The answer may surprise you: It’s actually both!

In this blog I’m going to define and discuss, PERMA, the 5 building blocks of what makes for a happy life.

I want you to think about incorporating some of these building blocks into your life in an attempt to move along the happiness continuum.

The issue of a happiness continuum is an important one because it implies that we’re all happy – well to some degree anyway– and it also signifies that we have the ability to move along the happiness continuum and intentionally become happier.

How exciting!

The PERMA model was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman and stands for the following:

Positive emotions





Let’s look at each category in greater detail.

Positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, serenity, awe, and love, make us feel vibrant and alive. We all need these! However, being a human also means that we will inevitably experience the full spectrum of emotions which includes anger, resentment, anxiety and the like.

Engagement is the second principle of PERMA refers to engagement or flow. Think of flow as being in the zone. It’s the experience of being so immersed in an activity that you lose all concept of time because all of your mental focus is wrapped up in the present experience. Flow is essential to happiness as it provides a reprieve from daily hassles and stresses.

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man credited with researching and naming the concept of flow, describes flow as:

“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Do you have activities in which you lose all sense of time? If you don’t, you will want to think about exploring this concept in greater detail and contemplate what activities will help you derive a sense of flow.

Relationships are the third component of PERMA is relationships. We all need a tribe! Social connection is vital to our health and happiness.

The key here my friends is to be engaged in POSITIVE relationships. Positive relationships are those in which we feel heard, validated, and understood. In essence, positive relationships make us feel cared for, valued and connected to others.

All too often when schedules become chaotic and exams, projects and deadlines loom, our social circle is the first thing we drop from our calendars to free up time to focus on other priorities. While cancelling that long overdue lunch with your best friend may seem like a smart decision, it just may be the thing that you need to do to excel on your final project!

Friends buffer stress. They also help us maintain perspective.

Meaning is the fourth building block and concerns living a life of meaning necessitates being involved in an activity or a cause that is larger than oneself. These activities infuse life with a sense of purpose.

Tending to the environment, helping find stray animals a new home, or tutoring classmates who are struggling with a subject that you, yourself, have mastered, make us feel good. Such activities provide our lives with meaning and cause us to feel that our lives matter.

Accomplishment, the fifth and final principle of PERMA is accomplishment. Research findings indicate that a sense of accomplishment is important to happiness and well-being because goals infuse our lives with structure, and making purposeful efforts to achieve that which we set out to accomplish, is a rewarding and satisfying experience.

When students focus their energies on mastering new skills and concentrate their efforts on their own personal and professional development, as opposed to the attainment of rigid, inflexible, and excessively high personal standards, they’re more successful academically and happier to boot!

In other words, it is in your best interest to strive for excellence as opposed to the accomplishment of perfection.

So what does this all mean for university students?

Given that many university cultures narrowly focus on academic achievement alone, it can become easy for students to overlook the importance of nurturing positive emotions, cultivating social relationships, engaging in meaningful contribution, and being fully engrossed in “flow” – that blissful space in which we get to vacate our lives and experience a much needed reprieve- if only for a short time.

In an effort to attain the highest possible GPA, many students will forgo sleep, exercise and the opportunity to forge new relationships. Ironically, these behaviours detract from academic excellence and often leave students feeling emotionally exhausted, depressed and anxious.

I know this to be true not only because of my interest in the research on well-being and academic success, but because of my experience of having completed three degrees. I learned the hard way that the university experience should encompass so much more than academics alone. A few trips to the emergency room for debilitating migraines taught me that nothing in life is worth getting sick over, and my quest for the attainment of a perfect GPA (which I never did achieve- obviously!) was not only a futile goal, but was working against my very strong desire to do well in my studies.

When I eased up on my self-imposed rigid standards, I become much more fun to be around, happier and you guessed it – successful academically.

The pursuit of well-being and happiness have a synergistic effect on learning. When you get this stuff right – you will get the academics right!

The 5 building blocks of PERMA provide the scientific recipe for happiness. The art is determined by your choice of ingredients. What activities define each of the 5 categories for you?

To your success!

Dr. Gill

Join our tribe and never miss an event