Why We Shouldn’t Define Well-being By an Absence of Negative Emotions

Wellbeing and its definition have been discussed by philosophers and psychologists throughout time. What makes a life worth living? How do we define and measure wellbeing? How do we drive and create it? In 2012, Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, developed the theory of PERMA as an attempt to examine some of these questions. It states that the five components of well-being are: 

Positive emotion





There can be some confusion around the P in PERMA (positive emotion), though.. Simply put, positive well-being isn’t the absence of negative emotions. True wellness is a state of action with the freedom to oscillate between positive and negative states of mind. In fact, negative emotions are extremely important! Like all emotions, they have a beginning, middle, and an end, and if you try to take a detour, that stress will continue to live in your body. For us to experience well-being, we need to learn how to turn toward difficult emotions, process them, and move through them.

Burnout happens when we try to take that detour and get stuck in or avoid an emotion rather than moving all the way through. It should be noted that dealing with or removing a stressor doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve dealt with the emotion. For example, someone in school may think that because they’ve turned in their thesis that their stress will subside. Instead, they find themselves sick in bed with a cold. The stressor itself may be gone but the stress is still working its way out. 

Complete the Stress Cycle

Try as we might, we can’t ignore the difficult stuff; instead, we need to process it. Fortunately, emotional processing is a skill you can learn, and it can become easier with practice. Here are seven ways to move through and complete the stress cycle: 

  1. Move your body! This could be going for a run, taking a five minute walk, dancing in the kitchen, or tensing up your body, holding that energy, and letting it all go. 
  2. Focus on your breathing. Slowly breathe in, hold, and let a long breath out to regulate your nervous system. Your thoughts may race and scramble, but just calmly return to your breath. 
  3. Engage in positive interaction. Connect with other people, even in small ways like complimenting a stranger. This tells your body you are somewhere safe. 
  4. Find laughter. Genuine, belly-shaking laughter is a powerful way to release stress. 
  5. Give or get affection. It can be as simple as hugging someone you love or buying a stranger coffee! Pets are great for this, too!
  6. Have a good cry. No one is claiming that it solves the problem, but that’s not the point. If you let your tears run their cycle without feeding them more negative thoughts, you’ll often feel better. 
  7. Express yourself creatively. Take whatever is inside you — anger, sadness, anxiousness — and put it somewhere safe outside your body in the form of a painting, a poem, a journal entry, a home-cooked meal, etc. 

Wellbeing requires us to deal with negative emotions, not ignore or avoid them. Let your feelings run their course! It’s the only way you’ll be able to get back to the P in PERMA!