.

Not before long, we start seeking out our next material desire, like upgrading our Rolex to a Patek Phillipe. When will it ever end? Its a bloody darn waste of time.

Which one will give you long-lasting happiness? Neither! It's just a watch!

On the other hand, we can set goals that are more aligned to our Life’s Meaning and Values. Achieving these goals give voice to the story of you, providing fulfilment that you’ve gone some way to reach your purpose in life.

There’s good news in doing so too. When you set goals in line with your true values, research has found that you are also much more likely to achieve them.

Making happiness a goal, for the sake of yourself and your loved ones, might be a great place to start.

So, want to know more about how you are currently performing on these Five PERMA dimensions?

Take the research-based free assessment tool shared in my article, Measure your wellbeing with this free online survey.

Thanks for taking the time to read this long ass article on Kaya Toast for the Soul. If you're interested in improving your life in the five PERMA areas, check out more articles on this blog. Please do leave a comment if you've enjoyed this, or drop me an email to let me know your thoughts.


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