PERMA Series – Part 2: ‘E for Engagement’


Engagement in the context of Positive Psychology and PERMA relates to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined ‘flow’ or the ‘psychology of optimal experience’. Flow refers to looking up from a task and realising you’ve been at it for ages, having lost hours while being completely absorbed in it. “Being at one with the music” or completely immersed are other analogies used to describe high levels of engagement.

The opposite is of course disengagement – and we know the negative consequences that students experience when they’re disengaged. Teachers are also affected by disengagement, with it having a significant effect on absenteeism and lateness, retention rates, professional relationships and performance.

Ideally we want teachers to be passionate about and engaged in their work. The challenge as I see it is to maximise opportunities for this because after all, if teachers are positive and able to connect and relate well to their students, won’t their lessons be more appealing and engaging?

Realistically, there are some jobs and some situations that teachers don’t like and/or find difficult (paperwork anyone?). We are, after all, only human. So what can we do then to maximise our performance when jobs on the to-do list aren’t so appealing?

Seligman suggests using our strengths during these times. He argues that if we are able to put to use personal qualities that come easily to us, we’re more likely to reach a higher level of engagement and enjoyment (and therefore flow) in those tasks that we don’t necessarily love. He’s devised a simple test called the VIA Survey of Character Strengths which is free and relatively quick and easy to use. There’s also another version included as an appendix in his 2011 publication ‘Flourish’ (pp243-265) which I recommend as a great way to make time on a short airplane ride (or alternatively a bus or train commute) go quickly.

I’ve done both tests. I did the ‘Flourish’ one in May last year and learnt (but was not surprised to see) that my top three Signature Strengths were:

i) Love of learning

ii) Humour

iii) Social Intelligence

I finally got around to doing the electronic version last weekend. My top three this time were:

i) Fairness, equality, social justice

ii) Honesty

iii) Social Intelligence

I’m not sure if it’s the result of the tests being done at a different time in my life or whether the results are because of differences in the tests. Regardless, its clear that Social Intelligence is a particular strength of mine (might explain why I do what I’m doing!) and the other character strengths are of no surprise to me. I’m not sure that if someone had asked me before I did the tests that I would have been able to identify them but having them given to me through the results of the test was useful. I can definitely see how they fit and those who know me would attest to their accuracy.

It is important at this point to not be offended or worried about the qualities that don’t come up as your strengths. For a split second I felt a despondency about scoring low in Curiosity and Citizenship (I’m a good citizen – I don’t steal cars!). What’s important is that you recognise that you can’t be everything to everyone and that this test isn’t a measure of your good or worth. It is a strengths test, designed to assist you in working out what comes naturally and easily to you in the hope that you can use these qualities at times when things are unpleasant and to make those tasks more enjoyable and increase your engagement in them.

Nature Play SA

I took myself along to Adelaide Uni on Wednesday night to the launch of a new South Australian Government incentive Nature Play SA. I wanted to hear what special guest Richard Louv, author of ‘Last Child in the Woods; Saving Children from Nature Deficit Disorder’ and more recently ‘The Nature Principle’ had to say about the benefits of spending time in nature and the detrimental effects that results from spending too much time indoors.

In his introductory speech, the Honourable Ian Hunter said “The average South Australian child spends 4.5 hours a day in front of a screen and 2 hours outside. Maximum security prisoners spend more time outdoors than that.” I’m still staggering and shaking my head about this. Needless to say my two were sent outside to play until almost dark last night because the thought of them being worse off than those who were incarcerated just appalls me.

It got me thinking though. I’ve written about the positive effects of nature previously. But what struck me from this session was how much time I spend indoors with students, away from any natural light or greenery. I think the idea of counselling-on-the-go, whilst walking on the oval or swinging in the playground might actually work quite well.

Do you take any of your learning outside? What about family activities?

What do you do? How do you do it? What do you notice to be the benefits?


antsI loved this acronym as soon as I heard it. The mental image of ants scurrying, scuttling the way that they do, marching methodically, spreading like wildfire and a pain to get under control – much the same as those Automatic Negative Thoughts that pop into our heads.

I have often wondered what this is about – is it that some people are more negative than others or that the same person might be in a more negative state of mind at different times? I found an interesting plausible explanation from Nick Begley, researcher at Headspace in London who explains that negative thoughts have been “hardwired into us through evolution.”

Fascinating – but how to we combat these ANTs so that we don’t end up in a state of ‘paralysis by analysis’ (over thinking things so much that we become frozen by the fear of ‘what if?’ negative thinking)?

