Humans aren’t born with a handbook. And unfortunately, our self-care methods aren’t always helpful. Many people learn the hard way that neither a shopping spree nor a piece of chocolate cake provides lasting happiness or satisfaction. In fact, a recent study found that materialism itself had no actual effect on life satisfaction—instead, the correlation may be due to “stable person characteristics” associated with materialistic tendencies. But if well-being doesn’t come from acquiring more of a fleetingly good thing, how can we attain it? In his book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, co-author Tom Rath reveals the truth about feeling good: Focusing on improving one aspect of life will backfire.
The reason for this, according to the book, is that the critical areas of our lives that contribute to well-being operate interdependently. Rath, author and co-author of bestsellers including Strengths Based Leadership and Eat Move Sleep, discovered the truth about the interdependent nature of well-being through the comprehensive Gallup study discussed in Wellbeing. Researchers asked participants from more than 150 countries “questions about health, wealth, relationships, jobs and communities,” according to a Gallup article by Rath and Wellbeing co-author Jim Harter. The responses indicated that to truly possess well-being, a person must thrive in five interconnected elements: career, social, financial, physical and community. But “while 66% of people are doing well in at least one of these areas, just 7% are thriving in all five,” according to the same article.
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, height, weight or 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, while money may be able to buy happiness—to a certain point—money can also influence our well-being in a less overt way. Financial security can alleviate depression and stress, while lack of financial security can cause tension in relationships and families as well as negatively impact our physical and emotional well-being. In the same way, paying attention to our physical health is beneficial. But if we obsess over our physical health to the point of neglecting social relationships, the resulting loneliness and social isolation can harm our well-being.
5 elements of well-being
This tendency to seek fulfillment in a single area of life is one of the reasons well-being is elusive for many people, 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:
1. Career satisfaction
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.”
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.
2. Social interactions
The relationship dynamics of well-being are present in both social and work situations. For example, if a person dislikes their supervisor, the negative relationship may make them feel drained and irritable during or after interactions with that supervisor. But as previously mentioned, social well-being isn’t solely about our work relationships. The quality—and potentially even the quantity—of our social relationships can benefit our well-being.
“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 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, emailing, talking on the phone, texting and spending time with family. The personal and professional connections you make will pay off in your sense of overall well-being and workplace performance.
3. Financial element of well-being
The degree to which money contributes to well-being does not necessarily correlate to income, but rather to consumption—that is, how people spend their money impacts their well-being.
“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.”
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.
Boost your sense of financial well-being: Buy experiences rather than material items. Vacations and classes offer greater and 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 an emotional boost.
4. Community involvement
Philanthropy provides a far greater sense of happiness and well-being than seeking to benefit ourselves. Rath and Harter call 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 basic needs met, 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, predictors of community belonging include whether you get involved in activities and give back to the community.
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 occasionally helping out in your community, may boost your sense of connection and put you in a position to impact others’ lives.
5. Physical element of well-being
Finally, physical health can provide the foundation for well-being in other areas of life. If a person exercises regularly, they experience a boost in areas including overall subjective well-being, work engagement and life satisfaction. Additionally, Rath cites several studies in Wellbeing that indicate sleeping well, exercising—particularly exercising outdoors—and choosing healthy foods can have an enormous impact on cognitive functioning.
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 these five factors may make it seem difficult to achieve true well-being in our lives, especially when each requires mastering a different set of skills, success can be measured in increments. Focus on what you can do today to yield a life that is rich, rewarding and others-focused and improve your well-being in the long-term.
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by RossHelen/Shutterstock