One Way to Think about a Life Well-Lived

By Erin McLaughlin

What makes a life well-lived? If I could answer that question in a blog post, I’d be pretty impressive. Alas, I am not that impressive—yet I have been impressed by the literature and philosophies that try to get to the root of this question, and by the science that can help inform us more about some things we already know. For instance, we already know well-being matters and that certain elements are associated with the concept of well-being. Leaving health and vitality aside for a moment, when we consider psychological well-being, we can look at the concept of PERMA.

Dr. Martin Seligman defined a model of well-being comprised of five elements that form the acronym PERMA—positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. While none of these elements fully defines well-being, each of them contributes to it. Having a better understanding of this theoretical model might help us maximize our own well-being, and science has shown some effective ways we can practically increase our PERMA in life:

Positive emotion—we know it’s a good thing to feel positive emotions like joy, happiness, wonder, and awe, but it’s also true that we each have a baseline in terms of how positive we can be. Still, there are ways we can focus our attention to make ourselves more positive people. One way to increase positive emotion is by writing down three things that went well at the end of each day. Read more.

Engagement is the feeling you have when you lose track of time because you are so absorbed in a task you enjoy. You’re expending effort, but it’s an effort aligned with your strengths. The way to increase engagement is to learn your strengths and apply them to your work. There are many tests you can take to learn about strengths, including the VIA Character Survey.

Relationships make an enormous impact on our well-being, so efforts to improve our communication with other people in our lives matter quite a bit. One of the best ways to improve relationships is by capitalizing on the good things—something that many people tend to overlook. This video on Active Constructive Response can show you how to celebrate good news in a way that builds better relationships.

Meaning is the need to make sense of life outside of ourselves. Seligman calls the self “an impoverished site for meaning.” It is essential to our well-being that we have some sort of purpose in life. Nietzsche said if we "have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how." It is important to often recall the greater impact of our work. Read more.

Achievement is something our culture tends to celebrate—but a sense of accomplishment can come in many forms, and it helps to try to work on a sense of mastery and competence. We need to build intrinsic motivation and one of the best ways to do that is by setting goals. Learn more about SMART goals.

Obviously, PERMA isn’t the only way to think about a life well-lived, but it is one way that can serve as an effective model to assess your own well-being. And the truth is that we can all be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. Why wait for tomorrow?