martin_seligman's picture
Professor and Director, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania; Author, Flourish

Is global well being possible?

Scientists commonly predict dystopias: nuclear war, overpopulation, energy shortage, dysgenic selection, widespread soundbyte mentality, and the like. You don't get much attention predicting that the human future will work out. I am not, however, going to predict that a positive human future will in fact occur, but it becomes more likely if we think about it systematically. We can begin by laying out the measurable elements of well being and then asking how those elements might be achieved. I address only measurement.

Well being is about what individuals and societies choose for its own sake , that which is north of indifference. The elements of well being must be exclusive, measurable independently of each other, and ideally, exhaustive. I believe there are five such elements and they have a handy acronym, PERMA:

P Positive Emotion

E Engagement

R Positive Relationships

M Meaning and Purpose

A Accomplishment

There has been forward movement in the measurement of these over the last decade. Taken together PERMA forms a more comprehensive index of well being than "life satisfaction" and it allows for the combining of objective and subjective indicators. PERMA can index the well being of individuals, of corporations, and of cities. The United Kingdom has now undertaken the measurement of well being for the nation and as one criterion — in addition to Gross Domestic Product — of the success of its public policy.

PERMA is a shorthand abstraction for the enabling conditions of life.

How do the disabling conditions, such as poverty, disease, depression, aggression, and ignorance, relate to PERMA? The disabling conditions of life obstruct PERMA, but they do not obviate it. Importantly the correlation of depression to happiness is not minus 1.00, it is only about minus 0.35, and effect of income on life satisfaction is markedly curvilinear, with increased income producing less and less life satisfaction the further above the safety net you are.

Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient. If we want global well being, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety, and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.

What is known about how PERMA can be built?

Perhaps the Edge Question for 2012 will be "How Can Science Contribute To Building Global Well Being"?