Flourishing at School Blog

Quest Series #5

‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 1

If you’ve journeyed with me this far, you’re probably quite invested in student wellbeing.  We’ve explored the rational and personal ‘why’s’ – the reasons to get involved or to go deeper in this area.  But ‘what’ is wellbeing?  We looked at a brief definition ‘feeling good and functioning well’, which is handy for keeping it simple. But if we want to be able to successfully measure wellbeing, and be able to assess where our students are, we’ll need a bit more detail.  So today, we’ll be looking at the PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – an academically strong yet practical way to look at wellbeing; and in my experience the foremost theory for school-based practitioners.

We all have an informed hunch about what wellbeing is and what it means for our students.  When we see them laugh or smile, see them fascinated by a topic or engaged in a project, getting on well with each other, behaving in ways that benefit others over their own self-interest, or the pride they display when accomplishing something – on some level we know all these things are good and support wellbeing.  The science backs this up; enter PERMAH theory (or, PERMA plus H… tell you why later!)

Proposed by Professor Martin Seligman – one of the world’s most prominent wellbeing researchers and advocates – PERMA Wellbeing Theory[1] draws together five key elements of psychological wellbeing.  Seligman makes the case that these five elements can help people reach a life of fulfilment, happiness, and meaning and that this model can also be applied to individuals, teams and whole institutions.

What is the first element of PERMA?

P is for – Positive Emotion!

This part of PERMA is probably what most of us think about when we think about wellbeing – happiness, joy, contentment, awe, wonder, passion, and quiet satisfaction are all part of the detailed palette of emotions that colour our lives.  (So too are anger, fear, and sadness part of the richness and colour; let’s not think that knowing and understanding our positive emotions means rejecting the value of ‘negative’ emotions! Negative emotions are there to help us too – often to help us identify something that is causing pain that we need to pay attention to.  However, there is no denying that positive emotions are one useful measure of wellbeing, which is what we’re actually looking for here.)

Being able to focus on positive emotions is more than just how much or how often you experience these, it’s not a case of seeking more and more.  Rather it incorporates the ability to view the past, present, and future from a positive perspective.  That is, to genuinely view what has worked well, is working well, and might continue to work well in future – or even to seek to understand how past or present difficulties have made a positive contribution to who we are.  This type of rational optimism is a strong antecedent of positive emotions.  (So, just to be clear, focussing on positive emotions is NOT to try to sugar-coat our experiences or to run away from difficulty, which is quite a common misconception of this element of wellbeing…)  This positive perspective on life can help you in relationships, study and work, and even inspire you to be more creative and take more chances[2], making it a key focus for educators.

Today’s exercise in your quest for student wellbeing:

  • Take a moment to record down everything you’re grateful for on paper. Fill an A4 page.  It can be dot points, sentences, drawings, anything that reminds you of those precious things, people, moments, experiences that elicit in you a sense of gratitude.
  • If you teach, have some students do the same thing. For younger students, drawing what they’re grateful for and labelling those things with a word or words can be very effective.  (This exercise really does keep giving – when a student is upset or overwhelmed by a task, offer them a couple of minutes to go back to their gratitude page and think about what makes them happy, perhaps colouring or shading a little bit more of their creation.  After two minutes get them to re-approach the problem from a happier frame of mind and observe the difference!)

Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:

‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 2

If you’ve just joined us, this post is the fifth in the ‘How to Lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series of posts.  The first four posts covered the WHY of student wellbeing (why should schools do it, why are you personally motivated to do it); this post is the start of the WHAT of student wellbeing (what are the key theories you need under your belt to undertake effective wellbeing interventions).  The final set of posts will be the HOW of student wellbeing (now you’re equipped, how do we take everyone on this journey with us and get it happening?).

  1. Seligman, M.E., Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. 2012: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Fredrickson, B.L. and C. Branigan, Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires. Cognition & Emotion, 2005. 19(3): p. 313-332.

Nahum Kozak | Psychologist

Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations.  Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.