PERMAH – From Distress to Well-Being

Moving away from a chronic disease management to an illness prevention model is a slow but gradual change that we are seeing within the local medical community.  Parallel to this shift in clinical psychology is the increasing emphasis on developing and attaining a sense of psychological well-being, as opposed to focusing only on the alleviation of distress or the treatment of psychopathology and mental illness. 

Seligman’s PERMA model (2011) suggests that well-being is cultivated by the presence of the following five areas: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning Accomplishment. More recently, many other researchers have included Health as a hygiene factor that facilitates well-being, and have combined that with Seligman’s original model to derive at a well-being of model PERMAH (Niemiec, 2019).  Research has also demonstrated that individuals with higher levels of well-being perform better at work and in school, has better health or surgical outcomes, have lower rates of burnt-out, better self-control and more satisfying relationships.  In an increasingly stressful world, working on the following domains through parenting, the workplace and psychotherapy can enhance flourishing, through the cultivation of strengths, grit, and resilience

Positive Emotions:  Feeling pleasurable emotions such as joy, excitement, interest and peace.  It helps people enjoy the daily tasks in their lives.

Engagement: Finding “flow” or the sense that time “flies by” when we are absorbed in activities or the tasks at hand. This engagement helps us to remain present, as well as synthesize the activities where we find calm, focus, and joy.   

Relationships (positive): Being authentically connected to others, creating and maintaining healthy relationships that enriches your life.  Humans are social animals who are hard-wired to bond with others. We thrive on connections that promote love, intimacy, and a strong emotional and physical interaction with other humans. Positive relationships with one’s parents, siblings, peers, colleagues, and friends are a key ingredient to overall joy and support us through difficult times.

Meaning – Purposeful Existence.  Pursuing or experiencing a sense of connection or purpose that goes beyond yourself, such as with another person, community, institution or the larger universe.  Having an answer to “why are we on this earth?” is a key ingredient that can drive us towards a sense fulfilment.

Accomplishment – A sense of success through reaching goals, targets and achievements in more than one domain of your life. Having accomplishments in life is important to push ourselves to thrive and flourish.

Health – Physical health, wellness and sense of vitality goes beyond the absence of disease.   This involves eating and sleeping well, and regular exercise

How would you be using the PERMAH model to flourish and live a life that is worth living?

Niemiec, R. M. (2019).  The Strengths-Based Workbook for Stress Relief: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.

Written by:
Velda Chen
Registered Clinical Psychologist (Singapore)
MClinPsych, BA(Hons)

SACAC Counselling


I am completely in awe of Martin Seligman’s work on Optimism and Happiness. He began his career working on conditioning and learning, as most psychologists did in the 60’s. But he and colleagues stumbled upon “learned helplessness”, a condition in which lab dogs and rats were “helpless”: many (not all) the animals had reached a stage, after being placed in situations where they could not do anything to avoid something bad happening to them, that they were passive in the face of shocks or the threat of shocks.

Seligman realized that the animals had expectations about what was going to happen, and for some of them, ‘despairing’ was better than trying to escape, which would be futile. This led in time to exploring how humans deal with expectations, and thence to optimism and pessimism about the future.

Seligman and his team found that they could measure optimism quite precisely, and that they could identify people who were more or less optimistic. They showed for one of the toughest jobs, with the highest drop-out rate, insurance salesmen, that the most successful were the most optimistic – indeed they had to be, because the proportion of positive calls and meetings for an insurance salesman is so low, only those with massive optimism about themselves could keep making the calls.

The measurements in turn led to better techniques to teach people to be more optimistic about themselves, using cognitive behavioural techniques. He wrote about this work in “Learned Optimism” in 1991.

In the last 20+ years, he and his collaborators at the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania have looked more broadly at happiness, and are steadily building their scientific database of interventions that can positively increase happiness. They suggest there are 3 kinds of happy lives, those with lots of pleasant emotion, usually enjoyed by people with a very sociable outlook; those who may not be very sociable but who are really engaged by some of the things they do, they “get into the flow” of these activities and don’t need ‘pleasant’ feelings; and those whose lives are meaningful, because they have discovered some of their strengths and can use them for the benefit of something or some people other than themselves.

Seligman is a persuasive advocate of “positive psychology,” identifying strengths and what works for people, rather than identifying difficulties, however accurate this may be. I am looking forward to reading his new book, “The Hope Circuit” (2018). I commend everything he has written; happily, the messages are positive but the style is not preachy or sugary. It feels real, too.

Written by
Tim Bunn

EdD, MSc, BA (Hons), PGCE
Consultant Educational Psychologist
SACAC Counselling