PERMA Series – Part 1: ‘P for Positive Emotion’


Although we might want to feel happy all the time, the fact of the matter is that things happen in life that leave us feeling less than spritely and in a good mood. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – not that I’m wanting the life I live to be a dire and dismal experience but its just reality that our moods naturally ebb and flow in response to what life throws our way.

With this in mind I must be clear from the outset – the ‘P for Positive Emotion’ in PERMA doesn’t mean you must expect to be in a constantly happy state. Rather, the concept acknowledges that emotional fluctuations are normal and that we will face and experience personal hardship and challenging situations in our lives. And its not that we need to be happy when we experience adversity or are faced with a crisis – absolutely not! The focus rather is on how we choose to perceive, interpret and respond to these challenges, with the understanding that the more we are able to look for and focus on the positives in even the most dire situations, the better we will be able to manage them and therefore experience more positive emotion and wellbeing. Positive emotion refers to being more positive about a situation and bouncing back from the curve balls life throws us more efficiently, rather than finding ourselves stuck and wallowing in the depths of despair with no idea about knowing how to get out.

Despite there being a few factors that may contribute to how easily an individual may be able to be positive in adverse situations (think genetics, life experience, temperament) and with the human tendency towards negativity bias, it’s important to know strategies for building positive emotion so that recovery from adverse life events can be quicker and result in post-traumatic growth instead of mental illness. These include being realistically optimistic. The basis of this idea is simply building on the positives in a situation as opposed to focusing and lamenting on the faults. And with a focus on the positive, what’s likely to happen in a shift in the intensity of the negative emotion which will generally have you feeling better within yourself but also make you more enjoyable to be around (and don’t we know the importance of connectedness as a predictor of wellbeing?).

An exercise that’s recommended for increasing positive emotion is related to gratitude and the ‘What Went Well’ exercise which focusses on the positive things in life. Seligman suggests every night writing down three blessings from the day as well as the reason that you’re grateful for it. His findings from extensive research on the benefit of this strategy include higher life satisfaction and a decreased incidence of depression six months after the exercise was done.

‘W is for…What Went Well’

What went well

“We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is thinking about and savouring what went well” (Seligman, 2011, pg 33).

Regularly practicing the ‘What Went Well?’ exercise that focuses on recording three positives in your day has been shown to improve wellbeing and reduce anxiety and depression up to six months after doing it.

The process itself is simple – it just involves writing down three things that you are grateful for and why you are grateful for them before you go to bed each night for a week. An example might be ‘I had a great day at work‘ followed by the reason ‘My boss is a fantastic woman’ or ‘I had a great time at rugby training tonight’ with the reason ‘The guys on the team are a bunch of characters.’

If you really can’t think of anything, consider this…

“If you have a family that loves you, a few good friends, food on your table and a roof over your head, you are richer than you think.”

PERMA – a Brief Explanation


flourishHaving closely followed the Martin Seligman Thinker in Residency Program over the last few years I’ve been really excited (dorking out about psych, I know) to have attended a number of sessions in the last few days around Positive Psychology and implications for its use in schools and communities. With South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill under Seligman’s recommendations committing to establishing South Australia as a world leader for wellbeing in 2013 and with the recently opened South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute set to have its own wellbeing department, I’m really looking forward to seeing how this is all going to play out in terms of increasing wellbeing in Australian schools.

Positive psychology isn’t all whacky-doo affirmations with the ultimate goal a state of constant utopia and happiness – in fact, to be so could mean to be delirious and/or manic, neither which are preferable states in which to permanently reside. Instead Positive Psychology is using what Seligman calls PERMA to reach optimal levels of wellbeing and to minimise the impact of adverse life events as and when they do occur (which, given that this is life they invariably will).

PERMA is made up of five separate elements and Seligman says that it’s by working to maximise these that we live to be our best and flourishing in all aspects of our lives. He has likened the PERMA model to an immunisation against the ever increasing incidence of mental illness in our society and argues that the implementation of PERMA in schools will hopefully prove wrong the predictions of depression being the most common illness in Australia by the year 2030.

The five aspects of PERMA are as follows:

P = Positive Emotion

E = Engagement

R = Relationships

M – Meaning

A = Accomplishment

Each of these areas will be discussed in detail in the coming weeks with each one being the topic of discussion in part of a 5 week special series on PERMA on #teacherwellbeingchat which happens on term time Sunday nights at 8:30 pm Adelaide time. Whether you’re an avid fan or a novice to PERMA concepts, I’d love you to join the discussions as they are such a great way to collaborate, share and learn with others.