PERMA: Engagement


At some point in your life, you’ve probably watched a river flow through a forest or meadow. Or maybe you’ve seen the tide of the ocean roll back and forth. Did you notice how effortlessly the law of gravity was at work?

Now, have you ever found yourself in the midst of an activity that you really enjoy and the hours seem like minutes? Maybe you’re reading an amazing book or playing a sport or musical instrument. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “flow”-that is, a state of deep absorption in an activity that is intrinsically enjoyable; in other words, to the person acting, the activity is worth doing for its own sake.

Engagement is a synonym for flow in a long term context. This is what teachers talk about when they see their students’ faces consistently light up or hands raised in class. “They’re engaged in the learning process.” It’s what company owners look for in employees: investment in the product, passion and commitment.   They say that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life. People who never “work” (in the drudgery sense of the word) are highly engaged in their job. They get lost in it and they love the work for its own sake.

Now what if there was a way to increase the level of flow or engagement and thus your motivation, into your work, school or everyday activities?

Let’s get real. Pick an area of your life where your motivation could use a kick in the pants. Is it your job? A class? A relationship? A hobby or skill? Check out this research and choose one concept that will help you experience more flow. Ready?

Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, an experimental psychologist, has published dozens of studies on engagement in various settings and has developed what he calls Flow Theory. The most important contributor to flow, he says, is to match the skills of the person with the challenge of the activity. If you make the activity too hard, they will be overwhelmed. If you make it too easy, they’ll be bored. Many people intuitively grasp this concept, but fail to maximize its use effectively in everyday life.

Say you have a dream to run a marathon. What is your skill level? If you try to run ten miles in one shot, will you get overwhelmed and not want to run again? If you run one mile a day, would you get bored with your goal? If you jog just beyond your running comfort zone—just enough to push yourself without burning out—you will stay engaged in the task.

Other contributors to flow may be less intuitive. John Steele and Clive Fullagar studied the connection between flow and four characteristics in the school lives of 137 college students and found all of the following to be statistically significant.  Think of that part of your life that needs a kickstart and ask yourself these questions:

  • Autonomy—How much freedom do you give yourself in the process and pace of the activity?
  • Role Clarity—Do you understand what is expected of you?
  • Feedback—Are you asking for and getting constructive advice on your progress?
  • Physical Health—Are you in good physical shape? Do you have enough energy?

Have you found a concept that might help you increase your flow? How can you put it into action?

Granted, there are some scenarios where some of these ideas may not help you. For example, perhaps your workplace has well established rules on your schedule and deadlines, so your autonomy is limited. In some cases, you may not be able to completely change things, but you can influence. Perhaps you didn’t get the feedback on your school paper that you needed. You can visit your professor and ask for additional thoughts. The ultimate rule of thumb is to focus on what you can control. Choose the concept which gives you the most power to make changes. And don’t forget to allow time for activities that naturally bring flow into your life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment about what you learned and your action plan.

Want to know more? Check these out:

A TED Talk: Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

A Book: Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A Peer Reviewed Study: “Facilitators and Outcomes of Student Engagement in a College Setting” by Steele, J. P., & Fullagar, C. J. (2009). Journal of Psychology, 143(1), 5-27.

PERMA: Positive Emotion


I have a question for you, and I challenge you to answer it in 10 seconds or less: How do you define happiness?

I’m willing to bet that your answer included some variant of “positive emotion”. And according to tradition, you’re right. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines happiness as “a feeling or state of well-being and contentment”.

Martin Seligman’s acronym PERMA seeks to expand that definition. Good feelings are one of only five areas of research. Let’s see what psychologists have discovered about this category.

Traditional emotion theorists believe that emotions narrow our action urges, whether positive or negative. Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneer researcher in the field of positive emotion, begs to differ. What she calls The Broaden-and-Build Theory states that positive emotions broaden individual’s momentary thought-action repertoires and build physical, social, intellectual, and psychological personal resources.

In other words, not only do positive emotions feel good in the present, but also increase the likelihood that one will feel good in the future. This theory has been tested repeatedly and so far is defying traditional theorists at every turn.

So what do we do to increase our positive emotions? So much, and there’s so little time! I’ll give you just one tip for now: try meditating.

Martin Seligman and others have been concerned with whether positive emotions really have a long term effect on happiness. There’s this theory called the hedonic treadmill effect. It claims that positive emotions cease once the novelty of an experience subsides. How do we combat that?

In 2009, Fredrickson and her colleagues tested the broaden-and-build theory in application to loving-kindness meditation (LKM). This meditation technique is designed to increase feelings of warmth and caring for the self and others. Fredrickson believed that this would also expand peoples’ resources

The meditator begins in a seated position with his eyes closed and focuses on his breath. He then directs his emotions toward warm and tender feelings in an open-hearted way, first to himself, then to an ever-widening circle of other people. 139 employees at a large software company put this to the test. About half of the participants were assigned to a loving-kindness meditation group, and the remaining to a control group. Those in the meditation group participated in six 60 minute group sessions and practiced daily LKM solo while guided by a CD. Each day they reported on their experience through an internet survey.

Researchers found that while LKM did not significantly influence any one emotion individually, collectively over time the practice produced powerfully significant results: positive emotions skyrocketed later in the training. The gradual time release factor seems to confirm that loving-kindness meditation has the power to defeat the hedonic treadmill effect. In fact, rather than subsiding, the relationship between the practice of LKM and the experience of positive emotions tripled over the course of nine weeks.

Want to try it? Here are some resources:

And if you’re interested in Barbara Fredrickson’s research, here are some good journal articles:

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires. Cognition & Emotion, 19(3), 313-332.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.





A Scientific Study of Happiness


“Everyone, without exception, is searching for happiness.”

– Blaise Pascal


Have you ever heard someone truthfully say they don’t want to be happy? While sometimes our actions and feelings get in the way, when it comes to the core of existence, we humans all want one thing: complete and utter bliss.

Just one question…What does that even mean?

For almost one hundred years since the birth of psychology, its primary focus had been about relieving human suffering. If humans are a flower garden, psychological research gives us tips on pulling the weeds. While weed pulling is a vital part of tending a garden, it is not the entire concept, or even the point.

In 1991 a pioneering psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term positive psychology. He and his colleagues have carved a new agenda for research and practice: the study of positive emotion, character and institutions and the nurturing of their growth. Here the other parts of garden tending are accounted for—planting, watering, and drinking in the sunlight.

Over the years, Martin Seligman has identified six categories of positive psychology for study. All these topics form one cohesive acronym: PERMA.

Here we find a comprehensive outline of what true happiness is, and it’s not just about pleasurable sentimentality. Check this acronym out:

  • Positive Emotion: good feelings
  • Engagement: complete absorption in one’s activities
  • Relationships: authentic connection to others
  • Meaning: purposeful existence
  • Achievement: a sense of accomplishment



Want to learn how to better cultivate your own happiness? I once devoted an entire semester of my college experience writing a research paper on positive psychology. I’m going to break it down for you. Stay tuned for further installments of a six part series devoted to each of these categories. Each blog is 700 words or less and has all the essential information. I’ll include exercises that will help you develop each kind of happiness and I’ll reference original sources if you want greater detail.

As Roy M. Goodman said, “Remember that happiness is a way of travel – not a destination.” I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you.