Here’s why today’s article matters: despite the pressure many of us feel to help our students succeed in whichever high stakes test comes next in their lives, we all got into this work because we wanted to make a long-term difference. Our Mt. Everests, when we were starting out, weren’t “help my kids for the year they’re with me” — they were “help my kids for the next twenty years.”
In short, we were after long-term flourishing, and we ought still to be. I know, I know — I can hardly write a paragraph without using that phrase. But in today’s educational environments this is an assertion that bears repeating: long-term flourishing is the point of schooling. But what, exactly, does flourishing look like?
PERMA: A scientific framework for flourishing
Long-term flourishing, to many, seems a pie-in-the-sky concept. In our test-obsessed American public schools, I can almost hear the question: But how do you test it, Dave!? This article doesn’t dream of testing it — but it does seek to share the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and long-time Penn professor. According to Seligman, flourishing is the gold standard for measuring well-being.
Seriously — from Seligman’s highly readable Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being [audiobook]:
I used to think that the topic of positive psychology  was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.
So, two questions:
- What, exactly, is flourishing?
- What does it look like in a classroom?
According to Seligman, the answer to that first question is PERMA: positive emotion, engagement (or flow), relationships, meaning, and achievement.  And below, I’ll share some potential answers (or at least good questions) toward the second question.
Many people will say (in fact, some of my students even wrote in their credos) that the purpose of life is to do what makes you happy. My dad, Mr. Dave Stuart Sr. himself, always used to tell us kids, “I just want you to be happy in life.” But generally, people mean more when they say “happy” than simply positive feelings like happiness, joy, mirth, satisfaction, pleasure, curiosity, hope. Yet certainly, these feelings are a part of the good life.
Whenever you and I help our students laugh, or guide them into wonder, or teach them to smile, or coach them to think optimistically, or encourage them to find satisfaction in hard work, we contribute to the Positive Emotion component of their flourishing, both for today and tomorrow. It’s important to me that my students experience moments of mirth when we read Romeo and Juliet (Figure 1), yet I get really excited when they’ve gone from loathing Shakespeare to experiencing positive emotions just by reading the play or listening to it performed by professional actors. This isn’t because I’m insistent that all people love Shakespeare; it’s because there’s power in being able to learn to love a thing you weren’t initially drawn to.
The key questions for me then, as a teacher:
- How do I help my students cultivate positive emotions, even in hard or stressful circumstances?
- How do I cultivate positive emotions in myself, even in today’s stressful educational environments?
This is often called flow.  You’ve heard of it, that state where you’re so into a task, so immersed and taken by it, that you lose track of time. Think: reading a great book, listening to a riveting song, or playing a game you love.
From Seligman’s Flourish:
Like positive emotion, [engagement] is assessed only subjectively (“Did time stop for you?” “Were you completely absorbed by the task?” “Did you lose self-consciousness?”). [Unlike positive emotion,] thought and feeling are usually absent during the flow state, and only in retrospect do we say, “That was fun” or “That was wonderful.” While the subjective state for the pleasures is in the present, the subjective state for engagement is only retrospective.
This is a high bar for a word so overused in education that it’s become nearly useless. Usually, when we say “engagement” we mean that the kids are paying attention. Far too often, teachers feel like they need to entertain kids to keep them engaged. As we find ourselves slipping further into edutainment, a part of us asks, “Is this the best I can aim for? Is this what school is?”
The key questions for teachers:
- How do I help my students get to the place where they are engaged, in the flow sense, not just by my instruction, but by their studies?
- How do I, as a teacher, minimize the time I spend on frustrating, minutiae, forty-part-teacher-eval-rubric-type tasks and maximize the time I spend in flow-producing work like lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and researching the educator’s craft?
Engagement, considered this way, is much richer than something you can come to my room and observe on an evaluation day.
In 1938, Harvard began the Grant Study of Adult Development, thus beginning the longest longitudinal study of human development yet undertaken. So what have we learned about the flourishing life from that study?
From George Vaillant’s Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study:
The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward, five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
By love, Vaillant means supportive, healthy relationships. The second most important pillar of a flourishing life, according to the study, is “finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Seligman’s own rationale for including positive relationships in his PERMA framework is as follows, from Flourish:
Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up… When [a friend of mine] was a young boy, and his mother saw that he was in a bad mood, she would say, “[Son], you are looking piqued. Why don’t you go out and help someone?” Empirically, [this mother’s] maxim has been put to rigorous test, and we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
If your students are like mine, they come to you very human-ish — developing supportive, healthy relationships with others is a skill and an art that must be taught and practiced. And when it comes to kindness, very few of them write credos like Dane did last week: “Others are before me… If I know them or not, I will show respect and love for them.” (It lumps my throat to even type that, mostly because that is just so who Dane is.) 
