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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We had planned computer-based data collection for Wave I, but a technical difficulty made paper and pencil implementation necessary. Importantly, Wave I data are not at the centerpiece of this report.

  2. 2.

    Participation rates were computed as the total number of participants divided by the number of eligible participants; the number of eligible participants varied across waves due to leaves of absence, transfers away from the institution, and withdrawals from the study.

  3. 3.

    For longitudinal analyses, we focused only on outcomes from senior year because it provided more outcomes of interest than junior year. In separate models, between sophomore and junior year, results were generally comparable to the ones reported in the manuscript, so we focused on the longer time period.

  4. 4.

    GPA was not significantly related to sophomore year PERMA at any of the subsequent semesters, therefore, we only report on spring GPAs in sophomore and senior years for consistency with the temporality of the other dependent variables.

  5. 5.

    $5 is a much higher compensation rate than is common for a 30 min survey on Mturk which resulted in us receiving many comments from participants thanking us for paying a fair rate. Although, research suggests Mturk participants are usually vested, the comments led us to believe they were more vested given the higher compensation.

  6. 6.

    No attention checks were used meaning that unidentified deviant responders could add error to the estimates.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to John K. Coffey.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 4.

Table 4 Individual items for original first-order factors of well-being for both studies

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Coffey, J.K., Wray-Lake, L., Mashek, D. et al. A Multi-Study Examination of Well-Being Theory in College and Community Samples. J Happiness Stud 17, 187–211 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-014-9590-8

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Keywords

  • Well-being theory
  • PERMA
  • Engagement
  • Relationships achievement
  • Health