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Well-Being Theory ✍🏻 Drawn to Leadership

The 5 Ingredients for Better Living and Working


For a long time, I didn't have a doctor I would see regularly. For one thing, I have moved around the world to work in Australia and Japan. But more importantly, I'm lucky to have been born without any health conditions that require me to seek treatment often. Now that I'm getting older, I wonder what I can do to keep it that way.

Think about it: when you are not sick, how often do you talk to a qualified professional about your health?

And does the absence of illness mean I'm “healthy” ?

This is how the UN World Health Organization defines health:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (Constitution of the World Health Organization)

Psychologists in the 1990s came to a similar conclusion and wondered what they had to offer people that would make life (and work) more fulfilling. Thus was born positive psychology, a branch of psychology that studies concepts that help people thrive, with well-being theory at its core.

Not because life is without problems, but because life is more than problems.

Martin Seligman, a well-know psychologist and one of the key scientists in the field of positive psychology, established Well-Being Theory and the PERMA model as a framework to better understand how well-being can help us thrive.

In this issue, we look at Well-Being Theory, how it benefits life and work, the 5 measures that define it, and how leaders can apply its concepts in their organizations.

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Well-Being Drives Business Results

“Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” (Richard Branson)

The skills to create a thriving business are different from the skills to save a company from bankruptcy. If you want your organization to thrive, Well-Being Theory can help.

First, there are proven benefits of well-being for individual employees: the elements that contribute to well-being (more on this below) are associated with improved health and life satisfaction, as well as better performance at work. For example, one study showed that people who experience well-being are less likely to catch a cold and take fewer sick days.

What’s more, research shows that employee well-being also has significant benefits for businesses. If you have ever experienced unfriendly service in a store and taken your business elsewhere, you understand how happy employees can positively impact business results. There’s a proven link between employee happiness and improved customer ratings. It even affects the amount of money customers spend with your company.

When you combine these benefits with the understanding that leaders have a significant impact on the factors that contribute to happiness in the workplace, you have the ingredients for success: help your employees thrive at work, and business results will follow.

PERMA: What Gets Measured Gets Improved

Like the weather, well-being is a construct. You can't measure weather directly. Instead, you use different factors, such as temperature, wind speed and humidity, to define what the weather is like.

Similarly, well-being is made up of 5 measurable elements, the first letters of which form the acronym PERMA. The acronym stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment:

  • Positive emotions - The 'P' in PERMA stands for positive emotions and includes happiness, but also a range of other pleasant emotions such as joy, gratitude and contentment. Studies have shown that a positive mood broadens people's thinking, builds their psychological resources, and increases their resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Engagement - Engagement is closely related to the concept of flow, the state of mind when you are so absorbed in an activity that time seems to fly by. You are more likely to achieve flow when you use your individual strengths in a task that challenges you without overwhelming you.
  • Relationships - We are social creatures by nature. Close relationships with family and loved ones, as well as positive interactions with colleagues and other members of our communities, contribute greatly to our well-being.
  • Meaning - Having a sense of purpose and contributing to something bigger than ourselves helps us focus on what’s really important. Meaning is different for everyone and can be found in causes large and small.
  • Accomplishment - This element emphasises the importance of achieving goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment in life. Having a clear purpose, mastering a skill and persevering in the face of difficulties all contribute to achieving goals. It is also important to reflect on past successes in order to learn how to repeat them in the future.

As is common in psychology, scientists have developed a questionnaire that measures the five elements of PERMA. More on this below.

How to Apply Well-Being Theory at Work

Assessing Job Satisfaction

Peggy Kern created a survey (a so-called profiler) that measures the subjective PERMA of its respondents. She’s also adapted the survey to the work context.

Instead of taking the survey, I recommend using the survey questions as a reflection exercise (an approach that I learned from Markus Ebner). It’s a helpful tool in 1:1s with colleagues and team members to start interesting discussions.

  1. Go through the following discussion starters one at a time:
    • Positive emotions: How often do you feel joyful, positive, and to what extend do you feel contented at work?
    • Engagement: At work, how often do you become absorbed in what you are doing, to what extent do you feel excited and interested in your work, and how often do you lose track of time while doing something you enjoy?
    • Relationships: To what extent do you receive help and support from coworkers when you need it, feel appreciated by your coworkers, and how satisfied are you with your professional relationships?
    • Meaning: To what extent is your work purposeful and meaningful, do you feel that what you do at work is valuable and worthwhile, feel that you have a sense of direction in your work?
    • Accomplishment: How often do you feel that you are making progress towards accomplishing your work-related goals, achieve the important work goals you have set for yourself, and that you are able to handle your work-related responsibilities?
  2. Complete each of the 5 discussion starters by assigning a subjective score from 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest).
  3. Acknowledge areas with high scores and discuss what is already working well.
  4. Pick an area with a low score that you find most interesting and discuss how you could make a small improvement.

In this exercise, it’s important to stick to small steps forward that you’ll commit to follow through on. You can always do another round of discussion to find more areas for improvement.

Boost Productivity with Physical Activity

Research has shown that high productivity in software engineering (and presumably in other types of work as well) is highly correlated with feelings of job satisfaction and happiness. Stress is usually thought of as bad, but it’s also a key ingredient in becoming productive. Stress isn’t good or bad - it’s a matter of balance.

In her book, The Brain-Friendly Workplace, Friederike Fabritius explains the difference: a short burst of stress actually improves your performance because it boosts your immune system. Experience stress for more than 30 minutes, however, and your immune system starts to decline. Stress that lasts longer than 1 hour leads to a slump in productivity.

You can use this idea to your advantage: find a way to introduce short-term stress into your workday and your productivity will skyrocket.

Here are some ideas:

  • End your meetings 5 minutes early to allow for stretching and movement before the next meeting begins.
  • Obtain fun equipment, such as balancing boards and ping-pong tables, to encourage movement.
  • Use standing desks and change positions frequently to avoid long periods of sitting and standing.
  • Take a walk during lunch

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