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Eat, Greet, and Be Happy
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Eat, Greet, and Be Happy

The connections between health, community, and well-being

A Q&A with Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

The information on the FDA's nutrition labels is lacking. Sure, it will tell you about the calories and sodium in a package of microwave cheeseburgers. But it won't mention how a cheeseburger will make you feel in two hours, or if it will bankrupt your imagination this afternoon, or if it will make you too tired to go on a walk this evening -- and it might do all of those things.

What we eat plays a big part in our well-being, even our extremely near-term well-being, say Tom Rath, author of the bestsellers StrengthsFinder 2.0, Strengths Based Leadership, and How Full Is Your Bucket? and leader of Gallup's workplace research and leadership consulting worldwide, and Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and well-being and coauthor of the bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

Manage around yourself. Make it easier to do things that increase your well-being before you have to make a choice.

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"Much of what we think will improve our well-being is either misguided or just plain wrong" write Rath and Harter in their new book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Most of us think well-being equals health and wealth. But, after a thorough review of hundreds of studies of well-being and a comprehensive global study of well-being in more than 150 countries, Rath and Harter realized that view is inaccurate. It also completely neglects the impact of lunch.

What does create a life well-lived is well-being in five interconnected areas: Career Well-Being, Social Well-Being, Financial Well-Being, Physical Well-Being, and Community Well-Being. Those are pretty broad topics, but as Rath and Harter discuss in the book, each of them is created by small decisions.

The decisions we make each day -- large and small -- affect our day-to-day Physical Well-Being and our integration into our community. And they make a significant -- and largely unrecognized -- difference in our lives.

In this interview, the third in a three-part series, Rath and Harter discuss their research into lifelong well-being, particularly Physical Well-Being and Community Well-Being. They explain how little things can change your day and alter your perceptions. They discuss why community matters so much and how we can boost our well-being. But first, they mention how to avoid that cheeseburger.

GMJ: What's the best way to improve our levels of well-being, especially Physical Well-Being, which obesity rates would indicate isn't as good as it could be?

Tom Rath: I'd say manage around yourself. Make it easier to do things that increase your well-being before you have to make a choice because a lot of our choices, though they seem small in the moment, have a big effect.Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

Jim Harter, Ph.D.: I think technology can help with this. You can sign yourself up to have money automatically withdrawn from your checking account and put into savings. That's good for your Financial Well-Being, and you don't feel the pain of writing a check.

That's one of the central points about well-being -- what you set up in advance will affect your behavior in the future. In behavioral economics, it's called a "positive default." From a health standpoint, the positive default might be what you put in your refrigerator. If you've only got healthy stuff in there, you are much more likely to eat healthier food. There also are great studies of organ donation -- they show that if people have to opt out of the program versus opting in, many more people would donate their organs.

Rath: Positive defaults align our short-term decisions with our long-term interests. And we don't always do that. When we ask people how often they buy candy, only 10% say they regularly do. But then if you ask them if there was a bowl of candy sitting in front of them if they would eat some, 70% say they would. What we've learned is that if you can make the right decision in the supermarket aisle, it's a heck of a lot easier to make a good decision when you reach in your cupboard when you're craving a snack at eight o'clock at night. Positive defaults protect you from yourself -- and that helps you to make decisions in the moment that are better for your long-term interests.

GMJ: You mention food quite a bit in this book. Why is that?

Rath: What's interesting to me, as we started to dig into the research about Physical Well-Being, is that food has more of an impact on our energy and mood on a daily basis than I would have guessed. So if I order a cheeseburger and fries for lunch today, and especially if I add a milkshake, I won't get much done at work this afternoon. I'll be a little sleepier, I won't have as many good ideas, and I'm much less likely to go out and exercise or socialize after work. A bad meal can have a detrimental impact on the rest of the day, not just my health or weight a decade later.

Community Well-Being starts with something very basic: safety. You need to feel safe where you live.

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The same principle applies to exercise. We cite some research in the book that found if you work out for at least 20 minutes in the morning, you can boost your mood for three to twelve hours. So you should work out in the morning because it's a way to have a better day, not just because it'll decrease your blood pressure a few years later. And you're more likely to have a good time after work -- socializing with friends and family and playing around with the kids -- if you exercise. You'll have more energy, which is such a big component of each day. Your mood will be better, and that will increase your likelihood of doing other things that are good for you as well.

