‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 2

Last time, we looked at the ‘P’ from PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – Positive emotions.  This time we move on to the next part of this academically strong yet practical way to look at wellbeing. So… a (very) brief recap:

P is for – Positive Emotion

What is the second element of PERMA?

E is for – Engagement!

Have you ever been actively involved in something so much that time flies?  I’m not talking about ‘zoning out’ while watching tv – that’s not very active at all.  Instead, I’m talking about what athletes often call being ‘in the zone’; that is, you’re doing something that uses your skill or ability, something that challenges you at just the right level, something that fascinates you.  This is Engagement.

One factor in engagement that is especially relevant for us in schools is that the task be perfectly challenging.  What do we mean here? Think about the Goldilocks story – she ate the baby bear’s porridge, the porridge that wasn’t too hot, and wasn’t too cold.  Whatever our personal values may be surrounding allowing young children to access the domiciles of megafauna and to steal their food (who was supposed to be supervising Goldilocks, anyway??), the fact remains that just like baby bear’s porridge, a task will be boring if it isn’t challenging enough, and anxiety provoking if it is too challenging.  For engagement to occur the task needs to be in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’.  The proper psychology term is ‘psychological flow’ [1].

However, there’s more to it than the right level of challenge.  Everyone is different – we all find our flow in different things, whether it be a sport, a musical instrument we are passionate about, dancing, working out a complex mathematical equation or weeding the garden.  (It may even be that you find it totally engaging to write about student wellbeing…)

We all need something in some aspect of our lives that totally absorbs us in the present moment.  Flow has been found to be important to stretch our intelligence, build our skills, and strengthen our emotional capabilities.

Character strengths and Engagement

Remember how I asked you to undertake the Values In Action survey, and suggest that you consciously use the strengths you find?  It turns out that often, when we are in a state of psychological flow, it is because we are using our top character strengths.  If you haven’t already, may I suggest you go ahead now and take the VIA survey (it’s free!) and can be found at https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey.

Once you have identified your top five strengths, choose one or more to use in a novel way.  Why is that, I hear you ask?  For the simple reason that if you use it exactly as you always have, there will be no difference in your wellbeing or engagement.  However, research has found that if you use your character strengths in new or interesting ways, or even just use them more than before, the difference to wellbeing can be significant.  (Use this as today’s action in your quest for student wellbeing).

An example may help.  I ran a professional development on Character Strengths for 150 teachers not too long ago, with the above challenge, and asked them to set goals and give me feedback.  One teacher from the school’s Kindy found Kindness to be a top strength (not uncommon in teachers, especially in Childcare / Primary-level educators!!)  She decided that over and above normal work, she would call one parent a week just to tell them something positive she saw their child doing during the week – importantly, because she enjoyed and was engaged in this act of Kindness, it was not a burden for her.  (Remember – this intervention was geared towards raising the staff member’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the students and parents was a lovely side benefit.)

We will talk more about the role or character strengths in a future post; for now, I want to make sure you have your head around Engagement in PERMAH Wellbeing Theory.  Hopefully you’re feeling more confident about the role of Engagement, particularly around being perfectly challenged, having ‘flow’ more likely to occur in an area of passion or interest, and the link between character strengths and flow.  I’d like to leave with this question:  knowing that Engagement is linked to stretching intelligence and ability, how might we apply the above with our students to benefit both wellbeing and academics?

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

‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 3

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperPerennial, New York, 39.

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.