Using the PERMA method, scientists and psychologists have identified the character strengths worth cultivating for your wellbeing

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Corbis Images

People have been searching for the secret to happiness for probably as long as they've been searching for the fountain of youth. But now researchers say they've finally found the secret to living a happy life. (Think smiles all the time are overrated? Here, 25 Health Perks of Being Happy.)

To find out which character traits were most connected to wellbeing, Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, partnered with wellbeing advocates Quiet Revolution to analyze 24 key strengths, including things like bravery, gratitude, persistence, love, self-regulation, and curiosity. They found that the single best predictor of wellbeing was gratitude, with a love of learning in close second. (Why Is Being Grateful So Important?)

Furthermore, the team found that all of the top happiness indicators could be separated into the five categories previously established by famed psychologist Martin Seligman: Positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment-better known as PERMA.

How can you foster the different categories of PERMA and maximize your happiness? Here's a breakdown for each.

Positive emotions: Your attitude is the lens through which you filter everything in your life and can greatly affect your health. And having a sunny outlook will enrich your body as well as your mind, says Robert London, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Feel Better Fast. Decades of research have shown that optimists have better heart health, immunity, cancer outcomes, pregnancy outcomes, pain tolerance, survival rates after a disease, and they flat-out live longer. So even if you're not a natural Pollyanna, one of the greatest takeaways from this study is how malleable our characters are-you can train optimism simply by making yourself practice seeing things in a more positive light. (Find out just how to practice positive-forward thinking, as well as The 10 Habits of Happy People.)

Engagement: "Do what you love and love what you do" is a popular Pinterest quote, and for good reason. Feeling like you're in charge of your life and engaged with your environment is vital to lifelong happiness, according to the research. "If you're working in a job where you're counting down the minutes until you can leave for the day, you should rethink your career," London says. But finding what you love to do is only half the battle. Even the best jobs will stink sometimes because work is, well, work-which is where the character traits of creativity, persistence and especially humor come in!

Positive relationships: "Being around negative people can contaminate your environment," London says. "If you have friends or family members that are consistently bringing you down, it's time to let those relationships go or give them some space." (See: 7 Signs the Man You Love Is Toxic.) It can be scary to stand up for yourself, especially to loved ones, but your health and happiness are important. Plus, like the instructions on those airplane oxygen masks say, you can't help others if you're not in a good spot yourself.

Meaning: Whether it's through yoga, religion, meditation, writing, or hiking in the mountains, people find meaning in a variety of ways. The trick, says London, is to find what is meaningful to you personally. "You should continue to evolve throughout your life," he says. "Add things that enrich your life and remove the things that drag you down. It's as simple as that."

Accomplishment: Feeling like you've made an impact on the world around you is one of life's greatest joys and an enduring source of happiness. But it's not about checking off every item on your bucket list or climbing to the top of the corporate ladder. Before you can do anything, Landon says, you need to know what you want to be. "It's about creating a path in life that will bring fulfillment," he says. And there are many different paths to that end.

Ultimately, PERMA is an umbrella of character attributes-some of which you'll be stronger in than others. (Curious to see how you stack up? Take their free quiz.) Cultivating all of these is something any happiness-seeker should work toward, but it is a hefty undertaking. If you want to make a small change that'll have a big impact on your life, hone in on those two winning character traits that Kaufman found: Be grateful for what you have and never stop learning. That's something we can all do!


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