‘PERMAH Wellbeing Theory – possibly the world’s top theory for guiding student wellbeing’ Part 5

Let’s continue our journey into understanding PERMAH wellbeing theory.  First, the briefest of recaps to review what we’ve covered already:

P – Positive Emotion

E – Engagement

R – Relationships

M – Meaning and purpose


What is the fifth element of PERMAH?

A – Accomplishment

This element of wellbeing acknowledges that to a degree, our wellbeing is affected by our sense of competence (or ‘self-efficacy’ [1], we might say); or of pursuing mastery in some area of life for its own sake.  This is likely to develop or change over time, in order to allow for greater mastery.   When describing this element to our Year 3 students, recently, for example, I asked how they felt when they first learned to tie their shoes way back in Prep.  They said variations on it felt ‘great’, with one even saying she “finally felt like a big kid” when she could tie her laces.  Then I asked them to reflect on what it is now that gives them the same feeling of pride – and got, as you can imagine a far wider range of answers that included riding (“I got to sit on a pony all by myself!”) to writing (“getting my pen licence!”) and music (“I can play chopsticks on piano!”)

To scaffold or support our level of Accomplishment or that of our students, there is one tool that I am guilty of reaching for very quickly – that of goal-setting.  If you’re not familiar with goal-setting, the usual framework for doing so is using the SMART framework; developing goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-based and Time-bound/Trackable.  The theory is that by using this framework when seeking to accomplish something, we can direct our efforts in the most effective manner, having a clear target to work towards [2].  Being able to set and work towards a clear goal can indeed be a very useful skill.  However, if we are teaching students or our staff to maximise the wellbeing element of Accomplishment, SMART goals will only do part of the job.  There are downsides to SMART and similar goal-setting strategies.

The first problem that I encounter with SMART goals is that many students will switch off as they have already used SMART for twenty-six thousand other school-based exercises.  The second problem is SMART defines the outcome at the outset – SMART works well in situations where the variables under consideration are known and well-defined, but falls apart and in fact can be very unhelpful when there is ambiguity [3].   Put another way, much of the time, our sense of accomplishment is achieved when we are striking out in a bold new direction and don’t know what we will find – or, in the terminology we’ve adopted for this set of blog posts, when we are leading a quest – things that are hardly likely to be realistic or time-bound.  Consider Steve jobs saying “We are here to put a dent in the universe!”  Or how constrained Martin Luther King Jnr’s speech would have been if instead of “I have a Dream” he said “I have a specific and realistic goal…”  For the bigger picture, it is OK to be vague – we are better off focusing on the question rather than clearly defining the answer from square one.

A more productive starting point for building student or staff Accomplishment may be:

“If you could wave a magic wand and could make the world / your life / the lives of others any way you wanted, what would it look like?”

Or the more prosaic:

“What would you do if time and money were not limiting factors?”

What about you? What gives you a sense of competence or ‘winning’?  And – what would you accomplish if you could do anything at all?

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 6

  1. Bandura, Albert. “Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning.” Educational psychologist2 (1993): 117-148.
  2. Conzemius, A., & O’Neill, J. (2009). The power of SMART goals: Using goals to improve student learning. Solution Tree Press.
  3. Prather, C. W. (2005). The dumb thing about SMART goals for innovation. Research Technology Management, 48(5), 14

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.