increasing optimism through PERMA

How can the absence of ill-being equal the presence of well-being? Does lessening unhappiness increase happiness? Does getting what is good in life require more than eliminating what is bad?

These are among the key questions underlying the rapid evolution of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) pioneered by University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor Aaron Beck and built on by his mentee, psychology professor, Martin Seligman. As Seligman explains in his biographical book, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism,

“I and many of the practitioners and scientists in positive psychology came right out of work on misery and suffering. I devoted thirty-five years of my life to undoing depression and helplessness. I found that merely getting rid of the bad stuff was not enough, and so I advocated working on what makes life worth living as well…it is the presence of positive emotion, engagement, good relations, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA)…getting what is good in life entails a lot more than just eliminating what is bad.”

Seligman’s work is deeply grounded in extensive research. PERMA emerged from these evidence-based approaches and is a central framework in positive psychology:

Positive Emotion — happiness and life satisfaction are moved from being the end goals to factors of well-being.

Engagement — when we’re in this state of “flow,” time flies by as thoughts and feelings are often absent. We then look back later at just how fun or rewarding the activity was.

Relationships — acts of kindness, connecting with others, and sharing laughter, joy, pride, or purpose provide deep and lasting feelings of well-being.

Meaning — feeling we’re part of something much bigger or serving a greater purpose than ourselves.

Accomplishment — goals such as money, fame, winning, or mastery that we pursue for their own sake whether or not they bring positive emotion, stronger relationships, or meaning.

Tomorrow we publish my November blogs in the December issue of The Leader Letter. This issue highlights the roots and growth of positive psychology as a branch of CBT. We start with Aaron Beck’s founding of CBT. It’s a modernization of ancient wisdom found in mindfulness and Buddhism. You’ll see how Beck and the Dalai Lama compare the two approaches.

We’ll look at how Martin Seligman laid the foundation for positive psychology with his publication of research in Learned Optimism. To see beyond what is, to what could be, we need to become learned optimists. This involves changing our focus from what’s wrong or where we’re lacking to building on our strengths and what brings us the deepest meaning and purpose.

A key component of CBT is our automatic explanatory style. This is defined by the “three Ps” of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Thinking about our thinking — becoming mindful of our inner dialogue — is the first step in reframing our explanations to move up the pessimism-optimism scale and increase our happiness and effectiveness. We’ll look at a few reframing examples to avoid P-ing ourselves.

As Seligman writes, “our world, emerging at last from its vale of tears, now stands on the brink of a Florentine moment… it is perilously easy to forget these huge advances and to slip into our glib and quotidian catastrophizing about what ‘terrible times’ we live in now. I exhort us to be more fully conscious of these positives… we have much more to aspire to than less suffering. We can also aspire to more PERMA, more well-being, and more happiness.”