A new book reveals the essential elements of a life well-lived
"Much of what we think will improve our wellbeing is either misguided or just plain wrong." So begins the new book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Ph.D.
Rath leads Gallup's workplace research and leadership consulting practice, and his bestselling books StrengthsFinder 2.0, Strengths Based Leadership, and How Full Is Your Bucket? have sold more than 2 million copies in the United States alone. Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing, is coauthor of the bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing.
That's a lot of intellectual firepower. But what could they know about wellbeing that the rest of us, who are intimately aware of our own, have overlooked? For starters, the fact that we overlook too much. As Harter and Rath discovered -- through a thorough review of decades of scientific research and a comprehensive global study of more than 150 countries, which gave them insights into the wellbeing of more than 98% of the world's population -- most people don't know what's good for them.
Most of us equate wellbeing with wealth and health. But that's not the whole story, according to Rath and Harter. What really comprises wellbeing are five interconnected elements: Career Wellbeing, Social Wellbeing, Financial Wellbeing, Physical Wellbeing, and Community Wellbeing. These are the common factors of a life well-lived for people everywhere.
How to obtain them, however, is the challenge. In this interview, the first of a three-part series, Rath and Harter discuss the basics of wellbeing, Career and Social Wellbeing, and what we can do to increase our wellbeing.
GMJ: You wrote that Career Wellbeing is arguably the most essential of all five aspects. Why?
Jim Harter, Ph.D.: All the aspects overlap. But when we were studying Career Wellbeing around the world, we quickly found that this element is much broader than the traditional workplace. It's more about interest and purpose and whether people have a chance to use their strengths regularly. Along with studying people with traditional careers, we studied students, stay-at-home parents, retirees, volunteers, and people without a regular nine-to-five job. In any of these life situations, there are many people with thriving Career Wellbeing, and there are also many who are struggling.
Tom Rath: Career Wellbeing is probably the most underestimated of the elements. When you ask people what affects their wellbeing most, they think of health and wealth. Even though people spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, people underestimate how work influences their overall wellbeing and daily experience.
Career Wellbeing is probably the most underestimated of the elements. When you ask people what affects their wellbeing most, they think of health and wealth.
Dr. Harter: When people think about work in general, they often think of it as a burden or something they have to do for money. Regardless of how much we've studied and talked about engagement and its importance -- and quality of the workplace and its importance -- most people think of work as a chore, not something that benefits their wellbeing.
Rath: You would think that when someone accepts a position with a company, they would assume that their life will be better off because they have that job rather than a different one. But when we ask people if they have significantly higher overall wellbeing because of the company they work for, four times as many people strongly disagree as strongly agree.
Most people perceive their occupation as being a detriment to their overall wellbeing. Yet when we started to look back through Gallup's historical research on this topic, Jim uncovered a book and research study that was written in 1960 by Dr. George Gallup called The Secrets of a Long Life. Dr. Gallup studied people who lived to be 95 years and older, and one of the things they had in common is the fact that they didn't retire at age 55 or 60 -- they kept working until they were 85 or 90 years old. And they said they had fun doing what they were doing in their jobs every day.
I think many people get to the age when society has told them they should retire, and then they realize how boring things will be if they don't have an active identity with a career, something to wake up and look forward to doing each day. It doesn't have to be a paid job to affect your wellbeing, but you need something to do.
GMJ: You also noted that sustained unemployment has a longer term negative impact on wellbeing than the death of a spouse.
Rath: An interesting study in The Economic Journal reported that if you've been out of work for more than a year, the overall baseline of how you evaluate your life doesn't appear to fully recover after two years, as it does from most major life events. This finding suggests that, given the current economic climate, there are probably much more severe and profound implications of sustained unemployment than we're able to see in some of the data today. We suspect this is because work is not only a core part of your time use on a day-to-day basis, but also of your identity as a person. When you meet a stranger, one of the first questions you ask is "What do you do?" Work is crucial to how we relate to people and evaluate our lives at a very basic level.
Work is crucial to how we relate to people and evaluate our lives at a very basic level.
Dr. Harter: Career identity is really important. In fact, we found that generally, one's sense of pride goes up along with hours worked. The more hours you work, the greater your sense of pride -- and that's true for people all over the world. I think there's something about work and pride and identity, as Tom said, that explains part of why Career Wellbeing is so foundational.
GMJ: What's the relationship between Career Wellbeing and workplace engagement?
Dr. Harter: There's a high correlation. People with higher engagement at work have higher Career Wellbeing. And they have higher wellbeing in other areas too -- they tend to be healthier physically, they tend to get more involved in their communities, and they tend to have higher Social Wellbeing. Career Wellbeing is so fundamental, if it's not right, it drains other areas pretty quickly.
