The Science Behind Happier and More Effective Employees: Fostering Subjective Well-Being using the PERMA Model

Employers have long touted the mantra that an organisation’s strongest asset is its people.  While this credo has spawned a rash of management practices designed to develop human capital, only recently has the focus been drawn to employee happiness.  A consequence of data insights and wider organisational psychological research, a growing number of organisations are now recognising the value of employee well-being, with good reason. 

The recent evidence indicates that subjective well-being has a major impact on a wide range of work outcomes.  Happier people are more productive, innovative, and have higher occupational success when compared to those who do not (Watanabe et al., 2018; Thompson & Gregory, 2012). 

Paired with an increasing need to compete against organisations for talent, globalism, and the advent of the gig economy, this has prompted an explosion of exploration within the science and practice of positive psychology, or the scientific study of optimal human functioning.

This form of psychology endeavours to identify and promote factors that allow people to flourish (Gable & Haidt, 2005).  The overarching goal of positive psychology is to focus on what is good and try and improve that where possible.  Martin Seligman, who founded the discipline, recognised that psychology had up to the turn of the century focused too much on the negative.  A greater emphasis had to be made to improve the quality of life and prevent pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless (Hackett, 2017).  The foundation of why organisations should prioritise positive psychological principles lies in its efficacy.

To what extent can positive psychology impact well-being?

There is now a sizable literature that indicates the impact of individual differences (i.e. personality) and contextual factors (e.g. wealth, health, circumstances) on well-being is indirect and integrative.  Rather, we are often most thoroughly influenced by our cognitive appraisals of objective life events.  It is our perceptions and evaluations of our surroundings that form the crux of our well-being. 

This subjective well-being, or happiness, involves both past experiences and future expectations. Consequently, the key to well-being is interpreting the world in a positive manner.  Employees need to fortify themselves to think positively, rather than negatively.

Sonja Lyubomisrksy and colleagues (2005) posited the concept of the ‘happiness pie’, which outlines the extent to which individuals can influence happiness.  Their research discovered that around 50% of the differences in people’s happiness is heritable (determined genetically).

A further 10% is attributable to a person’s circumstances. Whether you are healthy or ill, married or divorced, rich or broke, in crisis or not, these external and situational factors will impact happiness.  This is however, a far lower proportion of the happiness than many would suspect.

This leaves 40% of the variance in happiness that is influenced by intentional activities.  The positivity levels of one’s predispositions, appraisals, memories, goals, and motivations are instrumental in magnifying the impact of positive events. Such positivity also buffers the effects of negative events.

We often cannot make significant changes to our personalities or our circumstances, but we can change the way we perceive the world around ourselves.  Understanding that 40% of happiness is born of the subjective experience demonstrates that through positive psychology, organisations can make a massive impact on their people.
By utilising the insights and strategies of positive psychological methodology organisations can deliver holistic, robust, and relatively simple well-being interventions.

The PERMA Model

Introduced by Martin Seligman in 2011, the PERMA model is an intervention approach that outlines the keys to leading a fulfilling life.  The PERMA model suggests there are five elements people pursue independently to improve well-being: Positive Emotions (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M) and Achievement (A).
Through the lens of the PERMA model, a series of organisational interventions can be designed and implemented.  Goodman and colleagues (2018) compared PERMA and subjective well-being and identified a latent correlation of 0.98.  This indicates that beyond PERMA effectively tapping the construct, this approach when taken to improving workplace well-being should have a positive impact for employees.

At the organisation level, policies and practices can fundamentally change culture for the better. Leaders who drive the PERMA model through the policies they set, and actions they take, are far more likely to see sustained success.  Beyond this, individuals also can improve their well-being through their own goal setting practices.

To demonstrate this point, the following table outlines examples of how individuals and organisations can use the PERMA model in practice to improve subjective well-being.

