Seligman’s PERMA Model of Well-being – applying it within your coaching…

By Dr. Joe Isbister

Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model of Well-being can be a useful concept to apply to your own life and work, as well as within in a coaching context. It can provide a framework that you can use with your clients to calibrate more positive emotion, meaning and purpose in their lives.

Happiness and wellbeing are often experienced as nebulous, fleeting and a deeply personal set of experiences. Something that people can spend their lives striving for and one that is often realised after the moment has passed.

Most people would agree that well-being and happiness are an essential part of life. Yet sometimes our culture and all the competing priorities can seem at odds with experiencing it. As coaches it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on what well-being really means for our clients. Here’s where the PERMA model categories can be useful.

Positive Psychology – the study of the elements that make life worthwhile

The key co-founders of this movement are Psychologists Dr Martin Seligman and Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Simply put, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi advocate that there is tremendous value in studying and actively fostering positive emotions, resiliency, strong relationships, and creative achievements. It is not intended to replace traditional Psychology, which has tended to focus on the other end of the continuum, but rather to complement it.

One of the take-home findings that the Positive Psychology movement has taught us is that an increase in material resources, does not increase happiness. Despite the obvious alure of advertising, the accumulation of things and wealth, it does not often necessarily equal happiness and well-being.

Seligman’s research led him to the 5 elements of his PERMA Model. These offer key insights into our understanding of well-being.

PERMA is an acronym with fives themes; Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. These are outlined below:

Photo by Tim Mossholder

P – Positive Emotions: This is the hedonic part of well-being. Life needs contain positive emotions. This can be enhanced by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness about the past, mindfulness in the moment and hope and optimism about the future.

E – Engagement: This is the doing part of well-being. Life should contain activities where we can fully deploy our skills, strength and attention on a challenging task. When this happens, people are we are willing to do the activity, for its’ own safe, regardless of any external rewards.

R – Relationships: We need connections with others to truly flourish. Experiences being amplified by relationships. Connections to others can give life added meaning.

M – Meaning: When we experience a sense of belonging to a cause. Recognising ourselves as something bigger than ourselves. We have a sense of purpose.

A – Achievement: We thrive when we are succeeding at something, experiencing competency, success and mastery. Achieving our goals and gaining a sense of accomplishment.

We are all different…

It is important to emphasise that different people will derive well-being from each of these areas, to different degrees. And we are not all the same. A fulfilling life for one person, will not necessarily be suited to well-being for somebody else. Some people are more relationship-focused, other people may be more achievement-driven, some people may derive their identity through the meaning that they attach to their lives.

Hence, the PERMA Model of Well-being respects people’s individual differences, recognising that there are many routes towards well-being. Although, well-being is not random. There is a broad recipe for it.

PERMA and choices

One of the other big take-home messages of PERMA is that, to a large extent, happiness and well-being are a choice. There are many ways we can experience the fives aspects of PERMA, in ways that can largely be detached from circumstances/events outside of your control. This is why, PERMA, can be a helpful concept to keep in mind, particularly in coaching situations where clients are expressing existential questions related to their well-being.

Seligman’s model has five abstract dimensions, so when working with it, coaches need to drill down into making these dimensions specific to their client. The PERMA Model can then help clients to ground their experiences, enabling them to gain a better understanding of what may be contributing towards well-being, or what is missing for them. It can also be used to help clients understand which elements of their current situation may need balancing or adjusting.

Where Seligman’s model can be particularly useful is in empowering clients to see that, irrespective of circumstances, well-being is potentially achievable. It can provide new hope.

The PERMA Model offers some pointers for each element

Encourage positive emotions
Practise gratitude and forgive in relation to your past. Practise mindfulness in the moment. Practise optimism about your future. Notice and find things that make you happy. Do more of the things that make you happy.

More engagement
Find activities that interest you, whether in a work context or in other aspects of your life. Notice the occasions where you ‘get lost in time’.

Build Relationships
Develop connections and build relationships with people around you. Make time for people and friendships.

Meaning and purpose
Work on finding out what you really believe in. Discover greater purpose in your work, pursue volunteering opportunities, personal interests or mentoring others.

Move towards achievement
Keep focused on your goals, setting realistic targets. But keep this in balance with all the other elements in life.

The PERMA Model can provide a basis for a great coaching conversation

The PERMA elements fit well with the ethos of coaching. As coaches, it is important to support clients with their well-being. To understand what will potentially refresh and sustain them. The PERMA framework can help you as a coach to identify more readily what is meaningful to your clients, whist also encouraging self-efficacy and responsibility. It can be a means to effectively challenge them to find new ways to look after themselves well and maintain their resiliency.

Yet, without knowing the PERMA Model elements, a client may not be aware of what they are missing out on, let alone be considering actions to rebalance these. Especially, as they can often be at odds with well-being aspects of themselves as they survive within demanding and high delivery contexts.

Describing the PERMA model in a coaching session and explaining it well, can often be insightful for clients. The categories provide a helpful scaffolding. They combine and offer a strong and supportive framework to work within. Enriching the coaching conversation onwards.

It can also be effective to apply a practical scaling exercise of 1-10 to each of the PERMA elements. 10 being the highest expression of each category and 1 the lowest. This can help a client, personally calibrate, and assess themselves honestly. Then, the client has an opportunity to think about their choices and the strategies they might take be to raise the PERMA scale levels.

Discussing each of the PERMA elements promises to bring benefits. Discovering what each aspect means for your client at this point in their career, can result in some positive and meaningful changes. Sometimes, even the smallest steps in the right direction bring about sustained changes and a real shift in a client’s sense of wellbeing and confidence. The PERMA model is well worth adding into your repertoire and coaching practice.