The key questions for teachers:
- How do I use collaborative activities not just to improve my students’ learning of material or skill, but also to improve their ability to be the kinds of people who make supported, healthy relationships? (See Figure 3)
- How do I, as an educator with more things to do than there are hours in the day, set work hours for myself (and therein accept that I won’t complete All The Things) so that I have more time to invest in relationships — with my spouse, or my children, or my siblings, or my friends? How do I improve my working relationships with colleagues?
Meaning — the sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself — is an interesting part of the PERMA framework because it doesn’t fit neatly into either the purely subjective elements (Positive Emotion, Flow) or the externally validated ones (Achievement, Positive Relationships). If I ask you, “Hey, were you in flow right there? Did you just experience delight?” then I have to take you at your word. And I can’t just take you at your word that you have a positive relationship with your mom — I have to ask her — or that you beat your one-mile running time — I need to see the stopwatch.
There is the sense of meaning that is subjective — it feels very meaningful to work with kids who write credos like Dane’s — and there is the sense of meaning that is externally validated — twenty years after my class, I see Dane in a grocery store, and I see him with his kids, and he shakes my hand and says, “Mr. Stuart, I’ll never forget that credo activity.”
The cultivation of a sense of meaning, to me, is one of the most promising outcomes of project-based learning scenarios. At the end of every year in my world history courses, I love challenging my kids to formulate ways that they can make their own mark on world history — that they can see themselves as belonging to something much bigger than them.
The key questions for teachers:
- How do I create opportunities for my students to reflect on or explore or learn about big problems and noble causes in the world today? How do I help them find meaning even in their high school years?
- How do I keep my own eyes set on the meaningful work that teaching is, despite any distractions to the contrary?
Seligman splits this into momentary accomplishment (I earned an A; I got a 5 on the AP test; I read 40 books this year; I won the race) and the ‘achieving life,’ a life dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment. Too often, this is the only kind of flourishing our American schools tell kids is important — How You Do On The Test. Yet there is a large difference between what our schools and policies tell kids and what we, the readers of this blog, tell our kids as teachers and instructional coaches and administrators.
Knee-jerk reactions to over-testing — telling or giving kids the impression that achievement on things like standardized tests just don’t matter at all — trouble me. Even as I lament the insane hyper-testing happening around the country today, I still want my students to become people who can find enjoyment in surmounting obstacles and doing well at the things we put our hands to.
The key questions for teachers:
- How do I help my students identify areas in their own lives in which Achievement would improve other PERMA components?
- In what ways can I push myself to achieve? What are the things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and how can I work today to make them more possible tomorrow?
All for one, but not one for all
Every part of PERMA is there because it can be pursued exclusively for its own sake, and it can exist exclusively of the other elements.  In other words, Seligman wouldn’t agree that one needs to be firing on all PERMA cylinders, if you will, in order to be classified as “flourishing.”
For what it’s worth, when I come across an interesting, hard-earned idea like Seligman’s and share it here on the blog, I hope you’re not tempted to walk around the classroom with every kid’s name on a clipboard, rating them on a scale of 1-5 for each element of PERMA. There’s no need to over-science things. 🙂
Rather, I just want us all to think more clearly, always. Clear thinking can help us achieve, help us do more meaningful work, help us enjoy the tasks and choices we’re faced with each day.
And that, I suppose, is what PERMA does for me. It helps me think more clearly. I hope it does the same for you.
- Don’t let the touchy-feely connotations of “positive psychology” fool you — Seligman and his colleagues are serious researchers in pursuit of powerful questions that you and I care about: What ought we hope for our students? How can we best prepare our kids for life even as we teach them math or science or English?
- Seligman had three “properties” that any element of his framework had to exhibit in order to be included in PERMA: 1) it must contribute to well-being, 2) people have to “pursue it for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements,” and 3) it has to be exclusive to the other elements — you don’t need one to have the others.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written an entire book on flow.
- For more sample student credos, head here. To learn more about the credo assignment, read my last post.