Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 187–211 | Cite as

A Multi-Study Examination of Well-Being Theory in College and Community Samples

  • John K. CoffeyEmail author
  • Laura Wray-Lake
  • Debra Mashek
  • Brittany Branand
Research Paper


Well-being theory (WBT) proposes five indicators of well-being [i.e., positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement (PERMA)] that are, independently, empirically supported predictors of flourishing (i.e., an optimal level of well-being; Seligman in Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press, NY, 2011). However, there is limited empirical support for the multidimensional model suggested by WBT. Two studies sought to test and validate the higher-order factor structure of the five components of PERMA and PERMA’s ability to predict concurrent and prospective flourishing outcomes (e.g., physical health, college success). In Study 1, a longitudinal examination of college students, participants completed measures of well-being (including four of the five PERMA indicators), physical health, and college success at the end of their sophomore, junior, and senior years. In Study 2, a larger, cross-sectional study was conducted online to further validate the PERMA model with a broader sample and all five PERMA indicators. Participants completed measures similar to those administered at Study 1 and other measures used to validate Study 1 measures. Results from Study 2 further validated the PERMA model by comparing Study 1 measures to established measures and by adding meaning to the model. Study 1 and Study 2 PERMA models predicted markers of well-being (e.g., vitality, life satisfaction) and flourishing (e.g., physical health). The two studies reported here provide cross-sectional and longitudinal support that WBT is useful for predicting flourishing.


Well-being theory PERMA Engagement Relationships achievement Health 



Study 1 was supported by an internal grant from Harvey Mudd College and Study 2 was supported by an internal grant from Claremont Graduate University. Gratitude is extended to the Harvey Mudd Students and Mturk workers that participated in this study, and to, Katie Nelson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jeanne Nakamura, Jessica Borelli, David Kyle Bond, Thomas Chann, Binghuang A. Wang, and Vicky Bouche for their assistance on this manuscript.


  1. Bagwell, C., Bender, S., Andreassi, C., Kinoshita, T., Montarello, S., & Muller, J. (2005). Friendship quality and perceived relationship changes predict psychosocial adjustment in early adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 235–254. doi: 10.1177/0265407510380607.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bentler, P. M. (2007). On tests and indices for evaluating structural models. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 825–829. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2006.09.024.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bostic, T., Rubio, D., & Hood, M. (2000). A validation of the subjective vitality scale using structural equation modeling. Social Indicators Research, 52, 313–324. doi: 10.1023/A:1007136110218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52(4), 664–678. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01456.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Briggs, S., & Cheek, J. (1986). The role of factor analysis in the development and evaluation of personality scales. Journal of Personality, 54, 106–148. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1986.tb00391.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T., & Gosling, S. D. (2011). Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: A new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 3–5. doi: 10.1177/1745691610393980.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Byrne, B. M. (2012). Structural equation modeling with Mplus: Basic concepts, applications, and programming. New York, NY US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. doi: 10.1111/insr.12051_1.Google Scholar
  8. Carli, M., Delle Fave, A., & Massimini, F. (1988). The quality of experience in the flow channels: Comparison of Italian and U.S. students. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 288–318). NY: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1177/000841749806500105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chalofsky, N., & Krishna, V. (2009). Meaningfulness, commitment, and engagement: The intersection of a deeper level of intrinsic motivation. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 11(2), 189–203. doi: 10.1177/1523422309333147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chamberlain, K., & Zika, S. (1988). Measuring meaning in life: An examination of three scales. Personality and Individual Differences, 9(3), 589–596. doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(88)90157-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Coffey, J. K., Warren, M., & Gottfried, A. (2014). Does infant happiness forecast adult life satisfaction? Examining subjective well-being in the first quarter century of life. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi:  10.1007/s10902-014-9556-x.
  12. Cohn, M., & Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 13–24). NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and its significance for human psychology. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 15–35). NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  15. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.Google Scholar
  16. Debats, D., Van der Lubbe, P., & Wezeman, F. (1993). On the psychometric properties of the life regard index (LRI): A measure of meaningful life: An evaluation in three independent samples based on the dutch version. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 337–345. doi: 10.1016/0191-8869(93)90132-M.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34–43. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Diener, E., & Emmons, R. A. (1985). The independence of positive and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1105–1117. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.47.5.1105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Diener, E., Emmons, R., Larsen, R., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71–75. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa4901_13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Diener, E., & Oishi, S. (2000). Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations. In E. Diener & E. M. Suh (Eds.), Culture and subjective well-being (pp. 185–218). Cambridge, MA US: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  21. Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81–84. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D., Oishi, S., et al. (2010). New well-being measures: Short scales to assess flourishing and positive and negative feelings. Social Indicators Research, 97(2), 143–156. doi: 10.1007/s11205-009-9493-y.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Duckworth, A., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the short grit scale (GRIT–S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166–174. doi: 10.1080/00223890802634290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Enders, C. K. (2010). Applied missing data analysis. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  26. Engeser, S., Rheinberg, F., Vollmeyer, R., & Bischoff, J. (2005). Motivation, flow-experience, and performance in learning settings at Universities. German Journal of Educational Psychology, 19, 159–172. doi: 10.1024/1010-0652.19.3.159.Google Scholar
  27. Forgeard, M. J. C., Jayawickreme, E., Kern, M., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Doing the right thing: Measuring wellbeing for public policy. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1), 79–106. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v1i1.15.Google Scholar
  28. Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gagné, M. (2003). The role of autonomy support and autonomy orientation in prosocial behavior engagement. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 199–223. doi: 10.1023/A:1025007614869.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Graham, J. W. (2012). Missing data: Analysis and design. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Graham, J. W., & Coffman, D. L. (2012). Structural equation modeling with missing data. In R. H. Hoyle (Ed.), Handbook of structural equation modeling (pp. 277–295). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  32. Grant, H., & Dweck, C. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 541–553. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Han, S. (1988). The relationship between life satisfaction and flow in elderly Korean immigrants. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 138–149). NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Huppert, F. A. (2009). Psychological well-being: Evidence regarding its causes and consequences. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 1(2), 137–164. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2009.01008.x.Google Scholar
  35. Huppert, F. A., & So, T. C. (2013). Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, 110(3), 837–861. doi: 10.1007/s11205-011-9966-7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kashdan, T. B., Julian, T., Merritt, K., & Uswatte, G. (2006). Social anxiety and posttraumatic stress in combat veterans: Relations to well-being and character strengths. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 561–583. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.03.010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kern, M., Waters, L., Adler, A., & White, M. (2014). Assessing employee wellbeing in schools using a multifaceted approach: Associations with physical health, life satisfaction, and professional thriving. Psychology, 5, 500–513. doi: 10.4236/psych.2014.56060.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Keyes, C. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62(2), 95–108. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.2.95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. King, G., & Roberts, M. E. (2014). How robust standard errors expose methodological problems they do not fix, and what to do about it. Retrieved from
  40. Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). What is the most optimal way to deliver a positive activity intervention? The case of writing about one’s “best possible selves”. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 635–654. doi: 10.1007/s10902-012-9346-2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. LeFevre, J. (1988). Flow and the quality of experience during work and leisure. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 307–318). NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Liu, S., Rovine, M. J., & Molenaar, P. C. M. (2012). Selecting a linear mixed model for longitudinal data: repeated measures analysis of variance, covariance pattern model, and growth curve approaches. Psychological Methods, 17, 15–30. doi: 10.1037/a0026971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Martin, L. R., Friedman, H. S., Tucker, J. S., Tomlinson-Keasey, C., Criqui, M. H., & Schwartz, J. E. (2002). A life course perspective on childhood cheerfulness and its relation to mortality risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(9), 1155–1165. doi: 10.1177/01461672022812001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mason, W., & Suri, S. (2012). Conducting behavioral research on Amazon’s mechanical Turk. Behavior Research Methods, 44(1), 1–23. doi: 10.3758/s13428-011-0124-6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Muthén, L.K. and Muthén, B.O. (1998–2012). Mplus User’s Guide. Seventh Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Muthén & Muthén.Google Scholar
  47. Nelson, S. K., Fuller, J. A. K., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Beyond self-protection: Self-affirmation benefits hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 998–1011. doi: 10.1177/0146167214533389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Finding happiness: Tailoring positive activities for optimal well-being benefits. In M. Tugade, M. Shiota, & L. Kirby (Eds.), Handbook of positive emotions. NY: Guilford.Google Scholar
  49. Paolacci, G., & Chandler, J. (2014). Inside the turk: Understanding mechanical turk as a participant pool. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(3), 184–188. doi: 10.1177/0963721414531598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pennebaker, J. W. (1982). The psychology of physical symptoms. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Peterson, C., Ruch, W., Beermann, U., Park, N., & Seligman, M. P. (2007). Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 149–156. doi: 10.1080/17439760701228938.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Preacher, K. J., & Coffman, D. L. (2006). Computing power and minimum sample size for RMSEA [Computer software]. Available from
  54. Radloff, L. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1(3), 385–401. doi: 10.1177/014662167700100306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rogatko, T. (2009). The influence of flow on positive affect in college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(2), 133–148. doi: 10.1007/s10902-007-9069-y.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–166. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Ryan, R., & Frederick, C. (1997). On energy, personality and health: Subjective vitality as a dynamic reflection of well-being. Journal of Personality, 65, 529–565. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1997.tb00326.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Ryff, C. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Seidlitz, L. (1993). Subjective well-being: The convergence and stability of self-report and non-self-report measures. Journal of Personality, 64, 317–342. doi: 10.1007/978-90-481-2354-4_6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
  62. Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 80–93. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Steger, M., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 43–52. doi: 10.1080/17439760802303127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063–1070. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.54.6.1063.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • John K. Coffey
    • 1
    Email author
  • Laura Wray-Lake
    • 2
  • Debra Mashek
    • 3
  • Brittany Branand
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Behavioral and Organizational SciencesClaremont Graduate UniversityClaremontUSA
  2. 2.Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in PsychologyUniversity of RochesterRochesterUSA
  3. 3.Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and ArtsHarvey Mudd CollegeClaremontUSA

Personalised recommendations