In contrast to more traditional psychological approaches, positive psych concerns itself with the good stuff in life. It strives to understand what makes for a good life and how we can not only maintain average or ‘normal’ functioning but how we can actually surpass it. Positive psychology focuses on building strengths and on maximizing wellbeing. In a word, it’s all about thriving.
Thriving means ‘to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way; to flourish.’ That means being a vibrant version of ourselves and living a satisfying, meaningful life. It’s the embodiment of wellbeing, of optimal functioning. The current leading theory suggests that there are five distinct factors, called the PERMA factors, that contribute most to human thriving and wellbeing.
P = Positive emotions.
Positive emotions such as happiness, joy, pride and peacefulness are an important aspect of wellbeing. It’s impossible to only experience pleasant emotions – a wide range of pleasant and unpleasant feelings is normal and healthy in life – but knowing how to increase positive emotions, about the past, present, and future, can contribute to your wellbeing. Positive feelings alone, though, are not enough to thrive.
E = Engagement.
Engagement means spending time in activities in which you are completely immersed, often referred to as a state of flow. When we’re in a state of flow, we tend to lose track of time and self-consciousness disappears. We’re ‘in the zone.’ Our attention is completely engrossed, and we’re right on the edge of our skill level. That latter point is important. We can lose track of time while mindlessly scrolling on social media, but that’s not a state of flow. That’s passive consumption. Flow and engagement require effort on our part. It’s that sweet spot between challenge and ability where we become completely absorbed.
R = Relationships.
Forming and maintaining healthy supportive relationships is one of the most critical factors for wellbeing and life satisfaction. We need connections with others in order to be healthy and happy. Unfortunately, anxiety and depression can negatively impact relationships. Avoidance or withdrawal can keep us from connecting with others. Worry or low self-esteem can prevent us from being open and vulnerable or setting effective boundaries. Taking steps to establish new relationships or strengthen existing ones is important as is finding a sense of community and belonginess.
M = Meaning and purpose.
Being a part of something bigger than yourself is important for wellbeing. It can be what makes life worth living. What gives your life meaning may be different than what gives mine but finding that sense of purpose is key. This can be an especially important lifeline when it comes to thriving with anxiety and depression. Being willing to contribute to something outside of yourself can help you make sense of and weather your own suffering, and it can help you get beyond the internal struggle you’re experiencing by focusing on something outside of yourself.
A = Achievement.
Setting and accomplishing goals, from tiny daily things to giant undertakings, gives us a sense of accomplishment or mastery that contributes to our well-being in its own right. Think about times when you’ve experienced a sense of accomplishment. The task or activity itself may not have been enjoyable, but the completion of it, reaching the goal, feels good.
Actively working to increase your PERMA factors can help boost your wellbeing. Moreover, pursuing your PERMA factors may also help reduce the problematic effects of depression and anxiety. That said, the skills and factors that reduce anxiety and depression are not the necessarily the same ones that bring about happiness, virtue, strength and wellbeing. Like two sides of the same coin, combining more traditional evidence-based psychological interventions (like CBT and ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy) with positive psychology interventions designed to build more of the good stuff may just be the path toward thriving with anxiety and depression.