One of the undeniable benefits of any form of therapy, coaching, or counseling is the greater sense of wellbeing and happiness it can help you achieve.
Many people have found that finding the right type of psychological support has helped them overcome challenges and barriers they initially thought impossible, and now live enriched and more secure lives.
However, several factors impact the success of reaching the desired outcome of therapy and coaching interventions:
- the time spent in sessions,
- the number of sessions,
- external and internal support networks and resources,
- the right coach or therapist, and
- the right therapeutic model.
In addition to these factors, some therapy models are more oriented towards defined goals or outcomes than others.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the PERMA model, developed by Martin Seligman, which has a more defined purpose in supporting individuals to achieve a fulfilled sense of happiness and well-being.
This article contains:
What is the PERMA Model?
The PERMA Model was devised by prominent Psychologist, Martin Seligman, often considered the founder of positive psychology. His work has focused on supporting individuals to understand better what happiness means for them, and he is a recognized authority on different therapeutic interventions that build resilience and well-being.
In 2011, he published his book Flourish, in which he describes the PERMA Model. Simply put, it is a breakdown of the individual elements in life that Seligman believes can help us cultivate greater happiness and well-being overall.
These elements are the foundation of happiness and understanding how each element applies to the self, is key to understanding where we might be able to make positive changes.
PERMA is the acronym for these elements, and there are five in total:
1. Positive Emotions
As human beings, we need to be able to feel good, hopeful, and inspired by the things we do and the life we live. It’s easy to see how, when we do, we can allow our positive emotions to take the lead in our life.
Positive emotions help us in a myriad of ways, including being better able to tackle negative emotions or experiences when they arise. For positive emotions to be able to support us, we first need to ensure that our basic needs are met.
Basic need includes adequate food, water, shelter, and sleep. When these needs are met, we can then open ourselves up to exploring what can further fuel our positive emotions, such as intellectual and creative pursuits, relationships, and fulfilling work.
Engagement is sometimes also referred to as ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). It’s the process of being fully engaged and immersed in the activities, duties, and tasks that fill our lives.
Not only are we engaged, but we also find a reliable source of passion and commitment to these things. When this is the case, we find we can draw energy from being engaged and find the activities we are committed to both enjoyable and pleasurable.
Relationships are a crucial part of our sense of well-being and happiness. How authentic these relationships are and the depths of our interactions with friends, family, loved ones, and our wider social circle have a significant impact.
Positive, useful, and inspiring connections lead to more positive emotions, enabling us to feel heard, seen, and supported. Playing an active role within those relationships – by offering support, listening, and helping in return, without expectations – will also lead to greater positive emotions.
Building a sense of purpose in life, and using that purpose to contribute to the community is one of the core ways to find meaning in life.
Meaning is about more than just what you do; it also includes the ideas and beliefs you hold – about yourself and life in general – and how well you feel you live those beliefs authentically.
A sense of happiness and well-being isn’t just derived from having already found a purpose or meaning; it also comes from feeling that you have clear ideas for what those concepts might mean and look like for yourself. Even if you are starting to pursue a greater sense of purpose, this in itself can lead to greater happiness and well-being.
Achievement is not just about a strong sense of success or ‘winning,’ it also refers to how much we challenge ourselves in positive and progressive ways that enable us to further develop our strengths and skills, both practically and emotionally.
Achievement can also be found through setting feasible goals that we can reach realistically and feel a sense of progress in how we want to live our lives. Finding achievement in these ways again helps to encourage further positive emotions, such as confidence, and adds to our continued sense of happiness and well-being.
Seligman has also advised that within each of the five elements, three characteristics need to be understood and met:
- All elements are equally important to each other.
- Each element needs to contribute to overall happiness and well-being.
- Each element needs to be measured and considered independently from the others.
In more recent years, the model has been extended to include the letter H on the end, for Health – so the full model acronym becomes PERMAH or PERMA-H (Nourish et al., 2013).
The Health component was added as other researchers began to feel Seligman’s original model was missing a crucial element of life that leads to feeling happy and a sense of wellbeing – our overall feelings of physical health.
How Has PERMA Been Applied in Coaching?
PERMA as a model for coaching can bring a clearer focus to the process, allowing both the coach and individual to reflect, understand and discuss the different ways each of the five elements shows up in their life. As an introductory exercise, it can help both parties further define what the core outcomes of the coaching should be, and how they relate to the individual elements.
For example, if an individual seeks out coaching because they feel they lack purpose and meaning, then the coach can utilize other positive psychology techniques to dive deeper into this.
However, if an individual seeks coaching for a more general sense of unhappiness, the coach could work with them through each of the five elements to get a better understanding and pinpoint the key areas that could be a focus of their ongoing coaching.
The PERMA model itself does not offer any real direction for overcoming challenges or techniques for addressing an imbalance within each of the five elements. However, used in conjunction with other techniques, it’s a great starting point that can add real direction within a coaching plan.
5 Techniques Used Within the PERMA Coaching
As the PERMA model was developed by Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, it makes sense that it would work most effectively when used alongside other positive psychology interventions and techniques.
