Increase Happiness by Focusing on These 5 Pillars

This is the first part of a two part post on increasing happiness through Dr. Seligmen's PERMA model. Part 2 will focus on strategies on how to put these 5 happiness pillars into practice. Each of these pillars facilitate happiness by making small changes in your everyday life, or reflecting on the positivity that is already there.

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While all emotions are important, we could all use a happiness boost these days with the added stress from the pandemic and less access to our usual outlets and support systems. Dr. Martin Seligmen has made a plethora of contributions to psychology including helplessness, optimism/pessimism, and happiness. You can read about Dr. Seligmen and positive psychology here. His books include Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. Did you know with optimism you have greater immune health? With optimism you find the good within the bad, instead of the bad within the good. Optimism is only part of the equation. With focus in each of these pillars, you will feel more fulfilled, optimistic, and successful in yourself. 

Dr. Seligmen identified 5 Pillars of Happiness: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. What do these mean and how can we incorporate them into our everyday life?

Positive Emotion

There is no surprise that positive emotions are connected to happiness. This is where optimism comes into play. Sure, we are all naturally at different balances of optimism and pessimism. But with effort, you can work to rewire your brain to be more optimistic. Or, at least  more easily challenge your pessimistic thoughts. We are predisposed to focusing on the bad, not the good. Evolutionarily, this is advantageous when you’re living out in nature and danger might be anywhere. Paying attention to the bad helps keep you alive. But when our danger looks more like financial strain than a hidden tiger, this natural inclination actually works against us. Hardwiring Happiness discusses how to rewire your brain to focus on the good, instead of the bad. (You can check out more Recommended Reading here.)


When we are engaged in an activity, neurotransmitters and hormones are released that elevate our mood. This engagement is when we are absorbed in the moment. A good indicator of what type of activity does this for you is to think of an instance where time just seems to fly by. This can be a hobby, sport, art project, reading, or other activity. Have you ever picked up an instrument and next thing you know an hour has gone by? Looked up from an art project and realized the sun is setting? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a co-founder of positive psychology) identifies this as your “flow.” Your flow is when you are completely absorbed in a challenging, yet doable task. Having this type of flow of engagement enhances our cognitive skills as well as our emotional capabilities. 


We are social creatures. Interacting with others is essential to our happiness – just in different amounts depending on the individual. We are hardwired to interact with others. Additionally, social support is one of the best resiliencies to adversity. When we start to face danger, on our way to fight or flight mode, the first step is turning to others for help. Scientifically speaking, your ventral vagal complex is activated. This influences your facial expression, heart rate, and tone of voice. Have you ever noticed how your voice sounds different when you are strained and asking for help? Additionally, our pain centers are activated when we face isolation. 


When we find meaning in life we feel purposeful, of value, and fulfilled. Meaning can make us feel successful. I don’t mean financially, although sometimes that applies. We feel successful in ourselves and in who we are. The roles we have and the titles we refer to ourselves by often give us meaning. That can be teacher, helper, student, daughter, son, friend, colleague, teammate… the list goes on! If you find meaning in the work you do, going to work may feel more enjoyable. Religion and spirituality are big contributors to finding or making meaning. They often can guide us to a sense of purpose, and make meaning out of events in our life. 


Creating and reaching goals can help guide us to finding meaning and feeling successful, fulfilled, and happy. Having goals pushes us to thrive and take pride in ourselves. And with accomplishments we loop right back into positive emotion! Take time to hardwire that happiness. Sit with the accomplishment and reflect on it. Think of the time and effort this accomplishment took, and reflect on how your values reflect in it. Remember perseverance is also an accomplishment! 

Each of these pillars overlap and interact with each other. Some days you might feel lost in one topic or unmotivated. That’s okay, try to put your focus on whichever pillar feels right. Remember that change takes time, and that includes noticing a change in mood. Be gentle and patient with yourself. If you are feeling down more days than not, or feel like you need some extra help, call us today or book an appointment online. Therapy can help you implement the changes you want in your life in order to have lasting change.

Check back for the next post on this topic!



Article by Sarah O’Leary, AMFT #123449 (supervised by Erin Falvey-Hogue, PhD, LMFT#45322)

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Sarah O'Leary

I am captivated most by the importance of relationships and emotions and how they impact our everyday lives. Both relationships and our emotions help shape who we are as a person. "Relationship" doesn't just mean partner, but rather connections of all kinds. This means everything from strangers, to friends, to partners, and most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself. Emotions are what underlies our thoughts and behaviors, they are the key to understanding ourselves.