In Research Review

In 2011, Martin Seligman proposed a new theory of well being in his book Flourish, called PERMA. With the last several blog posts, I’ve broken down some of the foundational academic papers in the field of positive psychology – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 with the theory of flow, Carol Ryff in 1989 with her six dimensions of well-being, Ed Diener in 1984 with subjective well-being (SWB), to name a few. 

You aren’t alone if you find yourself wondering, well, which one is it? Which theory explains how people function most accurately? And, if the earlier well-being theories have been successfully tested and refined empirically leading to ground-breaking discoveries in the causes of living a good life, why would Seligman propose a new one?

All good questions. The answer to the “which one is it” question is ambiguous – psychologists have statistically tested each of these theories rigorously with real world data since they were proposed more than 30 years ago. This data suggests the theories reflect reality in the situations they are applied to, but each situation may be slightly different. Flow is pretty specific, for example, targeting a certain self-fulfilling mental state that is related to challenging activities. Ryff’s six dimensions are meant to be all-encompassing, while Diener’s SWB is specific to happiness. All are possible causes of the larger concept of a flourishing human, each measuring a different piece. But when researchers have tested whether these different scales measure different types of well-being, their results have suggested that there aren’t many differences between these conceptual frameworks (Disaboto et al. 2016, Jovanovic 2015, Longo et al. 2017). 

When Seligman proposed PERMA and others developed measures for it that seemed to work (Butler and Kern 2016), Goodman et al. 2017 decided to test whether it was measuring anything different than Diener’s SWB. 

What:

To evaluate PERMA’s usefulness, Goodman, Disabato, Kashdan, and Kauffman (2017) designed a study to compare it with the well-theory of subjective well-being (SWB). They wanted to know if PERMA captured anything new or different about what makes people thrive, or whether it suggested a unique type of well-being.

PERMA is an acronym for five components of well-being, which Seligman hypothesizes are intrinsically rewarding. 

  • Positive Emotion is experiencing overall positive, rather than negative, emotional feelings associated with one’s life and day-to-day activities. 
  • Engagement is focused, dedicated work that fosters growth in the personal, academic, or professional realms. It’s also known as flow.
  • Relationships are healthy social relationships with others – with a partner, family members, or networks of close friends.
  • Meaning is having a sense of direction in life, and a sense that one’s life is purposeful and valuable in the larger context of society. 
  • Accomplishment is someone’s internal perception that they have achieved excellence in whatever realm they have applied themselves to. From Olympic athletes to single mothering, accomplishment can occur whenever one simply does their best to reach a goal and experiences positive results.

SWB, is also an acronym, for “subjective well-being”. Ed Diener proposed SWB in 1984 as a theory unifying three different types of happiness.

  • Life satisfaction occurs when people feel that they are achieving what they want in their life, based on however they define what a good life looks like. 
  • Positive feelings are positive moods and emotions on a daily basis. Love, joy, excitement, and hope are examples of positive feelings. 
  • Low negative feelings means people are able to manage any negative emotions on a low level. Depression, worry, anger, and jealousy are examples of negative feelings. 

To compare PERMA and SWB, Goodman et al. recruited 517 participants to take two different surveys. They used three separate statistical analyses to test for similarities and differences between the two. If the two converged across all four of these analyses, that would be strong evidence that they are measuring the same type of well-being. The results therefore suggest that PERMA and SWB both point to the same well-being factor. 

Why:

The map is not the territory. The score that you get on the test is an indication of something, but it isn’t a substitute for the actual subjective experience of an individual. That life is so rich and buried and beautiful, both in moments of joy and pain, that measurements like this from the standpoint of an individual often don’t make sense. But these tools are useful when looking at large groups of people and gathering hundreds of thousands of data points to look at trends of certain activities and their impact on happiness. 

All well-being measurements are useful. This analysis contributes to a growing body of studies that have compared competing theories of well-being and found little difference between them (Disaboto et al. 2016, Jovanovic 2015, Longo et al. 2017). 

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the specific tool isn’t important its just important that you use any tool. Much like personality assessments – the assessment itself can give you insights and ideas about what might need to change or raise self-awareness, but it’s not that any one tool lines up more accurately with a physiological process. 

How:

Goodman et al. hypothesized that PERMA and SWB would converge to capture the same type of overall well-being. They designed three distinct statistical analyses to test for the convergence. They tested how varied the individual factors of SWB and PERMA were in predicting well-being. Low variance would suggest little difference between the two. Then, they looked at how related SWB and PERMA separately were to character strengths, which are known to be correlated with well-being. If the two are different, they should each have unique correlations with character strengths. Third, they compared how each person measured on well-being scales. Theoretically, if the well-being scales were each measuring a distinct type of well-being then the same person would produce different results on each scale.

 517 adults aged 18-71 years and  living in the United States participated. The researchers recruited them from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is an online crowdsourcing platform. Each participant completed three questionnaires corresponding with each of the three analyses online. For PERMA, they completed Butler & Kern’s (2016) PERMA-profiler. For SWB, they completed Diener et al’s (1985) Satisfaction with Life Scale. For the character strength comparison, they completed Peterson & Seligman’s (2004) Values in Action Inventory of Strengths survey. 

The results of their statistical analyses suggested that PERMA and SWB target the same type of well being. There was strong correlation between PERMA and SWB across all three study approaches. 

References:

Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F. R., Kashdan, T. B., Short, J. L. & Jarden, A. (2016). Different types of well-being? A cross-cultural examination of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Psychological Assessment, 28(5), 471-482.

Goodman, F. R., Disabato, D. J., Kashdan, T. B., Kauffman, S. B. (2017). Measuring well-being: A comparison of subjective well-being and PERMA. The Journal of Positive Psychology,  DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1388434

Jovanovic, Veljko. (2015). Beyond the PANAS: Incremental validity of the scale of positive and negative experience (SPANE) in relation to well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 487-491.

Longo, Y., Coyne, I., & Joseph, S. (2017). The scales of general well-being (SGWB). Personality and Individual Differences, 109, 148-159. 

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Seligman, M. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of Happiness and Well-being.  New York, Atria Paperback.

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