Below are five frequently used techniques and how they can be linked back to the PERMA model:
1. Open Questioning
Open questioning is one of the most commonly used and essential techniques utilized in coaching and therapy. Open questions involve asking things in a way that encourages the client to go deeper with their answer, rather than responding with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This includes questions that begin with what, where, when, who, and how.
Linking these back to the PERMA model, coaches could frame their questions directly to each of the five elements – exploring each in detail as coaching progresses.
“To what extent do you currently experience positive emotions?”
“What activities give you pleasure in life/make you feel good?”
“During which activities do you lose track of time?”
“What percentage of your time do you spend in the present moment?”
“To what extent are you doing things today that are valuable and worthwhile to you?”
“What are the activities or people who make you feel rooted in something larger than yourself?”
“What activity would you pursue even if you didn’t win/earn/succeed in it?”
“What do you enjoy doing just for the sake of it?”
“How would you describe your relationships with other people?”
“Which are your most important relationships, and why?”
Questions in this fashion could start more broad and generic and go deeper and more specific as coaching progresses, and the client begins to build a better understanding of how each of the five elements looks for them.
Many of the elements within PERMA are very subjective and individual (Seligman, 2011). How one person experiences, express, and acknowledges positive emotions, for example, will be quite different from how someone else does.
Non-directiveness allows the client in the coaching session to take the lead and encourages them to think about what they want to explore and talk about, rather than the coach leading the session with structured strategies to make them think about a specific area.
This is a great technique to be used in conjunction with the PERMA model, as it doesn’t keep the sessions too prescribed. For example, a coach may encourage the client to think only about purpose, but if something has happened within their relationships that day or week, the client may feel a more urgent need to focus on this.
Non-directiveness allows for the client to tackle challenges in sessions as they arise.
Example questions to encourage non-directiveness in sessions:
- How do you feel about our last session? Is there anything more you’d like to discuss?
- What’s something positive and something negative you experienced this week?
- Where would you like this session to lead us today?
For coaches, empathy is a crucial technique. It acknowledges that each client is different, and the coach can not personally relate to everything the client has experienced. Seligman (2006) advised empathy is distinct from sympathy as it demonstrates an understanding of where the client is at rather than seeking to ‘know’ their individual experience.
As the PERMA model seeks to tackle five core elements of life, each of which will be unique for each client, utilizing empathy as a technique can help coaches develop more positive and productive relationships to help clients progress towards their desired outcomes.
Example empathetic statements:
- I understand how that situation would have made you feel in that way.
- What you are saying is making a lot of sense to me.
- I can see why that would make you react in that way.
Within positive psychology, practicing gratitude has been consistently associated with a better sense of happiness and wellbeing (Wong and Brown, 2017; Emmons and McCullough, 2003).
Falling into the trap of thinking nothing ever goes right for us, or that there is nothing worth celebrating within our lives is an easy one to fall into for many of us. Utilizing the technique of gratitude can help correct this unbalanced thinking, and it can be applied for each of the five elements within PERMA.
Some popular gratitude activities include:
- Keeping a Gratitude Journal
- Writing Thank You letters to important people
- Developing a Mindfulness practice
5. Random Acts of Kindness
Building in acts of kindness – from holding the door open for a stranger to paying for someone’s coffee, or even merely getting your partner a drink from the kitchen – has been proven to increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing (Lyubomirsky, Tkach, & Yelverton, 2003).
Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) is a very simple positive psychology technique that a coach might use to encourage their client to build a better connection to others, and develop their understanding of how kindness can benefit their sense of wellbeing.
Using this technique, coaches can initiate their client’s small acts that are easily achievable and have them keep a journal about how the action made them feel. Over time, these can be built up, or the client can be encouraged to seek out small RAK’s in their daily life.
Applying the PERMA Model: 3 Worksheets and Resources
The following are a selection of helpful worksheets and activities that you can utilize to develop a further understanding of how each of the PERMA elements currently presents in your life. If you are a coach interested in visiting the PERMA model with clients, these could also prove valuable.
1. Map Your Happy (PDF)
This worksheet is a very accessible and easy to use resource that makes for a great introductory worksheet for those just starting with PERMA and seeking to build their understanding further.
The worksheet is broken down into six journal-like blocks for individuals to write their reflections as follows:
- Positive Emotions – What brings you positive emotions?
- Engagement – What activities do you get completely absorbed in?
- Positive Relationships – What relationships bring you joy and support?
- Meaning – What larger purpose or cause do you feel drawn and connected to?
- Accomplishments – What would you like to accomplish in the next week, month, and year?
- Takeaway Reflection Questions – What areas are your strongest? Where could you give more attention to flourish?
2. PERMA Wheel Balance Check (PDF)
The wheel balance check is a great resource to use once you feel you have a strong understanding of what each of the five elements means. Here’s what this worksheet involves:
Part One – PERMA Wheel Assessment
- Part one of the worksheet includes a wheel divided into five equal parts, each one relating to one of the PERMA elements.
