A closer look at the ‘R’ in PERMA

 In Mindquest News

When asked what, in two words or fewer, positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson, one of its founders, replied, “Other people.”

Martin Seligman (2011, p.20) adds, “Very little that is positive is solitary… other people are the best antidote to the downs in life and the single most reliable up.”

Positive Emotion

Harvard psychiatrist George Valiant identified ‘capacity to be loved’ as a master strength, just as neuroscientist, John Cacioppo, has argued conversely, loneliness is such a disabling condition that it compels the belief that the pursuit of relationships is a rock-bottom fundamental to human well-being. (Seligman 2011)

People are social, so inevitably positive psychology is closely concerned with the development of excellent relationships.  But social relationships are also complicated.  As Seligman muses, how do we solve the problem of saying something that Kate will think is funny, without causing offence to Rena, whilst trying to persuade Chris that he is wrong, without rubbing his nose in it, all the while staying friends with Maria, who doesn’t see eye to eye with any of them… but who’s been my friend for years?  Humans, unlike computers, can and do solve these extremely complicated social problems all the time.  In evolutionary terms our ability to be social, with brains to solve social problems, is the most successful form of higher adaptation known.

So being able to understand others and communicate well is vital.  But before any of that can happen there’s something else that is essential:  To have a positive view of oneself.   Not a distorted view of self but an authentic and positive view of self.

Positive Self

When it comes to the question of identity there is a suggestion of sameness… to be the real me I have to be a certain way.  But we know we behave differently in different situations.  Most of us are aware of these different selves.  Maureen Gaffney sorts them into three related but distinct selves, or modes of being in the world: the ‘good but not great’ self; the ‘me at my best’ self; and the ‘me at my worst self’.  In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal’s character asks, ‘Do you ever feel like you’ve become the worst version of yourself?’  In positive psychology we might ask ‘Do you ever feel like you’ve become the best version of yourself?’ and further,  ‘How can you become the best version of yourself, more often?’

Friendship is indeed an art, which begins with an accurate self-portrait.  It’s about understanding our many selves and identifying our ideal self.  It’s about gaining clarity about who we are, what we stand for and what is unique about us as individuals.  Confidence goes beyond image and looks and reflects a positive direction in life.   The concept of strengths, or the development of positive traits is central to self-confidence.  Identifying strengths is a great way to notice what is good about ourselves AND also to explain differences, which helps us get along with others.

Positive Relationships

Socially intelligent people display a number of skills, such as empathy, listening, emotional awareness (of self and others), authenticity, self-regulation, kindness, gratitude, and motivation.  The ability to identify these skills, along with what makes healthy and unhealthy relationships, is at the heart of friendship.  A confident person is able to make, maintain, and sometimes to break friendships.  They are able to gain perspective when faced with problems and work out the difference between kindness, niceness, and pleasing others.

None of these are easy skills, but we have social-problem-solving brains to help us.  From a wellbeing perspective, being connected with good friends is essential for happiness, health, and success.  From an evolutionary point of view, humans were designed to live in relatively small social groups, surrounded by familiar individuals conducting complex and subtle relationships.  With this latter point in mind it is essential to give some careful thought to impact of the social networking age in which we now live.  It is important to remember the emphasis should be on the quality of friendships and the development of deep, long-lasting, and positive friendships, rather than the quantity of friends and ‘likes’ that we can amass.


Seligman Flourish 2011

Boniwell & Ryan Personal Wellbeing Lessons for Secondary Schools 2012

MacConville & Rae Building Happiness, Resilience & Motivation in Adolescents 2012


Related Video:

To find out more about how you can promote your child in developing positive relationships, attend our upcoming Parent Workshop: The Art of Friendship for Girls

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