Fit for your PERMA purpose

Back in July – it seems like ages ago! – I wrote about how we can maintain our wellbeing and happiness by tapping into our resilience, coping and pursuing the five paths to a happier life as suggested by the PERMA model. If you missed it, catch up here.


Room for negative emotions

Four months on, and much of the world is in #lockdown2, the economic prospects are looking dire and many more people are at risk of losing their jobs – we live in intense, non-stop VUCA times. It’s easy to guess how this may have affected the average person’s wellbeing balance (see figure), in fact: Just writing this makes me feel down and I pity you, the reader! However, positive psychology is not only about the “happy” feelings, but also about working with the “unhappy” ones we experience every day.


Without acknowledging those, we ignore half of our emotional realm. So, if we want to have more “positive” emotions, we need to understand the “negative” ones too. We don’t need to like them, but let’s allow them into the room for now.


Given everything that has happened in the last months, chances are that, on average, people may experience their wellbeing (the right side of the balance) as lower.


Snap – when your resilience gives

If we want to redress the personal wellbeing experience, we have to do something about the ingredients going in (the left side of the balance):

  • Resilience – our ability to bounce back from adversity

  • Coping – our ability to deal with adversity in the moment

  • PERMA – the five ingredients to a “good life” according to Martin Seligman, the "father" of positive psychology

Coping is only ever intended to help us rise to the challenge in the moment and for a limited time. Coping is our response to “stress”, but it is not what keeps us going in a persistent global crisis without the longer-term mental and physical health risks we know from long-term exposure to stress.


Unfortunately, resilience can be depleted too. If we are under strain for too long, we may become less effective at restoring our wellbeing balance. To illustrate the point: Imagine resilience as an elastic band that stretches and snaps back. Except, when you stretch it further and further and keep it stretched for longer and longer, it will lose its elasticity and either not bounce back as quickly or snap altogether.


What about PERMA?

PERMA is the acronym for a model consisting of five paths contributing to a "good life":

  • Positive emotions – kind of self-explanatory…

  • Engagement – is about getting involved in life and enjoying the things we do. When we’re engaged, everything flows (think: hobbies, play)

  • (positive) Relationships – connections with people that make us feel understood, appreciated, loved – and we know we can count on these people in times of need

  • Meaning – answers the question: Why? It helps us make sense of life

  • Accomplishment – anything we achieve for the sake of achieving it


We know from research that we need all of these ingredients because each one contributes something not only to our wellbeing, but also to our resilience. However, we can prioritise one or some depending on context.



When PERMA dries up

There are times when we check in on our five PERMA paths, and they appear to dry up. It may make us more aware how difficult a situation is, so brace yourself to allow some difficult emotions as we ask some challenging questions. For example:

  • Positive emotions: How often am I laughing these days?

  • Engagement: (How) can I still get involved in the things I enjoy doing?

  • Relationships: How can I have positive connections with people if I cannot meet them or when an increasing number is relying on others (e.g. me) to make them feel better?

  • Meaning: What’s the point to continue trying?

  • Accomplishment: What achievements are possible in these times?

Let’s face it, we may not like the answers we are giving ourselves – not even as positive psychology coaches! But what can we do?


How to tweak your PERMA

Remember: Your PERMA ingredients aren’t fixed! (And if you think they are, consider taking a look at Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset.) Situations change, we change – our PERMA ingredients change. And we can make this change happen rather than fight it!


So, let’s see what no longer works and find out what (still) works right here and right now with the options each and every one of us still has – and you will know what they are for you.

You can work on all or only one of the PERMA paths, but given the VUCA circumstances, choose something that comes easy and doesn’t stretch your resources even further (remember the “snap”). Here are a few ideas:


Positive Emotions mindset: Find smiles and laughter wherever you can, even if you don’t feel like it!

  • Watch a FUNNY movie instead of a gory Halloween shocker

  • Listen to stand-up comedy instead of the news

  • Create a humour habit: Read a joke a day and share it with others

  • Do some laughter yoga!

  • Take a rest (no joke) or do some exercise

Engagement mindset: So, you can’t do the things that used to float your boat, what can you do instead?

  • (Re)Discover a favourite hobby – remember how you enjoyed reading, playing music, jog, restore cars/furniture, knit etc? Make time for it!

  • (Re)Discover a favourite game – remember board games?

  • Many clubs and learning activities have gone online – check them out

  • Breathe – when did you last spend time consciously breathing in and out?

(positive) Relationships mindset: Who do you actually enjoy spending time with?

  • Remind yourself that real friends and positive relationships are with people who make us feel understood, appreciated and where each person gives and takes in equal measure.

  • Distinguish bad or even toxic relationships from the positive ones, spend time with the positive people in your life

  • Remember that you can’t “do” resilience or happiness for others, they need to find and build their own

Meaning mindset: Re-calibrate your “what matters”.

  • So, you wanted to change the world and now you just try to get by – but getting by can be what matters now, and you are doing it!

  • You wanted to volunteer for those in need of support during Covid – now you’re too tired to support yourself and your family. You matter too – support yourself! (personal tip: exercise self-compassion with resources on Kristin Neff’s website)

  • You spent several hours home-schooling your kids – not only did you spend time with your kids but you also helped them realise their potential. Wow!

Achievement mindset: Celebrate small successes.

  • You may not be able to achieve your big dreams right now, so look for the steppingstones that will bring you closer to your goal once the pandemic is over and celebrate those.

  • So, you still don’t have a job but you spent the day looking for new job postings and submitted five job applications. You increased your chances of finding a new job from 0 to 5 – well done!

  • You finally tidied up the garage after five years, great job!

Prioritise your PERMA

When times change, our PERMA needs to change. When times are good, it is easier to muddle through and drag along stuff, activities or people* who sap our energy because there is plenty of good stuff to make up for some of the bad. As our wellbeing resources come under ever more pressure in this VUCA world, recharging and rebalancing gets tougher. It’s time to take a long hard look at the things we keep dragging along or that are no longer “fit for PERMA purpose” in current times.


Revisit your PERMA and make the changes you need! Let go of what doesn’t serve your wellbeing in these times, prioritise what helps restore your wellbeing! Choose what's fit for your PERMA purpose here and now.


*A caveat

Prioritising our own PERMA can be difficult. It can make us feel selfish and uncaring towards those around us in need. It can become particularly tough when we realise that certain friends – especially those in need – create a toxic cocktail of conflicting emotions in us. Yes, we may want to help them and yes, we really like them, but – if we are honest – their negativity drags us down too. It can trigger guilt, because friends are meant to support each other in times of need, right? True, but friendships are based on mutual respect, fairness and appreciation. You are human too, you may be struggling too! If it’s too much for you, tell your friend! It is OK to refer them to a professional who is trained to help; or encourage your friend to help themselves by finding their own new PERMA. You could even create a mutual "self-help group". A true friend will understand, because both you and your friend deserve compassion!

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