Dr. Harter: That's an important point about well-being. We don't align our near-term decisions with our long-term best interests because it's hard to think ten, twenty, or thirty years out. But much of what's good for you decades from now is good for you this afternoon. The more you know about that, the easier it is to improve your day-to-day well-being and your future well-being. For instance, you might join a community group to make your kids' local park better, which is a short-term improvement. But there are many long-term benefits associated with community involvement.

GMJ: Let's talk about that. How do you define Community Well-Being?

Dr. Harter: What "community" means depends on how each person defines it, where they live, the people around them, the people and places they interact with on a regular basis. There are several parts to Community Well-Being. It starts with something very basic: safety. You need to feel safe where you live. Then, there's pride in your community -- in its aesthetics and amenities, which includes how things look as well as its parks, trails, and playgrounds. Social offerings are important, which also supports the Social Well-Being element. And housing comes into it -- whether people feel they have ideal housing for their family. But the highest level of Community Well-Being is involvement. We found the highest levels of Community Well-Being where people are actively involved in making a difference and getting recognition for making a difference.

The most interesting thing about Community Well-Being to me was that it is the differentiator between a good life and a great life. Your well-being will be higher if you place higher importance on your involvement in your community. And this is the least recognized dimension -- many people don't even know their neighbors.

GMJ: How do you recommend involving yourself in the community to improve your well-being?

Rath: I interviewed some people who had real thriving Community Well-Being, and I asked them just that. They said they used their own personal passion, the topics they cared about most in life, to connect to their community. Whether it was poverty or autism or Alzheimer's, they used their passion as a way to get involved. That involvement can start small by signing up for one event, and that eventually gets you more and more involved.

Dr. Harter: Many times, it feels like a nuisance to have to get involved in community enterprises. But when you do get involved, it pays off in many ways. You get to know people you otherwise wouldn't have, and you feel better afterward; there are a lot of intangible benefits.

Signing up creates expectations, and you will feel like you have to live up to them later whether you want to that day or not. So think about the things you're passionate about, the areas where you feel you could make a difference, which varies considerably from person to person. People with high Community Well-Being will sign up for things they are passionate about, and it pays off.

Regardless of your race, age, or whatever it might be, you don't want to feel discriminated against; you want to feel accepted.

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Rath: The encouraging thing is that when you look across different activities people get involved in, we essentially do get when we give, whether it's right at that moment or over time. That was one of our big learnings as we looked at the high end of Community Well-Being. If you're doing well in other areas of well-being, a high level of Community Well-Being might be what differentiates a good life from one that's excellent. One of the questions we asked in our research is "Have you been recognized for your contributions to the community in the last 12 months?" That's a pretty high bar to set, but it differentiates people who have the very highest levels of well-being.

GMJ: So what makes a good community?

Rath: Another question we asked in our research was "Is the community or place where you live the perfect place for you?" We ask it this way because community is about what fits you and your personality and your needs. We interviewed people with thriving Community Well-Being who lived on an acreage up in the mountains. Others gained just as much satisfaction from living in the thick of an urban environment. The place where you live geographically isn't as big of an issue in terms of your overall Community Well-Being as it is in terms of how it fits who you are and your involvement.

Dr. Harter: Regardless of who you are, your community needs to be a place that fits you. Regardless of your race, age, or whatever it might be, your community needs to offer things that you want to do. You don't want to feel discriminated against; you want to feel accepted. And it is important for people to have the opportunity to connect with others. Research is showing that change happens, in part, through social networks and social expectations.

Rath: I'm intrigued by Jim's point about social change because I think that's the way much of the improvement in well-being will be driven -- through organizations and community groups. Big social changes occur virally, from one group and one network to the next, and they start to spread.

That's been one of the most positive aspects for me about the research for this book -- learning how changes in well-being occur and how lives improve from it. We hope the book causes that kind of positive change in well-being for readers.

Dr. Harter: That's why we wrote it. All the research, all the science doesn't do any good unless it does some good.

GMJ: Well, I'm definitely ordering a salad for lunch.

Rath: That's a good start.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

The Five Essential Elements of Well-Being

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 well-being that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of well-being that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people:

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