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Bring Out The Best In Yourself And Others

November 30, 2016

Hello, Thriving Leader

We have just come through the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. That’s followed by “Black Friday,” a frenzied time of holiday shopping that, contrary to its name, is not contained in a single day. It starts with pre-dawn excursions or overnight camping in lines and lasts into the following week. Such delicious irony! A day after expressing gratitude for what we have in our lives, or sometimes within hours of the Thanksgiving meal, people are rushing out to buy more stuff and in some instances getting into fights over limited-stock items.

Our family celebrates Christmas and I have become jaded over the years watching the focus of the holiday season be on consumerism and not on the values of sharing and connecting. The top question seems to be, “What do you want for Christmas?” instead of “What will you do to celebrate?”

Time with family and friends is an important part of the holiday for many, but even that gets distorted. Many plan their travels based on obligation and schedule their party attendance based on expectations.

The underlying purpose for gathering with family and friends is to enjoy their company and nurture the relationships. The reason for celebrating anything is to share the joy and happiness with others so it feels amplified. It’s to savor what’s good in our lives.

As you head into the holiday season, whatever holiday you celebrate and however you celebrate it, I invite you to keep your focus on savoring the good by using the Science of Thriving – Positive Psychology – as your compass. Remember the acronym PERMA – plus a bonus letter – to guide your choices.

Enrich Your Holiday with PERMA Plus

Luminary psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD, called for the creation of the field of Positive Psychology in his address when he took office as president of the American Psychological Association. The focus of research in Positive Psychology is people at their best, accomplishing amazing things and enjoying deeply satisfying lives.

Prior to Seligman’s address, there were researchers studying those sorts of situations, but not in a unified way. In the fewer than twenty years since the inception of the field, Positive Psychology research has expanded rapidly to give us guidance on the keys to success and well-being. Much of the field can be categorized according to a framework Seligman created, known by the acronym PERMA. Adding one bonus letter lets us capture the breadth of the field.

By combining theoretical speculation with research-based results, Seligman proposed there are five key components to living well. They are Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. When he was first proposing the categories, my friend and colleague Dr. Judy Krings noticed they could be summarized by an acronym and proposed PERMA to Seligman. He happily picked it up and utilized it in his book Flourish and in subsequent research and writing.

Positive Emotions
Positive Emotions are all the variations of “feeling good,” what we broadly consider as happiness, whether fleeting enjoyment or abiding contentment. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, whom Seligman calls the Genius of Positive Psychology, developed a theory of Positive Emotions called “Broaden and Build.” When we are experiencing Positive Emotions, our minds open up and we become more connected with others and more creative in our thinking. These experiences build up resources, like new ways of thinking and helpful relationships, we can call on in difficult times. The ten Positive Emotions identified by research are Interest, Hope, Awe, Amusement, Pride, Gratitude, Serenity, Joy, Inspiration, and Love. Unlike the ‘unpleasant’ or harsh emotions of anger, fear, sadness, and so forth, the Positive Emotions don’t grab our attention. They are present most of the time, but we have to learn to slow down and notice them to feel their benefit.

The understanding of Engagement comes from the study of strengths. Strengths are not just things you are good at. They are things you are good at precisely because you are genetically predisposed to develop and use them. In Positive Psychology there is a framework of strengths that relate to being at your best. They are called Character Strengths because they are defined by classical categories of right living. When you are developing a strength or working from one or more strengths, you feel energized and capable. Your work matches your ability and enjoyment, so you feel like you were “made to do this,” which gives you a sense of meaning. This flow of energy from and deep connection with your work, based on strengths, is the experience of Engagement. You can take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA Institute.

Positive Relationships
We are social beings. Research shows that our body chemistry responds in positive ways to human connection, including boosting the cardiovascular system and opening creative pathways in the brain. People with a network of social support, including emotionally beneficial relationships, have better long-term outcomes in many areas, from health to success. Close relationships provide support and comfort in difficult times and richer enjoyment of good times. Even relationships with a low frequency of contact and low emotional connection can be beneficial when there is mutual positive regard and a willingness to be of service to each other.

