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.





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