November 18, 2019 by John Andrew Williams
Since the 1980s, theoretical and empirical research in positive psychology has flourished. Previously, the field of psychology was closely focused on describing and quantifying mental illness – how to identify, measure, and treat psychological maladies. Not until groundbreaking work such as Csikszentmihalyi (1975) and Ryff (1989) did psychology shift its focus to understanding positive human functioning. Rather than working solely on helping sick people, psychologists at this time became deeply interested in the mechanisms that promote and reinforce mental health. Not only that, but also what mechanisms cultivate fulfilling and purposeful human lives? While theories of well-being abound, all agree that well-being is not just the lack of mental illness, but something much, much more (See Keyes 2002).
Positive psychology theories describe the big picture of what a psychologist (or group of psychologists) proposes is going on. They represent complex, explanatory hypotheses. Hypotheses are only ideas until they are tested, so psychologists design studies that apply hypotheses, or theories, to real-world situations. To do this, they need measurement tools that reliably translate narrative (or qualitative) theoretical concepts into measurement (or quantitative) instruments that collect numerical data from real people. Psychologists then analyze these data with statistics to test whether the theory is reflecting reality, adjust the theory if necessary, and refine the tools for measuring it.
Think about that for a minute. Psychologists are taking ideas – descriptive, narrative ideas like sensory perceptions, emotions, and thoughts – and turning them into numbers. Numbers that reliably reflect what is going on inside the human mind. That’s a really difficult, some actually say impossible, undertaking (Ferguson et al. 1939). A lot of psychological research, therefore, goes into developing and testing the measurement tools themselves.
Martin Seligman proposed a theory of well-being in his 2011 book, Flourish. In the theory, called PERMA, Seligman hypothesizes that positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment are the five categories of well-being that together cause a person to flourish. In 2016, Julie Butler and Margaret Kern undertook the task of developing and testing a measurement tool for PERMA that can be widely used by researchers, individuals, and life coaches to help people better understand themselves. They call it the PERMA-Profiler.
Seligman’s theory uses “PERMA” as an acronym for the five pillars of well-being that together form a flourishing human. The cornerstone of each of the components is that they are intrinsically rewarding. In other words, the sheer act of reinforcing them is enjoyable in and of itself.
Butler and Kern designed a study to develop and propose a measurement tool for PERMA to be used in future research. They recognized the inherent difficulty of developing measurement tools that quantify well-being theories. They acknowledged research that has successfully tested and defined well-being theories with real world data – Diener’s Flourishing Scale, Ryff’s Psychological Well-Being Scales, and Keyes Mental Health Continuum. The resulting 23 question survey measures the 5 PERMA domains, as well as physical health and negative emotions. Seligman (2011) proposes that the 5 domains can each be measured independently, but that responses are likely correlated with one another to suggest an overall state of well-being.
The PERMA Profiler is a tool that we as coaches can use to help clients identify possible areas for growth and measure the results of their hard work. People can also independently use the PERMA profiler to evaluate where they stand on various measurements of well-being. As the authors state: “The PERMAProfiler provides another tool for the wellbeing measurement toolbox. Ultimately, we hope that this tool can help people better understand themselves, note their strengths and weaknesses, and find ways to more fully flourish in life,” (p. 22).The PERMA Profiler highlights the painstaking process of developing tools that reliably prescribe objective measurements to something entirely subjective. Someone’s personal thoughts, feelings, and experience of the world is entirely their own. To ask a participant to rate them on a scale of 0 to 10 is inherently difficult because the participant must translate their incredibly complicated feelings, many of which they may not even have words for, into numbers. The tool for doing this therefore holds a great burden of responsibility to accurately reflect subjective human experience. The process that Butler and Kern underwent to translate Seligman’s PERMA theory into a quantitative measurement tool demonstrates how psychologists use real world data to test and refine questionnaires.
Soon after Seligman’s publication of PERMA in Flourish in 2011, Butler and Kern began developing a measurement tool for it. The goal was to develop a questionnaire that was both efficient and effective, to get it as short as possible while still fully capturing each PERMA domain. So, if they were going to ask the fewest possible questions on the questionnaire, they had to be the best questions. First, they created a huge “bank” of PERMA questions and weeded it down to the most relevant. Think of this as meticulously splitting, then strategically lumping. They started with the five PERMA domains, then defined all possible sub-domains within each one by looking to relevant literature and other measurement tools. They came up with more than 700 questions in the bank. Then they weeded the bank of PERMA questions. First, they removed any redundant concepts. Then they had three positive psychology scholars each rate the list. If the scholars ratings didn’t agree on any question, that question was removed. They weeded down the list of 700 to 109. They then added existing well-being and mental health scales to the PERMA questions, as well as three narrative questions, ending with a total of 199 questions. Each question (other than the narrative questions) was phrased to prompt participants to answer it on a scale of increasing agreement from 0 to 10 (called an 11 point Likert scale). They implemented a survey with 3,751 participants. They found their participants online by posting a link to the survey on the Authentic Happiness website, where people could voluntarily take it. The survey took about a half hour to finish. Butler and Kern used disagreements in the resulting data to identify problematic questions and continue weeding down the list of questions. They threw out questions that had very specific time scales (in the last day, in the last month, etc.) in favor of generalized time questions. They threw out negatively worded questions. Then, they split the participant data in half and did statistical analyses to identify which questions best fit the PERMA construct. They came up with 15 questions. With the 15 refined questions, they collected additional survey data. 3,029 usable responses to the 199 question survey came in from the Authentic Happiness website, and they recruited 409 additional participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to take the 15 question survey. They tested the resulting data through more statistics to validate their fit with the PERMA factors. They also added 8 questions targeting negative emotions, loneliness, self-perceived physical health, and overall well-being. The resulting PERMA profiler is 23 questions long. From 2013 – 2016, they gathered additional survey data to test the final questionnaire. They posted the survey once more on the Authentic Happiness website and collected 4,717 responses. They invited all participants to take the survey again two weeks later, and collected 1,073 re-take responses, to compare with their responses the first time they took the survey. All matched. Between 2014 and 2016, an additional 23,692 people took the survey. Additional data came from other studies that used some or all of the PERMA profiler questions – a study on self-compassion (285 responses), a study comparing personal values and well-being (166 responses), and a study that implemented the PERMA profiler for Harvard positive psychology students 3 times throughout a semester (184 first responses, 107 second responses, 86 third responses). In total, the final PERMA profiler statistically fit with over 30,000 worldwide participant responses.
Butler, J. and Kern, M. L. 2015. The PERMA Profiler, Measure Overview. University of Pennsylvania. http://www.peggykern.org/uploads/5/6/6/7/56678211/the_perma-profiler_092515.pdfButler, J. and Kern, M. L. 2016. The PERMA-Profiler: A brief multidimensional measure of flourishing. International Journal of Wellbeing 6(3): pp. 1-48. doi:10.5502/ijw.v6i3.526 Ferguson, et al. 1939. Quantitative Estimates of Sensory Events. Nature 144 (973). https://doi.org/10.1038/144973c0 Keyes, C. L. 2002. The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43 (2): pp. 207 – 222. http://www.flume.com.br/pdf/Keyes_The_mental_health.pdfSeligman, M. 2011. Flourish. Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY.
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