PERMA – P Is For Positive Emotions

The idea of PERMA being action oriented implies that words or ideas have to be changed into a specific actions or behaviors that guide the path. In the previous blog we learned that PERMA is the acronym for the five vital elements that accompany the journey: These include:  (P) Positive Emotion; (E) Engagement; (R) Positive Relationships; (M) Meaning; and (A) Accomplishment/Achievement.1

Positive emotions relate to how we feel and evaluate our own level of happiness. Something has to happen for us to get to the level we want to experience. For example; do you know what truly makes you happy? Can you get up on a given day and know the action you can put in place to make your day more meaningful or fulfilling? Perhaps it is something as small as saying “I am going to call my best friend today because I know that is a source I can rely on to boost my spirit”.

Telling someone to just “be happy”, “smile or “don’t worry about it” is a very inapplicable and unrealistic statement to many of the ups and downs of life. However, even in valleys of life, being tied to the glimmer of hope and possibility is a sign that positive emotion plays a role in binding a person to the upward climb. Thus, we can look at the idea of the Push-Pull phenomenon of positive emotions. Push- actions that we mind fully set out to do to create and perpetuate happiness regardless of emotional state at the time: be with friends, get into FLOW, enjoy a movie etc. Pull – the positive emotions we use to undo negative emotions or to find different ways of experiencing difficult times. The research associated with the Broaden and Build Theory laid out by Barbara Fredrickson indicated that those prepared with the ability to use positive emotion as a state of being as a critical element in the “undoing”, or linking a change of negative state as in the fight or flight stance, as a measure to equalize or lessen the negative state.2  In essence, a tool to broaden the choice of outcome of situations.

So what exactly does that mean in relation to “action oriented” and how positive emotions are used to support characteristics such as resilience and lingering well-being?  Without taking away from the essential aspects of negative emotion in the role of fight or flight and survival, positive emotions and behaviors that create positive emotions can be used to switch gears, or to balance the teeter-totter of emotions. Let me give you an example: On any given day we have choices as to how we view events. The other day I dropped a plate filled with food; the plate shattered and the food draped my walls and floor.  Obviously this turned on the key to a lot of negative emotions. When my son walked in, he said “hey, it could be worse, that could have been the last of the lasagna”.  While I certainly will not take away from the deeper experiences of personal tragedy, finding ways to steer the ship in a different direction or certainly keep it from sinking is a key to using positive emotions.

I think where many people get confused with the idea of positive emotions and action is that there is an expectation that one must look, act and feel happy all the time given the characteristics of positive emotion: joy, happiness, love and hope. However, these terms do not always define the experience one is going through so it becomes confusing that one might experience joy or happiness during the journey through a terminal illness or tragedy in life.  For a moment, consider the nemesis alternative emotions: anger, fear, sadness and disgust, which re associates with the survival mode of hiding, running away or wanting to escape. So the choice is to either act on the negative emotion by running away or escaping the issue, or broaden and build on the idea that positive emotions can be generated and perpetuated in all experiences in life.

In a class I taught several years ago, a student revealed the tragedy of learning that her father was dying of  terminal cancer and had only months to live. During the time she was in was in the Positive Psychology course, she gained a new insight into taking the journey though heart-wrenching time and creating something very beautiful and special for her and her father. Rather than running away or denying the experience, they learned to share very intimate and meaningful moments through tears and joys of captured moments: creating a photo album, watching a sunset together, visiting his comrades at the military grave site, baking his favorite dish and enjoying it together…

Positive emotion, in the pool of action oriented ways of being, is not a mask one puts on to shade the events of life, but rather a choice to engage in in ways that recognize the positive shards of which to broaden the mindset and build ways in which to see and experience the world. So what does l this lead to? As in the case of the lasagna wall-paper, it gave me the opportunity to be grateful that I had food and to share a laugh with my son; as in the case of the journey through a terminal illness, it elicited bravery to stay and to create memories that will forever linger in the heart and mind of the one left behind.
1 Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Published by Free Press.

2 Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar 2001, 218-226.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’


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