- Individuals are encouraged to reflect on the prompt words for each element and write out how each element looks in their own life.
- This creates a great visual representation, and individuals can see where they might need to work on to increase their happiness.
Part Two – Reflection and Insights
- Part two of the worksheet breaks down each of the five elements and invites participants to reflect on what they have uncovered in part one.
- Individuals are encouraged to write down their own insights and one proactive way of addressing any areas where there is a strong imbalance.
This worksheet can be used as many times as needed. It can be a great checkpoint for anyone working on developing their sense of happiness and wellbeing over time, utilizing the PERMA model.
3. PERMA Profiler (PDF)
This resource is a much more in-depth and psychologically oriented questionnaire, aiming to give individuals a more coherent ‘score’ for each of the five elements within the PERMA model.
It contains 23 questions that participants are asked to rate on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being ‘Never’ and 10 being ‘Always.’ Each question is linked to one element of the PERMA model.
Once all questions have been responded to, participants can use the scoring guide to see where they have scored highest and lowest, and so understand which elements of the PERMA model are strongest or weakest for them. This, in turn, can help them begin to explore further activities to build on their weakest elements.
Some example questions from the resource include:
- How much of the time do you feel you are making progress towards accomplishing your goals?
- To what extent do you receive help and support from others when you need it?
- How often are you able to handle your responsibilities?
- To what extent do you generally feel you have a sense of direction in your life?
- How satisfied are you with your personal relationships?
5 Helpful Videos on the Topic
The following are a few videos that relate to the different elements of PERMA, providing more depth to the topic and some wonderful insights around the broader area of positive psychology in general:
1. How to Motivate Yourself to Change Your Behaviour
Tali Sharot for TEDxCambridge
2. Wellbeing Before Learning: Flourishing Students, Successful Schools
3. Why You Feel What You Feel
Alan Watts for TEDxOxford
4. How to Figure Out What You Really Want
Ashley Stahl for TEDxLeidenUniversity
5. What is PERMA?
5 Books Worth Reading on the Topic
I’m a big fan of reading books to help further grow our knowledge and understanding of the ideas that appeal to us. Below are five I recommend that can help you do this, not only around PERMA but the other concepts such as ‘flow’ and positive emotions that are intrinsically linked with the model.
1. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – Martin Seligman
I’d be remiss not to include this book in a list about PERMA! Seligman’s stand out text is where is first introduces the PERMA model, building on his previous workaround of resilience, optimism, authentic happiness, and character.
Seligman showcases how the model can be implemented, not only for the individual but also within educational and community contexts.
Available on Amazon.
2. Flow: The psychology of happiness: The classic work on how to achieve happiness – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Now considered a classic psychological text, Csikszentmihalyi’s book is an in-depth look at what he thinks the state of ‘flow’ to be, his research on the topic, and guidance for utilizing flow within a range of contexts – from lifelong learning, creative pursuits, sports, and creating more meaningful activities in our lives.
Available on Amazon.
3. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment – Martin Seligman
Alongside practical exercises, guidance, and brief tests to help you examine your ideas of authentic happiness, this is a great resource for individuals and coaches alike.
Available on Amazon.
4. The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science – Jonathan Haidt
Haidt, a prominent psychologist, delivers many interesting insights around current ideas about happiness and the psychological research that does or doesn’t back them up.
Available on Amazon.
5. Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness – Tal Ben-Shahar
Ben-Shahar utilizes case studies and inspiring stories to guide us on how choosing a happier life is within our control.
Available on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
As a coaching model, PERMA can offer some fantastic insights into the different areas of an individual’s life, that they may not have truly reflected on in-depth previously. This structured approach to the idea of happiness and well-being can be very beneficial for anyone struggling to feel a sense of overall contentedness.
Although PERMA does seem to be only part of a larger positive psychology puzzle, it does appear to be a fantastic starting point for anyone seeking to achieve a greater sense of happiness and wellbeing. For anyone feeling overwhelmed, chunking the different areas of their life down in this way could help them begin to feel more in control and able to manage.
Have you tried the PERMA model, either for yourself or in coaching with clients? How did it work for you, and what techniques did you use? I’d love to hear about your personal experiences and share new ideas for how we might all benefit from this model.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of happiness: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. London, UK: Rider.
- Emmons, R.A., and McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84, (2) 337-389.
- Goodman, F., Disabato, D., Kashdan, T., & Kauffman, S. (2017). Measuring well-being: A comparison of subjective wellbeing and PERMA. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–12.
- Lyubomirsky, S., Tkach, C., & Sheldon, K. M. (2004). Pursuing sustained happiness through random acts of kindness and counting one’s blessings: Tests of two six-week interventions. Unpublished raw data. DOI:10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.206
- Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., & Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for positive education. International Journal of Wellbeing 3, 147–161.
- Seligman, L. (2006). Theories of counselling and psychotherapy: Systems, strategies, and skills. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Ltd.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York, U.S.A. Free Press.
- Seligman, M. (2018). Perma and the Building Blocks of Well-Being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466.
- Wong, J. & Brown, J. (2017). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain