Wellbeing 101

Christine Whelan | Posted on 05/27/10

Think you're living a pretty happy life? The good folks at Gallup would like you to know that there's room for improvement: According to a comprehensive global study of wellbeing, only 7% of us are thriving in all areas of our lives.

In Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter have synthesized hundreds of small large-scale opinion polls, empirical studies and time-use data to argue that wellbeing isn't just about some amorphous sense of being happy. It's about thriving in career, social, financial, physical and community life.

Career Wellbeing: Liking what you do for work - whether its paid or unpaid, at home or in an office - is one of the primary determinants of your overall wellbeing. If you like your job, you're twice as likely to be thriving in your overall life. People who like what they do are sick less often, feel like the day goes by faster and are more engaged in other aspects of their personal lives, too. If you are disengaged at work, you're more likely to suffer from depression in the next year.

Social Wellbeing: On average, you need six hours of social time to have a "thriving" day - defined as a day that you'd like to repeat again in the future. This social time can be combined with attention to your physical wellbeing or your career well-being, of course: You get double the happiness boost from going on a run with a buddy and having a best friend at your office. But don't think that one best friend is going to be your everything. Share the love.

Financial Wellbeing: While money doesn't buy happiness, the good folks at Gallup remind us, it certainly helps. On the whole, people who live in more affluent countries are more likely to be thriving. Still, it's your sense of financial security - not your income - that has the most substantial impact on your overall wellbeing: Someone who has a more moderate income but doesn't worry about money so much is going to be happier than their rich, but anxious, neighbor. And if you've got money to spend, splurge on experiences rather than things, for maximum wellbeing bang for your buck.

Physical Wellbeing: Exercise, sleep good personal health are crucial to be thriving in your overall life. Exercise reduces fatigue, a good night's sleep is nature's reset button and educated choices about the food you eat today help you feel better tomorrow. While all of this is obvious (and more challenging than the pollster authors let on) the Gallup surveys do suggest that if you set up default strategies that help your health - like going to a restaurant that serves only salads, rather than asking yourself to pass up a burger once the menu and smells are messing with your self-control - you're more likely to succeed. Psychological research backs this up, too.

Community Wellbeing: This is the difference between a good life and a great life, write Rath and Harter. And this is one where many of us struggle: We're so wrapped up in our own problems we don't get out of ourselves and join community groups, spiritual support networks and volunteer organizations nearly as much as we should to maximize our overall wellbeing. Think about your passions and your personal gifts, the authors advise, and then figure out some small way that you could be useful to others.

This is more of a collection of studies and news-you-can-use tidbits rather than a traditional book of advice or sociology. For the nerds, there's plenty of methodological information and even the correlation chart. You can see where your city and state fall on the thriving index, and marvel at the fact that both Mexico and Panama have the United States beat on overall wellbeing.

The best part of the book, though, is the little gray pouch in the back that contains a personalized code for the Wellbeing website. For us me-focused Americans, it's as addictive as crack: First you take a survey to get a baseline on wellbeing. Then, you can create a customized plan to increase your own wellbeing, and take shorter daily surveys to track your progress on a daily basis. Periodically, you can go back and retake the bigger survey and tell your friends, with smug satisfaction of your accomplishments.

Gallup knows we all go giddy over customized surveys and websites: Rath's previous book, Strengthsfinder, included a similar personalization code, and I'd wager that most people bought the hardcover just to get the code so they could get online and learn more about their yet-to-be-discovered strengths. I tip my hat to their marketing genius.

Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements is a terrific book to leave by the bedside table in your guest room. Or in the bathroom. It's easy to read in short bursts, and fascinating to anyone who is at all introspective. Pair it with We Feel Fine, a similarly bitesized (but glossier, with more pictures) book of human emotions, for a great housegift. (Read my review of We Feel Fine here.)

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