Happiness is a Process, not a Destination

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By Rebecca Lea

Given the challenges we face today where COVID-19 continues to influence our lives, one way to help our clients enhance their wellbeing is by engaging in practices that increase their levels of happiness.

The Foundations of Wellbeing Research 

The science of happiness has been studied throughout history, with many definitions evolving over time. Two concepts of happiness that are prevalent in the scientific and research literature include Subjective Wellbeing and Psychological Wellbeing. 

Subjective Wellbeing was created by Ed Diener, who defined happiness as feeling satisfied with life, as well as the presence of more positive feelings rather than negative feelings. People who report higher levels of Subjective Wellbeing tend to be more creative, sociable and persevere more at a task. However, Subjective Wellbeing is considered to focus more on pleasure and positive feelings rather than on meaning and purpose. 

The concept of Psychological Wellbeing created by Carol Ryff addresses this neglected aspect.  Psychological Wellbeing is a needs fulfilment theory that suggests everyone has 6 core needs that must be fulfilled:: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Ryff argues that a person’s happiness is based on the extent to which they make progress on these 6 dimensions. 

A Holistic Approach to Wellbeing

Martin Seligman created a more holistic approach to wellbeing, which is captured in the acronym PERMA, and it combines elements of both Subjective Wellbeing and Psychological Wellbeing. The multi-dimensional elements of PERMA include:

P – Positive Emotion
E – Engagement
R – Relationships 
M – Meaning
A –  Achievement 

The PERMA framework acknowledges that happiness consists of positive emotions but also the meaningful elements of life. These models of happiness help us understand that happiness is multi-faceted and individuals will value these elements to differing degrees. PERMA’s five pathways to wellbeing offer a broader approach to wellbeing. Therefore, there is an opportunity to reflect with clients on all pathways rather than just focusing on one dimension such as Achievement. Alternatively, a narrower pursuit might be necessary depending on whether there is a pathway the client values more or would like to develop further during coaching. There are many more models to consider and, indeed, PERMA is thought to overlook the physical health component of wellbeing, as well as broader considerations beyond the individual such as wellbeing in the community and ways to build positive organizations. 

The Benefits of Positive Emotions

When coaching PERMA, the importance of helping clients cultivate Positive Emotions is clear. In today’s environment where we face an onslaught of challenges and bad news on a daily basis, learning how to build positive emotions is more important than ever. Furthermore, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re wired to focus too much on what is going wrong in life rather than what is going well. 

The importance of cultivating positive emotions is also evident in research by Barbara Frederickson, who suggested that positive emotions have functions. People who are generally in a positive mood are more likely to be creative, innovative, sociable and able to problem solve. Positive emotions literally have a broadening effect on the mind, whereas negative emotions narrow the way people think and their behavioural reactions. Positive psychology research has shown us that we can increase positive emotions by engaging in intentional activities.

Putting PERMA into Practice

One activity that has helped my coaching clients navigate the impacts of COVID-19 is to ask them to think about and savour what went well. The “What-Went-Well Exercise” involves writing down at the end of the day (for one week) three things that went well that day and why they went well. The positive event can be anything that made you feel good, such as a phone call from a friend, and journaling about why it went well. Chances are you will feel much happier and experience Positive Emotion after one week.

Identifying and using strengths to become fully immersed in an activity can improve the individual’s wellbeing and enhance Engagement.

You can develop positive Relationships by asking your client to reflect on someone who has made a difference in their life and considering ways to express gratitude, such as writing a thank-you letter.

Help the coachee reflect on ways they would like to contribute to something larger than themselves or to find their purpose at work to foster Meaning

Enhance Achievement by asking the coachee to write a list of what they have achieved in the recent past, and to set measurable goals to work towards while reflecting on what is working well –– this also increases motivation. 

What’s important to remember is that happiness is a process, not a destination. Happiness fluctuates, but the more we intentionally cultivate happiness, the more we can thrive. How can you help your client on their path to greater wellbeing with these happiness models?

If you want to learn more about the PERMA model and how to apply it within a positive psychology coaching context, then check out our Foundations and Practicing Applied Positive Psychology Coaching courses. Our ICF-accredited courses cover key theories in Positive Psychology Coaching and their application in coaching conversations.

Rebecca Lea

Rebecca Lea

Rebecca has over 20 years of corporate experience, specializing in providing talent acquisition, assessment, coaching and talent development services. She has worked in Europe, Asia and North America, consulting Board and C-suite levels across different geographies and industries.

Rebecca has seen evidence-based coaching lead to significant improvements for her clients’ overall performance, mental health, and wellbeing.

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