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.