It is interesting to watch people’s reactions when you tell them you are going to talk about happiness. The fact is, nobody wants to look like they take seriously something as frivolous as happiness. And yet, of course, there is nothing more seriously important as happiness and wellbeing. Psychologists, who traditionally studied mental illness and dysfunction, have recently become interested in positive psychology just as physicians who once emphasized illness have recently recognized the value of studying wellness. Inherent in this new field of study is the emphasis on our own ability to choose between alternatives (making wise choices), build enabling conditions (through relationships and accomplishments), and use our signature strengths to become the best we can be (rather than just misery-free).
Emotional wellbeing and optimism are not just candy to the soul and brain, to be sought only after a healthy meal of hard work and stress. Most of us are not surprised to find out that these positive qualities predict future marital satisfaction and divorce. However, many might be surprised to find out that they also predict longevity. In experiment after experiment, emotional health and happiness are major predictors of physical health and length of life, with optimists living eight to nine years longer than pessimists! (In fact, pessimism is roughly equivalent to smoking two and a half packages of cigarettes a day, according to one researcher.) Research indicates that people who have emotional wellbeing are more productive, learn more, and earn more money (yes, really), even after factoring out variables such as parents’ income and grades. They do better in every job (except law) and are more successful in sports. Given all of the benefits of optimism and emotional wellbeing, how can their development not be considered a major mandate for schools, parents and even governments?
When we talk about wellbeing, we are not only speaking of being joyful, although this is part of wellbeing. Dr. Martin Seligman, the “father” of positive psychology and a renowned researcher in both optimism and learned helplessness, describes five separate qualities to wellbeing: 1) Positive Emotion, 2) Engagement, 3) Relationships, 4) Meaning and 5) Achievement. (He uses the acronym PERMA to describe wellbeing.) Each of these qualities can be independently developed and measured, and each may be valued differently by different individuals. Together, they constitute a set of positive emotional skills and attitudes that can lead children to higher achievement and success in life, better physical health, better relationships, more resilience against depression and anxiety, and even better conduct.
The first of these, positive emotion, is the joyful feeling we experience inside when we interact with ourselves or our environment: the laughing feeling we have when someone tells a good joke, the sense of awe we feel when we sit on a mountaintop and gaze out over a beautiful vista, the rush of pride we feel when we find we aced the test, or even just the joy of savoring smooth, cold ice cream. It is what most of us think of first when we consider the word “happiness.” Feeling happy, positive emotion, is important.
But if that were all we wished for our children, if that really defined emotional wellbeing, we would be taking them to Disneyland every day, feeding them candy, and acceding to their every whim. When we stop to reflect, we realize that we want more for our children than just to experience joy, however nice joy may be.
Seligman’s second element of wellbeing is Engagement. This is the feeling we get when we are “one with the music,” lost in time doing whatever it is that we do well. In the 1970s cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig called this Quality, and more recently it has been referred to as “flow.” It is what happens when a great writer becomes lost in her writing, when a dancer is lost in the dance, when a speaker engages the audience, or when a great mechanic solves a mechanical problem. We experience it when we are doing something for its own sake, outside of judgment or external reinforcement.
The third element of PERMA is Relationships. This is the ability to form and keep deep friendships as well as the ability to negotiate social situations. Included in this element would be rhetoric – the ability to find one’s voice and persuade or inform others. Research shows that those of us who have someone to call when we are distressed and someone with whom to share our triumphs are healthier, live longer, and produce more. Relationships add to our overall emotional wellbeing and strengthen our ability to conquer adversity.
Meaning, Seligman’s fourth element, is a sense of connection and purpose related to something bigger than oneself. Such things as religion, social or community service, justice, patriotism and political affiliation serve this purpose. Rather than relating everything back to the self, the person who has meaning is able to subsume some of his or her own personal gratification for the greater good. Viktor Frankl, who described the psychological importance of having meaning in the 1950s, related the lack of meaning to a variety of mental health problems and recent research has shown him to be right. Those who are connected to a greater purpose have better resilience.
Finally, as parents most of us would agree that we hope our children will experience the last of Seligman’s elements: Achievement. This entails a sense of mastery over a skill or over a subject, the self-esteem boost that occurs when one has done or learned something well. In order to achieve, however, kids have to develop “grit” or perseverance. They have to be able to lose or fail and try again. Achievement does not happen just because parents or kids want it to, and false or easy achievement does not really feel very satisfying. Real achievement entails struggle and struggle entails some disappointments. Children and adults who are achievers are those who have the courage to try the first time and, if they don’t succeed, to try again.
While there are many current theories describing emotional wellbeing, Seligman’s description is particularly compelling not only because it is research based but also because it does describe what we hope for our kids (and for ourselves). As parents and educators, it is important for us to learn how to facilitate the elements of PERMA and to examine ways in which we may be diminishing it. Far from “frivolous,” emotional wellbeing is paramount in helping children to develop positive, productive and, yes, happy lives.