The Five Building Blocks of Happiness

In the last 10-15 years psychologists have been putting greater emphasis into the study of happiness and how to get it. The results have shown that a life worth living isn’t just about hedonistic pleasure — well-being requires more than just experiencing positive emotions. In fact, researchers have identified four additional dimensions to happiness that you can develop to help you lead a more fulfilling life.

Positive Emotion

The reason that psychologists don’t place full emphasis on positive emotions is that they are largely heritable and somewhat resistant to change. When people experience a positive life event like a promotion, they get a boost in happiness, but as the brain gets used to the new lifestyle their positive feelings start to slip back to their original level. This level is sometimes called a “set-point”, because it is largely determined by genetics. That said, psychologists believe there is a 10-15% leeway for you to increase the positive emotion in your life, and have identified some techniques you can use to this end, including:

  • At the end of each day, write down three good things that happened that day
  • Make lists of things you are grateful for and try to evoke feelings of gratitude towards them
  • Exercise a few times each week or generally lead an active lifestyle
  • Meditate for 20 minutes a day

Engagement

Engagement, or “flow,” is the state where time seems to stand still, where what we are doing is challenging but not so much that it’s frustrating. Such activities are inherently satisfying and the state of flow allows us to perform at our best. Try to identify activities that create the state of flow in you, where you are one with the task you are doing, and work these into your life more either through your work or leisure time. One tip is that such activities are typically those that involve your personal strengths, and you can also find ways to work your strengths into tasks you already do.

Relationships

By now you will probably be familiar with the truism “human beings are social creatures.” We have evolved in small tribal groups where close-knit living was essential to survival. Our brains are therefore sensitive to our social situations — when we spend time alone, our mood starts to dip, but when we spend time with others, our mood gets a boost. So take the time to spend time with friends and family, particularly people you don’t see so often, and keep relationships alive.

Meaning

Meaning comes when you either belong to or serve something bigger than yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you become a freedom fighter or start chaining yourself to bulldozers. It comes down to what you believe and it doesn’t even have to involve changing the world — it could be impacting the local community in which you live. Some people may find meaning in producing a certain artistic work.

To help discover what is meaningful to you, sit down for 20 minutes are write about your own vision for a positive human future. You can do this exercise several times over a period of a week if you want, refining it as you go. Then, mentally go forward in time and write a summary of your life, talking about how you contributed to this vision.

Achievement

Achievement doesn’t necessarily mean in the classic top grades in school, well-paying job, big house and nice car sense. But we all have goals for ourselves – things we want to do, see, have or experience. Try writing down five goals you want to achieve in the next year, in the next five years, and in the next 10 years. Then for each of your three lists, choose the most important two, and set stepping-stone goals that chart paths to their achievement.

The Forest and the Trees

The value of a model like PERMA is that it helps you to see the big picture of happiness. Think about the success-driven CEO archetype, only happy when the money is coming in, but always over-stressed and overworked. He or she has focused too much on achievement at the cost of everything else. Likewise, think of someone who spends all their time partying — they may get the benefit of positive emotions and relationships, but they miss out on engagement, meaning and achievement.

It’s also important to realize that these aspects don’t have to run through the same activity in life. You might get your positive emotions from your meditation and exercise routine, engagement from your job, relationships through spending time with friends, meaning from your volunteer work and achievement from the martial art you do. In this way, your happiness is resilient, like a diversified investment portfolio. If one area collapses, you have the rest to maintain your happiness.

How does your own life fit the PERMA model? Are there any of these five building blocks that you are neglecting? If so, find ways to implement them in your life and note the effect on your happiness.

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