We have seen from other articles that I have published on this site that not only is it possible to recover from the effects of childhood trauma (with the aid of psychotherapies such as dialectical behaviour therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and other treatments), but also to enter an enduring phase of posttraumatic growth in which we wish, and strive, to develop our greatest possible level of well-being.
But what is meant by ‘well-being’?
One of the world’s leading researchers is this area, the psychologist Seligman, identifies five main elements that lead to optimum well-being which can be represented by the acronym PERMA ; these are :
Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn :
The first element is, I think you’ll agree, fairly obvious : we need often to experience positive emotions.
Almost equally obviously, however, it is, of course, unrealistic for us to always and at all times feel positive emotions (thus going around in a kind of unthinking and mindless state of bovine contentment) and an expectation to do so would, in all likelihood, serve only to achieve its opposite – being happy all the time is hardly an appropriate (or rational) response to life, after all.
This refers to being fully engaged, immersed and engrossed in activities in a way that we lose inhibiting feelings of self-consciousness (rather like a contented child – we’re not nearly so good at it as often stressed and preoccupied adults – does when s/he is utterly absorbed in a play activity, living entirely in the moment).
Psychologists sometimes refer to this state as ‘flow’. In this state, time may seem to ‘stop’ or ‘slow down.’ It is also frequently a state that sportsmen/sportswomen (such as tennis players) try to attain in order to perform at their optimum level.
Seligman suggests that our best experiences are likely to involve positive relationships with other people rather than being derived from solitary activity and that such relationships are therefore crucial to our well-being.
Seligman defines meaningful activity as activity ‘that serves something bigger than ourselves’ (such as working for a charitable, social or political cause). He also states that a meaningful activity incorporates the following elements:
a) it contributes to our well-being
b) personal gain is not the main aim of carrying out a meaningful activity so we will carry it out even if it involves personal sacrifice and personal costs (such as risking going to prison for political beliefs/actions; for example, protesting against nuclear weapons).
c) ‘meaningfulness’ is ‘defined and measured independently’ [from the other four elements that contribute to well-being, namely positive emotion (see above), engagement (see above), relationships (see above) and accomplishment (see below)].
This may lead to positive emotions, engagement and meaning, but, according to Seligman, may also be sought for its own sake.
Indeed, Seligman states that all of the five elements above may be pursued for their own sake, rather than as a means to an end.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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