Organisational Interventions
Individual Interventions
Positive Emotions
·         Normalise help seeking behaviours at work,
·         Set clear work/life harmony expectations by withholding communications outside of office hours
·         Offer EAP services that encourage proactive usage

Establish a self-care plan:
·         Get at least 7 hours of sleep,
·         Practice mindfulness daily
·         Go for 3 runs per week
·         Have dinner with the family at least twice a week
·         Organise strengths-based goal setting and leadership practices
·         Give employees the chance to identify projects that they are interested in
·         Take the time to identify what parts of work are of intrinsic interest
·         Vocalise to managers when you lack the resources to meet work demands

·         Create a culture of working lunches and active meetings that give opportunities for employees to interact
·         Foster interdepartmental problem-solving and collaboration
·         Run weekly stand-up meetings and ask employees to keep others informed about their work

·         Eat lunch with other employees at least twice a week
·         Organise and/or attend after work events
·         Make role clarity a focus. Encourage employees to discuss their organisational impact.

·         Frequently reflect upon the question: "what value does my role provide the organisation?"
·         Recognise the achievements of employees through email call outs, stand up meetings, and rewards acknowledging performance
·         Give employees the autonomy to take ownership over their work and develop solutions on their own
·         Create yearly goals, frequently document progress towards these goals each month

Where to next?

Positive psychological interventions are now becoming standardised more and more within organisations, however there is still work to be done.  Hopefully, given the organisational and individual impacts, businesses come to grips with well-being in the same manner they have with engagement in the past decade.

The future of positive psychology is going to have to accelerate to meet the demands of the modern workforce.  As the world of work is becoming global, virtual and particularly driven by a gig-economy, the onus of well-being is shifting further towards employees. Workers must be able to look after themselves more now than ever before.  This trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, so the creation of resources that allow employees to drive their own well-being must meet demands.

Positive Thinking

Critical to the creation and maintenance of a positive and happy workforce is appropriate measurement systems. Personality questionnaires can assist in the selection and development of employees that possess a Positive Thinking mindset.

Positive thinking describes an optimistic attitude that focuses on the bright side of life. Optimistic individuals have faith that their abilities and actions can cause significant positive impact on their future (Kluemper, Little & DeGroot, 2009). Positive thinking scales measures the degree of positive mood and feelings across the range of happiness, enthusiasm, optimism and joy.

The menu-driven Business Personality Reflections® (BPR) is a personality questionnaire that measures 70 business-related capabilities, tailored to any organisation’s needs. An example of an item from the BPR’s Positive Thinking scale might be;

“I feel lots of happiness in my life”.

Positive thinking plays an important role in generating positive mood. Research has found that emotions and mood are correlated to success in occupational settings, people who are happy are more creative, see opportunities and tend to be more comfortable in taking strategic risks (Fredrickson, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Cable (2017) also suggested that positive emotions help with decision-making and problem solving.

Organisational leaders who display positive thinking help employees feel included and increase cooperation and task performance (Allen & McCarthy, 2015). Further, positive actions and emotions enhance the efficiency and the rate of task execution, increasing productivity in the workplace (Anchor, 2011; Cable, 2017). It has also been found that positive mood and emotions lead to a more amicable communication style and therefore result in lower levels of conflict between employees (Allen & McCarthy, 2015).

In addition, research has also found that optimism correlates to happiness and that it promotes positive feelings during stressful events (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Thus, it is shown that positive thinking leads to better stress coping in individuals.

Individuals who score highly on the Business Personality Reflections® Positive Thinking Scale are more likely to experience these positive emotions such as enthusiasm, happiness and joy, as well as actively express them in the workplace.

You might consider using a positive thinking scale in your recruiting and development processes if employees often deal with;
  • Stressful situations in the workplace in which positive thinking is required
  • Challenging and complex tasks that may involve setbacks
  • Having to build and maintain professional relationships with customers and/or other employees 
  • A fast-paced work environment in which enthusiasm is necessary for task completion and efficiency

Organisations need employees who think positively in the workplace to help maximise productivity.  We hope that the Positive Thinking scale can provide useful information, amongst other relevant scales about potential candidate performance within your work context or environment. 

If you were interested in learning more about the Positive Thinking scale, or the Business Personality Reflections® Personality Menu-Driven System please simply enquire now for a free trial.


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