Humans aren’t born with a handbook. And unfortunately, our impulses about well-being frequently prove inaccurate. Many people learn the hard way that neither an extravagant shopping spree nor a piece of chocolate cake provides lasting satisfaction. But if well-being doesn’t come from acquiring more of a fleetingly good thing, how can we attain it? In his new book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Gallup research leader Tom Rath reveals the truth about feeling good: Focusing on improving any one aspect of life will backfire.
The reason for this is that the critical areas of our lives that contribute to well-being operate interdependently. Rath, author of four international best-sellers, including Strengths Based Leadership, discovered the truth about the interdependent nature of well-being through a comprehensive Gallup study. Researchers asked participants from more than 150 countries questions regarding their personal health, wealth, relationships, jobs and communities. The responses indicate that to truly possess well-being, a person must thrive in five interconnected areas of life: career, social, financial, physical and community. But only 7 percent of people actually do.
The Mystery of Feeling Good
“The conventional wisdom is that being healthy and having a lot of money will buy you happiness,” Rath says. “While those things certainly help, we found there are a couple of elements that are even more important in terms of the quality of your social relationships and how much you enjoy your career on a day-to-day basis.” Rath says we instinctively look for objective ways to evaluate the quality of our lives. Quantifiable measurements, such as our net worth, income, or height, weight or BMI (body mass index), are the only ways we have to compare ourselves to our neighbors or friends. Yet that form of measurement can lead us in the wrong direction if we don’t recognize the interdependence of all five areas.
For instance, money can’t buy happiness. However, money does influence our well-being in a less overt way. Financial security can alleviate worry and stress and allow us to spend time with friends and loved ones. Lack of financial security strips us of that time freedom and can cause physical and emotional stress. In the same way, paying attention to one’s physical health is beneficial. But if a person obsesses about this (or any other) area of life to the point of neglecting social relationships, that singular focus can have a detrimental impact on his overall well-being.
The tendency to seek fulfillment in a single area of life is one of the reasons people believe happiness is elusive, when really what’s missing is the interplay of various key elements. Here’s a few of the ways these five areas overlap, and how you can work to bring them into harmony.
Rath notes there is an intrinsic and powerful link between a person’s career and well-being. “Having some kind of occupation or pursuit in life that really gets you going each day might be the most fundamental element of well-being,” he says. “The first lever you pull to boost your well-being is to wake up and actually look forward to using your strengths and talents that day.” Lack of career satisfaction is a weight that can sink a person’s overall sense of well-being fast, even if the financial payoff is big.
Boost Your Sense of Career Well-Being: To boost career satisfaction, find ways to use your strengths every day. (If you’re not sure what your strengths are, check out Rath’s book StrengthsFinder 2.0.) Rath also recommends spending time daily with someone who shares your mission and encourages you to grow.
The relationship dynamics of well-being are also present in work situations. For example, if a person dislikes his supervisor, the negative relationship can dramatically impact that person socially and physically by making him or her feel drained and irritable. But social well-being isn’t solely about our work relationships. In fact, it’s detrimental to rely on any one person or any single area of life to provide all of your social needs.
“Our research has found that people who have at least three or four very close friendships are healthier, have higher well-being and are more engaged in their jobs,” write Rath and Wellbeing co-author Jim Harter. “But the absence of any close friendships can lead to boredom, loneliness and depression.”
Boost Your Sense of Social Well-Being: Rath recommends engaging in social interaction six hours every day, including socializing at work as well as e-mailing, talking on the phone, texting or spending time with family. The personal and professional connections you make will pay off in your sense of overall well-being.
The degree to which money contributes to well-being does not necessarily correlate to income. Once basic needs are met, how people spend and manage their money determines their resulting emotions. “The people who had the highest financial well-being weren’t the people who had the most money, by any standard,” Rath says. “They were the people who had paid off their debt and had managed their money very conservatively over the years. They didn’t have to worry about the ups and downs.” Not surprisingly, frugal-minded people experienced less financial stress than their debt-laden, but higher-earning, counterparts.
Rath describes one person he and his team interviewed who had some of the highest financial well-being they encountered. He was a former minister who had paid off all of his debts and loans and had learned to spend his money on experiences and time with family and friends. He purchased a camper and enjoyed life free of the discomfort of owing people money.
Related: 5 Money Principles You Need to Know
Boost Your Sense of Financial Well-Being: Buy experiences rather than material items. Vacations and classes offer more enduring rewards because you get to look forward to them in advance, enjoy them when they arrive and relive the memories. The temporary novelty of a new suit or designer bag just doesn’t compare. Giving to charity and spending money on others also offers a lasting emotional boost. In fact, studies show that the same regions of the brain that are activated when we receive money (based on fMRI brain scans) glow even brighter when we donate money to community organizations.
An often forgotten element on many people’s quest for happiness is philanthropy, which provides a far greater sense of happiness than exclusively seeking to fulfill our own needs. Rath calls community well-being “the differentiator between a good life and a great one.” Rath says the happiest person he met during his research for Wellbeing was a man in his 80s who spent significant time volunteering in his community. Although he had enjoyed a successful career, Rath notes one of the man’s main priorities and sources of satisfaction had always been contributing to his community.
In addition to liking where you live, feeling safe and having basics, such as quality air and water, you should choose to live in a community that fits your personality and interests. After choosing the right place, the best predictor of how much people will enjoy their communities is whether they choose to get involved in groups and how they choose to give back.
Boost Your Sense of Community Well-Being: Identify ways you can contribute to individuals and groups within your community. The contact that comes from even a minimal commitment, such as signing up to host events or being included on lists to occasionally serve, can dramatically boost your sense of community well-being. You’ll feel more connected and be in a position to impact others’ lives.
Finally, physical health can provide the foundation for the other areas of life. If a person exercises regularly, the subsequent boost in mood enables him or her to perform better at work, spend more time socializing and contributing to the community. Rath cites several studies in Wellbeing that indicate sleeping well, exercising and choosing healthy foods can have an enormous impact on energy and alertness—all ingredients necessary to have a zestful life.
Boost Your Sense of Physical Well-Being: Exercise at least 20 minutes each day. Rath recommends exercising early to help improve your mood throughout the day.
Additionally, strive for a nutritious diet that includes an abundance of natural foods. Although the interdependence of five factors may make it seem difficult to achieve happiness, especially when each requires mastering a different set of skills, success can be measured in increments. Focus on what you can do today to improve your life for the long term. Doing so will yield a life that is rich, rewarding and others-focused—the essence of well-being.