There’s an acronym for the word “fine” that is thrown around a lot in mental health circles.  I heard this acronym loud and clear at a wedding I attended.  At the wedding I encountered a friend I hadn’t seen in years.  She had wanted to marry the groom and had even once proposed to him.  After his refusal they remained friends and she had come to the wedding as a guest.  She had a painful, frozen smile on her face.  When I asked her how she was doing she said, “Fine, I’m fine.  We’re all fine, just fine.” I heard that unmistakable acronym in her reply, “I’m fine”—“F****d up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”.

We have a lot invested in our society in the presentation of looking “fine” to others.   We want to be seen as ok, even if we are miserable inside.  Buddha let the cat out of the bag a long time ago with his one liner, “Life is suffering.”  (until you wake up).   Scott Peck revitalized this slogan in his one liner, “Life is difficult.” (but it stops being difficult when you fully accept this truth). 

Maybe its time to go beyond being “fine."  Let’s talk about happiness.  Happiness, as it turns out, takes work.  It’s hardly a given for most of us.  We spend a lot of time buying the lie that happiness lies in the common recipe of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.  With food, alcohol, TV, computers, drugs, sex, vacations, lying on beaches, margaritas, infotainment, money, football games, Facebook, Instagram, and countless other distractions—many people are on an endless loop of fruitless activities that focus on short term highs— but never achieving happiness. On this loop we usually wind up telling others that we’re, well,  “fine.”

Positive Psychology is a theory that was developed to study happiness.  The originators wanted to break out of the disease model favored by most psychological theories.  The authors of Positive Psychology felt that the disease models of mental health treatment that were focused on what was “wrong with us” ended up falling short.   Its not that the disease models were completely off, it was just that the end results of treatment were hardly stellar.  More often than not the treatment coming from these theories just helped people be “a little less miserable.” We might do ten years of psychoanalysis and end up feeling a little more “fine.”  Positive Psychology examined what actually makes people happy by studying vast cross sections of people across the world.

After years of research the result of the exhaustive study came in . . . money buys happiness.  (just kidding)   The thing most people associate to this day with happiness, having more money, was shown to have little effect on happiness after a basic level of survival and freedom were achieved.  While poor people did show a greater level of unhappiness than middle class or wealthy people, the study found that once people didn’t have to worry about money, making more of it didn’t increase happiness levels at all.  As one wealthy man I knew said, “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it helps.” 

In fact researchers found a phenomenon they coined “the hedonic treadmill”.  The hedonic treadmill is the discovery that when people base their happiness on money they will always reach a frustrated saturation point with the amount of money they have and the amount of material goods they own.  They will then believe that having more money is the answer—thus they are on a never-ending treadmill leading nowhere.  Even lottery winners were found to have an initial spike in happiness that only lasted for roughly three months.  They then reset to their normal emotional state before the big win.

Positive Psychology researchers found some fundamental aspects to what accounted for human happiness and coined the word PERMA to describe their findings.  PERMA is broken down into these categories:

P:  Positive Emotion.  We need positive emotion to feel good.  We are not talking here about bodily pleasure associated with sleeping, eating, drinking, etc.  Positive emotion is generated in creativity, being intellectually challenged and standing up to it, remembering pleasant experiences, playing in the snow, etc. Positive Emotions are the basic building blocks of happiness. 

E:   Engagement.  This is being completely absorbed in an activity. That is, entering a state of flow or bliss where we lose time.  We are composing, gardening, wood working, working on a computer program we find fascinating, serving others, we are “in the zone” playing sports, etc.

R:  Relationships.  We are social animals.  We need deep, close, loving relationships to achieve happiness.  This is more than just having people around us.  We can be alone in a crowd.  We must have people who we know and who know us on a deep level.  People we can trust, be intimate with, share, and count on. 

M:  Meaning.  We need to be part of something larger than ourselves.  Positive Psychology is not so much about what make individuals happy  (this is more akin to the kind of thinking that leads to attempts at finding happiness through material wealth).  Meaning is about relationships and finding happiness in contribution to society.  From a Positive Psychology viewpoint happiness is social. How is my life serving the greater good?

A:  Accomplishment.  Human beings seek competence, achievement and mastery as a way of experiencing well-being and happiness.  Even small goals like reading for half an hour a day can improve self-esteem.  Larger goal accomplishments are obviously also important—getting that job, writing the book, setting up a garden, having a child, etc. 

Using PERMA can give you direction in cultivating happiness on a daily basis.   We do this by focusing on combining the basic building blocks:  positive emotions as a result of engaging activity, nurturing intimate relationships, meaningful goals that serve society, and achieving accomplishments. 

Below Martin Seligman gives his TED talk on Positive Psychology: