The Five Pillars of Well-being: How does PERMA relate to museums?
I promised that I would continue to explore this thing I’m calling Positive Museology, so this blog post is about a concept—well, more of a theory—from Positive Psychology. The Five Pillars of Well-being, dubbed PERMA, stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. A bit more detail:
(P) Positive Emotions– Feeling positive emotions such as awe, love, amusement, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, and inspiration;
(E) Engagement– Being fully absorbed in activities that use your skills, and challenge you;
(R) Relationships– Having positive relationships;
(M) Meaning– Serving something bigger than yourself;
(A) Accomplishment– Pursuing success, achievement and mastery for their own sake.
This theory comes from many years of work by Martin Seligman and his colleagues (see https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/perma-model/ for details). According to Seligman (in his book, Flourish) the subject of positive psychology is well-being and PERMA are the five measurable elements that promote happiness within each of us; they are “the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake… because these elements are intrinsically motivating by themselves.” No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it. The goal of this well-being theory is to increase human flourishing by increasing PERMA.
So, what does it have to do with museums? I think it is broadly applicable in two ways: to museum work and to museum experiences. Museum work refers to that whole inner sanctum of the museum industry—the work, people, practices, activities, policies, etc.—the things that power the museum (I refer to this as the inner museum). Museum experience refers more to the visitors, their encounters and engagements with museal things and all the associations with those (let's call this the outer museum, although it is only a part of it in actuality). First, consider PERMA for the inner museum. Many museum workers are unhappy—underpaid, overworked, and politics abound. Reports such as this one from the author of Joyful Museums (van Damme, 2015) and books such as Seema Rao's Objective Lessons indicate that something is awry. What if museum administrations were to take a flourishing approach to their own internal culture by using PERMA? How might this affect not only the well-being of the workers, but the museum institution itself? I have not seen anything like PERMA discussed in our various museum communities; if any readers are aware of a museum using PERMA, I would love to hear more! But there are certainly many other kinds of institutions using it, and we would benefit from learning about their processes and approaches. Take a look at this blog post from the University of Calgary for an example.
For the outer museum, how could we apply PERMA? This might actually be a bit easier to tackle than trying to infiltrate the inner workings of the museum cold turkey, possibly making it a better place to start. Here's a simple example. At the beginning of the next exhibit planning (if it makes sense for the specific topic), consider PERMA along with the big idea, learning outcomes, and measures etc. What aspects of the exhibit might elicit positive emotions? How might we induce engagement? How can we forge positive relationships or help to cultivate them amongst visitors? What meaning-making would we like to see our visitors make (or how can we set up open-ended encounters to allow for such meaning-making)? And how might visitors leave our museum with a sense of accomplishment? Several museum frameworks allude to many of these elements (eg. Perry’s What Makes Learning Fun?), but none use them outright.
Take a look at PERMA and let me know if your institution intentionally uses these or if you have ideas about how to apply them. I see great value in the potential for museum flourishing.
Perry, D. L. (2012). What makes learning fun?: Principles for the design of intrinsically motivating museum exhibits. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press.
Rao, S. (2018). Objective Lessons: Self-Care for Museum Workers (1st ed.). Middletown, DE: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Van Damme, M. (2015) Joyful museums: Together we can make work better (article). Retrieved from http://www.joyfulmuseums.com/resources/joyful-museums-together-we-can-make-work-better/, originally published in Fall 2015 New England Museums Now.
 Although I just got my hands on Randi Korn’s new book, Intentional Practice for Museums (2018) and I hope to dig into it soon.