GMJ: Speaking of Social Wellbeing, you mention in the book that social groups have a bigger impact on us than we realize. Tell me more about that.
Dr. Harter: That's one of the reasons Gallup's employee engagement assessment, the Q12, asks if you have a best friend at work. That question predicts many important business outcomes because you can't take the human being out of the worker, and part of being human is connecting to others socially.
The interesting part about research on social groups is how people you don't know -- people degrees removed from you -- can have some effect on you. Some social expectations spread; they even affect how we respond to health-related outcomes.
Rath: The implications of this for workplaces are exciting because you can see how social networks essentially shape our expectations -- and not only who we are but also how we behave on a day-to-day basis. For example, as the work teams here in our Washington, D.C. office became more conscious about recycling, it made me more conscious about it because there are social pressures. We saw that play out on a national level with smoking, where it was essentially pushed to the outer edges of social networks, and eventually smokers were pushed outside their office, outside the building, and now off the property. My hunch is that we'll see similar patterns with physical health that will help to decrease the unbelievable obesity rates in the United States.
GMJ: When you say "connecting to each other socially," what do you mean by that? Does socializing mean hanging out at a bar? Does it mean tweeting? And how can you socialize effectively?
Dr. Harter: We define socializing as time spent with someone you consider a friend or family member. It could be a coworker -- even if you're talking about work topics -- if he or she is someone you enjoy talking to and consider a friend.
An interesting finding that we cite in the book came from a team at the MIT media lab. They studied people who were walking around different office settings and how much those people were socializing about work and about nonwork topics. They found that the social cohesiveness created by conversations that weren't at all work-related helped boost workplace productivity. So even some of that idle chitchat at the water cooler seems to make a positive difference in performance.
Socializing really depends on the person, and that's why I think social time is as important for introverts as it is for extroverts. You can meet the need for socializing via e-mail, on Facebook, or however you want. I think the key point about all this research is that as human beings, we need to connect to or feel validated by others. We get more interest out of our day because of conversations or interactions with other people. And it has a more powerful influence over wellbeing than we thought it would.
GMJ: How much time should a person spend socializing?
Rath: This is a fun question for Jim and me. One of the first things the data showed is that a person needs to spend six hours a day socializing to have a good day. That kind of scared both of us introverted researchers, so we dug into the data pretty intensively to figure out how this could be.
We found that even introverted personality types have more happy moments and fewer stressful moments when they spend at least five hours a day socializing with others. That might sound like a lot, but that includes time at work, on the phone, instant messaging, e-mailing, and time with family at home. People who are thriving average about six hours a day talking to friends, so it's not that unrealistic of a number.
I think a bigger takeaway from the research is that an extra thirty minutes of socializing -- just like every thirty minutes of exercise or an extra thirty minutes of sleep -- could be the tipping point between a day that's only OK and one that's very good.
Friends boost your happiness. Each additional friend in any network gives you a 9% boost, on average, in your self-reported daily wellbeing.
GMJ: How many friends do you need to meet the wellbeing threshold?
Rath: A lot of the research that I've read from external sources, and a little of our own, would suggest that there's a big threshold at one close relationship. If you don't have one person you can turn to in a time of need, you've got a pretty dire circumstance.
There might be another threshold at about three or four friends. Some of the research suggests, in terms of minimizing your risk for cardiovascular problems and the like, that having three or four friends protects your health. Beyond that, according to our analysis, I think it probably depends on your personality. If you have a lot of Woo [the Clifton StrengthsFinder theme that encompasses the need to win others over] you may need ten or twenty close friends. Others can get by with a close circle of four or five.
Dr. Harter: And as you add friends, your chances of happiness go up with each additional friend, because on average, friends boost your happiness more than they bring you down. Each additional friend in any network gives you a 9% boost, on average, in your self-reported daily wellbeing. That might explain the academic studies that have found that people who have broader social networks are a little bit happier on average. It boosts your odds of finding somebody who can make you happy throughout the day.
Rath: It works the other way too though. People who are downers, if they're also friends with one or two of your other friends, can bring down the whole network. They can shut down positive emotions in the whole connected network.
GMJ: So grumpy people can be a poison pill?
Rath: Yes. But they're also contagious.
Dr. Harter: When people have looked at some of the research we've done and some of the other research out there, I've heard them comment on that. They've rethought who they connect with, even at work.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison
In Part Two, Rath and Harter discuss Financial Wellbeing in depth.
The Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing
For more than 50 years, Gallup scientists have been exploring the demands of a life well-lived. More recently, in partnership with leading economists, psychologists, and other acclaimed scientists, Gallup has uncovered the common elements of wellbeing that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of wellbeing that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people: