An Expose on Meaning and Wellbeing
The book “Flourish” tries to explain the reason for human existence. Seligman, the author, through research and studies, has shown that to be Wellbeing. Wellbeing is a composition of five elements: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment- PERMA. However, Man’s Search for Meaning takes the opposite approach to explain the question of human existence. Frankl- the author, in this case, looks at meaning from the viewpoint of a man who has nothing to lose i.e., what keeps a man going when he has nothing. In his opinion, finding meaning is the bane of human existence. From both papers, we can establish that Human Agency- the ability to choose, is the determinant of Wellbeing, Meaning, or Authentic Happiness.
The components of PERMA.
According to Seligman, each element of Wellbeing, i.e., PERMA, must have three attributes.
- It must contribute to Wellbeing.
- It must be pursued for its own sake and not merely to attain the other elements.
- It is defined and measured independently of the other elements.
Positive Emotions: This is simply the pleasant life that is subjectively measured for happiness and life satisfaction. It involves emotions like warmth, comfort, pleasure, ecstasy, etc.
Engagement: This happens when your strengths happen to match the challenges you encounter. It involves putting the best of to achieve goals, and in the process, you enter a state of Flow.
Positive Relationships: In simple terms, we can say that people are the best antidotes to the downs of life and the connections. Being kind to people is a reliable way to increase Wellbeing.
Meaning: This is about finding something bigger than yourself. It isn’t about happiness or life satisfaction but being involved is something that surpasses self. For example, childbirth and parenting are less about pleasure and more about the posterity and continuity of the human race.
Accomplishment: This is the pursuit of winning for winning’s sake. In simple terms, we can say it is the achieving life.
Components of MEANING
In his book, Frankl opines, “Hunger, humiliation, fear and deep anger at injustice are rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humor, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature — a tree or a sunset. But these moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help the prisoner make larger sense out of his senseless suffering. It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds, he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.”
The paragraph above exemplifies everything that Frankl’s believes. He posits that if you can achieve meaning in life, you can achieve all other Wellbeing elements, although he doesn’t refer to it as Wellbeing. In his opinion, we should focus on what we mean to life — to develop a sense of purpose that our death or life means something. To him, suffering bravely is an opportunity to strengthen your character, learn and grow.
Frankl exemplifies his ideologies by his choices during captivity. To achieve meaning and survival, he decided to pursue a life task. When he was sick with typhus, he decided to rewrite the book confiscated from him the first day he came into the camp. He then decided to love selflessly. Not just romantically, but helping others unconditionally, as seen by him volunteering to work in the hospital, caring for the sick.
The connection between PERMA and Frankl
Both Seligman and Frankl approach life from the lenses of positive psychology. While Seligman comes from a state of peace where man’s basic needs are covered, i.e., The base needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are covered, Frankl approaches life from the viewpoint of emptiness and nothingness.
Both authors understand the importance of meaning in answering the question of existentialism. While Frankl makes meaning the main subject of discussion, Seligman sees meaning as one of the elements that make up the totality of Wellbeing.
Frankl and Seligman understand the importance of positive emotions for the survival of man. Experiencing positive emotions in the best or worst moments can alleviate pain and promote a sense of life satisfaction even if it’s just for a moment. In Frankl’s case, this can be seen in the prisoner’s attempts to find humor even in the direst circumstances. He writes (1991, pg. 58) “To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humor there as well; of course, only the faint trace of one, and then only for a few seconds or minutes. Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds”.
Interestingly both authors extol the importance of positive relationships. With Seligman, he regards it as one of the elements for Wellbeing. For Frankl, you can infer the importance of positive relationships when he talks about his wife. He writes (1991, pg.49) “…that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
However, both schools of thought’s most unifying factor is choice’s place in explaining human existence. Seligman (2011, pg. 21), when trying to explain Wellbeing, opines, “It is essentially a theory of uncoerced choice, and its five elements comprise what free people will choose for their own sake.” He then goes on to write, “The upshot of this is that Wellbeing cannot exist just in your own head: Wellbeing is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximize all five of these elements.”
Similarly, Frankl (1992, pg.75) writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Is PERMA complete, in your opinion, or should there be additions?
I think Seligman’s PERMA doesn’t completely capture the essence of humanity. Although I acknowledge positive psychology’s focus, life isn’t all about the positive aspects; there are good times and bad times. The addition to PERMA should be resilience to make up for the negativity part. It is an element of Wellbeing. Without it, we are bound to give up — like the other prisoners in the Auschwitz camp.
Secondly, PERMA is not as measurable as he makes it look. While positive emotions may be measurable, measuring or operationalizing meaning may be more difficult (although he did say it was subjective).
Lastly, Seligman states that one of the properties of the elements of Wellbeing is that they must be distinctive. However, most times, elements like Accomplishment or Positive relationships always lead to positive emotions. He states that each element can be measure independently of the other element. But how does one measure accomplishment without the positive emotions it brings?
Also, the concept of “Being pursued for its own sake is flawed.” People don’t do things for doing sake. There is always an underlying factor that pushes people to make the choice we make. And in the end, it always boils down to how our choices make us feel.
PERMA is what free non-suffering people pursue when all is safe and well. But with Frankl, we see that people, despite nothingness, still chases Wellbeing through meaning (loved ones- positive relationships, Humor- Positive emotions). Frankl’s positive psychology approach is more interesting because it accounts for the negative aspects and unpredictability of life. It provides a more creative way to push forward despite the overwhelming negativity.
Conflict is an essential part of life, and it has a bell-shaped effect on people. It can be positive or negative; in the middle of that curve is resilience. On one side, you have people who go back to where they were psychologically, and on the other side, those who experience post-traumatic growth. The difference between what side of the curve a person falls is choice. We can’t always control what happens in your life. But we can choose how you interpret and respond to the situation- This is my opinion, determines meaningfulness and Wellbeing.
· Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish- A new visionary understanding of happiness and Wellbeing. Random House Australia. (Chapter 1–2)
· Frankl, E.V. (1992). Man’s search for meaning- an introduction to logotherapy. 4th edition, Beacon Press. Pg 17–100