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What's Your Model Of Well-being? And Why It Matters

We all want to be happy, but what does happiness mean to you? What form of happiness are you searching for?

It probably helps to know, so that you can look in the right places.

In this article I look at what Positive Psychology (aka the science of happiness or wellbeing) has to say about what defines well-being.

Happiness is not a monolithic entity but has a number of components. Martin Seligman is regarded as the founding father of Positive Psychology, a movement that studies human flourishing, optimal performance, and other aspects of well-being. In his 2011 book "Authentic Happiness", he set out three main components of happiness:

  • Positive emotion and pleasure
  • Engagement and flow
  • Meaning and purpose

Let's take a closer look at what each of these means.

Positive Emotion & Pleasure

Probably most people, when they think of what it means to feel happy, would think of the experience of positive emotions, especially joy and love, but also others such as gratitude, hope and inspiration. Certainly it helps to experience these - the more you have the happier you tend to be - and also simple sensory pleasures such as eating good food helps. But if we only sought positive emotions that would amount to hedonism, and it would leave something missing.

Engagment & Flow

What does it mean to be happy in your work? I used to work as a software developer, and for the most part I really enjoyed it, but there was very little in the way of actual positive emotion and pleasure involved. Rather, I enjoyed it because it engaged me - that is it engaged my attention and my energy to the full. I experienced a lot of what is known as "flow", which is the feeling of being so involved in an activity that you lose the sense of yourself doing it (there is just the doing), and you find it completely effortless. Software development might not be your thing but we've all had experiences of flow in our own contexts - very often at work.

So engagement and flow contributes a lot to your sense of satisfaction with your life - the more you experience the happier you are in a general sense.

Meaning & Purpose

We're more likely to feel this kind of engagement, and also fulfilment, when we're involved in activities that express some purpose or meaning that goes beyond our own wants and likes and preferences - when we feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. For example religious and spiritual activities fit the bill, but so could doing voluntary work.


In his later work "Flourish" Seligman extended his model to include two more elements, namely relationships and achievement (making it the PERMA model, PERMA being an acronym of the five components). I think PERMA is the best model of well-being I've come across, and is a really useful way of framing the challenge we all face of how to live a good life. However I can't help feeling that the two later elements are more secondary, and crucial as they are in a practical sense, I see them as the contexts in which the other three play out.

Here's a TED talk by Martin Seligman describing the Positive Psychology approach to well-being:

What Does It Mean For You?

So positivity, engagement and purpose are the three main foundations for happiness or well-being. It's fair to say we all need some of each, but at the same time we all have our own temperaments, and as individuals we'll tend to focus relatively more on one.

When you read about the three, was there one that stood out as most appealing? Or one that you'd implicitly been using as your model of happiness?

Or perhaps after reading about the model, you can now see that what you though of as happiness was somewhat one-sided and limited? Perhaps you can see one or other as a weak point in your overall well-being, or your well-being "portfolio"?

For example, it's clear that there's a wide range of "emotional styles" (or affective styles) - some people just have low affect (they are rather flat and unemotional) and others have an emotional set-point that's naturally more towards the negative end. Martin Seligman himself admitted to lacking a lot of positive affect, and I would say I'm in the same category myself. But it doesn't mean that people like us are destined to be unhappy - we can all find engaged and meaningful lives.

Whatever the case, you may decide it makes sense for you to focus your attentions more on one of the three foundations that the other. In my own case, being an emotionally flatter sort of person, I think it's more productive for me to focus on finding flow and engagement (though not exclusively).

What's the most appealing component of wellbeing for you? I'd welcome your feedback in the comments section below - or even write me an email.

What About Negative Emotion?

For a lot of my clients, the problem is an over-abundance of negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration or irritability, rather than a lack of positive emotion or engagement or meaning - at least that's how they see it to begin with.

But it's very difficult to simply get rid of negative emotions on their own level, and even more difficult to prevent them arising in the first place. It becomes much easier when you have an idea of what you want to experience instead. That might be positive emotion, or some emotional resource such as confidence, or it may be some form of engagement or flow, such as relaxed focus.

The real goal is not to prevent or block negative emotions but to be able to quickly and easily recover and access some positive resource state, in the process letting go of anxiety etc.

My Stress Resilience Training With Biofeeback Programme

As you may know by now, I offer a programme for training stress and emotional resilience skills based on biofeedback, and involving home rental of biofeedback kit, online teaching videos, and one-to-one support.

The programme focuses on developing mind-body skills, which I see as important foundations for all the aspects of well-being.

  • Positive emotion is built on a foundation of optimal physiology and biofeedback can help you learn to access this physiology.
  • Emotional intelligence is founded on self-awareness, especially an awareness of how emotions play out in the body. Biofeedback supports and develops emotional awareness.
  • On the programme we work with mindfulness, and mindfulness works best when it is a more flow-like experience. Biofeedback can support aspects of flow in a context of mindfulness practice.
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