‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 6

We’ve been looking, letter by letter, at the ‘PERMAH’ wellbeing theory acronym; and we’ve arrived at the final letter, ‘H’. For those who came in late, the other letters represent

P  – Positive Emotion

E  –  Engagement

R – Relationships

M – Meaning and purpose

A – Accomplishment

So.. what is the final element of PERMAH?

H is for – Health!

Health refers to physical wellbeing; nutrition exercise, and sleep.  Now you may well be thinking – why is physical Health part of a theory about mental wellbeing?  And you’d be right.  As originally published in professor Martin Seligman’s work Flourish [1], this psychological wellbeing theory was known as PERMA – no ‘H’ in sight.  Which is well and good if we’re interested in psychology to the exclusion of everything else.  However, as schools we need to be practical about how we look at wellbeing, especially given that physical health has such an impact on mental wellbeing – so, when PERMA was out of Seligman’s hands and into the practical, lived domain of school life, it very quickly became PERMAH [2].

Without setting about to go too deeply into any of the three sub-areas of nutrition, exercise and sleep, I’ll try to give a ‘whirlwind tour’ of what they are and how it matters for school.

Food for thought – literally, eat well to think well!

Firstly, it’s pretty obvious that what we put into our bodies affects whether we can achieve well.  (Feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re already a nutritional pro!)  Briefly, we need sufficient fuel to make our bodies ‘go’, and the right kind of fuel at that; the Healthy Living Pyramid [3] put out by Nutrition Australia offers a visual of the kinds of proportions of food we need to be taking in.  The largest source of food we consume should come from the bottom of the pyramid, which is Vegetables, Legumes, and Fruit, and the beverage we should drink most is water.  The next ‘level’ on the pyramid is smaller, and we should have correspondingly less from this category of Grains, and as we go further, the next level is Dairy and Meat.  Finally, the smallest part of the pyramid includes fats, oils, and sugar.  A range of studies have found that poor nutrition is linked to poor cognition, including that the eating of breakfast is important for cognition [4].  It is literally the case that we need food for thought – we need to eat and drink well, to think well.


Similarly, exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on our ability to think and generally perform well [5], with a range of recommendations from the experts.  In short, though, some exercise is better than none.   If you never exercise, doing a little bit and building up gradually is wonderful – be wary of starting from nothing and trying to climb your personal version of Everest!  Having started in this affirming way, the point to aim for is often recommended as 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, with strength training on two days a week.  (But, like I said, better to gradually build up to that than try to go all out and potentially fall flat!)


Ah here we have it.  The missing puzzle piece – sleep.  So often in the media the conversation around health focuses on eating well and exercising, and yet we can have both of these in place and still feel flat, unfocused, and experience difficulty with work or study if we don’t also have healthy sleep.   Good sleep has a direct impact on our ability to think well and learn well, with some more pronounced needs for volume of sleep in younger age groups [6].  For instance, preschoolers need 10 to 13 hours sleep, primary schoolers need 9 to 11 hours, and teenagers need 8 to 10 hours sleep – it isn’t until we hit young adulthood that 7 to 9 hours (the usual figure people quote being ‘8 hours’) becomes the norm we require.  But is isn’t just about volume of sleep. Poor can also be about having inconsistent sleep patterns, late sleep, and poor quality of sleep (as in the case of sleep apnoea), all of which can significantly affect academic performance [6].

On this note I’m aware of one student in primary school who was finding it difficult to focus in class, often becoming distracted, zoning out, or behaving impulsively.  Those of you in my profession (i.e. psychologist) may already be mentally reaching for your Conners3 survey to administer to the students’ parents and teachers (a measure of ADHD-type behaviours).  In this case however, there was accompanying fatigue, and at the recommendation of a GP, the student was sent to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist – who described the child’s tonsils as ‘monstrous’ in size.  The student was sleeping for eleven hours a night but not getting good quality sleep because of the obstructed breathing.  (Subsequent to a tonsillectomy, the student’s ability to focus changed over a six week period; nobody needed to fill out a Conners3!)  This is an extreme example, but good quality sleep has not had as much attention as the other two aspects of physical Health in the general press, and it is worth driving home the point that we need good quality sleep to flourish.

How is your Health?

We’ve established that nutrition, exercise, and sleep all have an impact on our ability to perform at our best, to be happy and well.  It therefore makes sense to include Health when we are looking at student wellbeing.

But first – how is your Health?  Out of nutrition, exercise, and sleep, which one would be most ‘on target’ in your life at the moment? Having answered that question, how do you think you might go about safeguarding or further improving that area of strength?

Next question, what area might need a little TLC?  And what is one small step you can take today towards that?

Remember – this is not about kicking yourself – the focus ought not to be on how you’re not yet perfect!  We are all works in progress.  Think instead about how making a little progress in one of the three areas will be helpful for you.  Think also about how it will be helpful for your students.  When you are teaching them about wellbeing, they will be looking to see whether you practice what you preach.  And it will be a useful teaching tool if you can tell them that you used to get five hours sleep a night, but now are getting six, or that you’ve cut sugar from your coffee.   Those little things may even speak more powerfully than if you were perfect in every way; I have often heard students talk about being discouraged by what they perceive as perfection in others.  Your students will be inspired by something real, however small.

So – what’s your one small step towards even greater Health going to be?

Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:

‘Character Strengths. If you’re an apple be a brilliant apple…  if you’re an apple and try to be a banana, you’ll always be a second rate banana.’

  1. Seligman, Martin EP. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster, 2012.
  2. Norrish, J. M., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., and Robinson, J. (2013). An applied framework for positive education.  J. Wellbeing3, 147–161. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v3i2.2.
  3. Christian, J. L., Greger, J. L., & Wilson, R. (1994). Nutrition for living(p. 111). Redwood City, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
  4. Nyaradi, A., Li, J., Hickling, S., Foster, J., & Oddy, W. H. (2013). The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Frontiers in human neuroscience7, 97. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00097.
  5. Chang, Y. K., Labban, J. D., Gapin, J. I., & Etnier, J. L. (2012). The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: a meta-analysis. Brain research1453, 87-101.
  6. Buckhalt, J. A., & Staton, L. E. (2011). Children’s sleep, cognition, and academic performance in the context of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Sleep and development: Familial and socio-cultural considerations, 245-264.

Nahum Kozak | Psychologist

Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations.  Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.