In Seligman’s early formulation of the components of living richly, he proposed a deepening of happiness, from pleasure, to engagement, to purpose. Engagement, mentioned above, is being immersed in an activity that flows from strengths. Purpose, Seligman theorized, comes from using your strengths in service of something greater than yourself. That can be a cause, a faith practice, a higher ideal, a family legacy, or any idea or group beyond your own enjoyment. Other researchers on meaning offer simpler, less noble versions of the concept that include feeling like there is a good fit between yourself and your situation. You know who you are and what you are doing and it makes sense. It feels right. Wherever you experience meaning on the spectrum, from feeling like you’re in the right circumstance all the way to seeing yourself making a difference for others, it will motivate you and boost your resilience during tough times.

The final component Seligman proposed in the formula for flourishing – thriving – is achievement. In order to enjoy life richly, we need to see that we are capable of making things happen. We need to be able to set a goal, design a plan, and execute it to see our ability to shape the world around us. This contributes to a sense of mastery as we become more and more capable. It also contributes to agency, the ability to choose and to act on those choices to express our will in the world. For achievement to boost well-being optimally, it should be about goals that are related to your values, passions, and long-term desires instead of expectations others place on you.

The Bonus Category – Self-Care
In Positive Psychology research circles, there has been discussion about the need for an additional category – another letter in the acronym. Most commonly the recommendation is “V” for vitality. Some suggest “H” for health or “W” for wellness, meaning pretty much the same thing. Being physically healthy, staying active, and having healthy eating and sleeping habits all make a big difference in your ability to be successful and enjoy life fully. But this leaves out the related area of psychological wellness. Having self-knowledge and being able to manage your uncomfortable emotions and difficult thoughts is a key to being able to thrive. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to provide this sort of psychological wellness and are showing up in Positive Psychology research. I propose the additional category should be Self-Care, which includes caring for your body and for your psyche, and can include your spirit if that’s how you understand your existence. That would make S the additional and turn the acronym into PERMA-S.

Use PERMA-S As Your Holiday Compass
Remembering PERMA-S can help you stay on track for a rich experience of the holiday and keep you from getting sidetracked by things that will stress you or bring you down. With intention you can look for opportunities to experience Positive Emotions and savor them when you notice them, pausing to feel them fully and deeply and remember the details of the moment. You can look for the opportunity to use your strengths, to do things that energize you and feel like a “right fit” so you are Engaged in what’s going on. You can spend time appreciating and nurturing the Relationships you have, finding ways to share enjoyable experiences and build memories while building connection. You can find your personal Meaning in the holiday season and choose valued actions that express that meaning. You can set a goal for the season based on what matters to you, such as gathering donations or participating in a musical performance or creating gifts by hand, and develop and implement a plan to Achieve that goal. All along the way, as the demands build and time gets tight, plan Self-Care for your body by exercising, sleeping well, and eating well; and for your mental and emotional health by committing to quiet down time, practicing mindfulness, and doing the things you enjoy the most about the holiday.

Lead it forward: As you come up with ways to add PERMA-S to your life over the holiday season, let other people know what you are doing and why. Share your knowledge of Positive Psychology and how it enriches experiences. Encourage others to cut stress and boost their holiday experience by using PERMA-S as a compass.

May you be well, may you do well, and may you Thrive!

Take Care,

Stephen Coxsey, MA, LPC, PCC
Whole Life Leadership Coach
Success and Fulfillment Strategist

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About Steve Coxsey

Steve collaborates with people to design and implement a customized Whole Life Leadership plan that promotes success, fulfillment, and well-being for themselves and the people they lead. They thrive on a personally meaningful path and promote a culture of thriving wherever they are in charge, from families to professions, from small businesses to organizations.

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