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What Makes a Great Life?

The following is adapted from Blind Spot, Gallup's new book about the rising unhappiness leaders didn't see.

While many things contribute to a great life, Gallup finds five aspects that all people have in common: their work, finances, physical health, communities, and relationships with family and friends. If you are excelling in each of these elements of wellbeing, you are highly likely to be thriving in life.

Custom graphic showing the five elements of wellbeing. Work, Social, Financial, Physical, Community.

To discover these five elements, Gallup began by reviewing much of the vast literature on happiness and wellbeing. Search "wellbeing" on Google Scholar, and you will find over 1.9 million academic articles; "happiness" yields over 2.7 million articles. One person could not read every article in a lifetime, so we focused on meta-analyses -- which combine the results of multiple studies -- and the studies that had the greatest impact on the field of wellbeing research.

Then, we conducted surveys. Lots of them. To date, we have conducted about 5 million surveys in almost 170 countries -- roughly 2 million interviews in the U.S. and 3 million globally. We also conducted panel studies, which allow us to track the same people over time so we can better understand what causes changes in wellbeing, such as an economic collapse, a job loss, or the death of a spouse.

The global nature of this work is crucial. Research conducted only in the West comes under a great deal of scrutiny -- for good reason. These studies often include people who do not represent the entire world.

For example, the people who are recruited to participate in U.S. academic research are usually college students. This is problematic because U.S. college students are not representative of the world. In fact, they are not even representative of young people across the U.S.

This kind of research is called "WEIRD," which is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Many U.S. academic studies rely solely on participants who fit these characteristics -- but often claim that the conclusions from the research apply to all people. The authors of this concept -- Joe Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan -- caution, "We need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity."

Gallup's wellbeing research is truly global, covering over 98% of the world's adult population. It includes almost every ethnic group, religion, and income level and virtually every kind of human experience worldwide.

In every survey, we ask people how they see and live their lives. Their answers become the outcomes of interest in our analysis -- meaning, we look at other variables to see what would help us explain how their lives are going. When someone says, "My life is a 10" or "I laughed and smiled a lot all day yesterday," what else do they tell us? Are they physically active? Do they love their job? Do they have a lot of friends? Or some combination of all three?

Wellbeing and happiness metrics help us better understand what makes a great life.

Gallup's research as well as research by the global community of wellbeing practitioners has produced hundreds, if not thousands, of discoveries.

One of the most famous discoveries is the U-curve of happiness, which shows how age is associated with wellbeing. Young people rate their lives high, and so do older people. But middle-aged people rate their lives the lowest. This trend holds every year in almost every country in the world. It is nicknamed the "U-curve" of happiness because when you look at the graph, it looks like a "U." Some jokingly say that the chart is smiling.

Custom graphic U-curve of life satisfaction, ranging from twenties to eighties in age.

Some discoveries are astonishing; others feel like they reveal a "blandly sophomoric secret," as George Gallup referred to some of his longevity findings. For example, you could argue that the U-curve of happiness simply quantifies conventional wisdom -- that people have midlife crises.

Here are a few of the discoveries that are truly compelling:

  • People who love their jobs do not hate Mondays.
  • Education-related debt can cause an emotional scar that remains even after you pay off the debt.
  • Volunteering is not just good for the people you are helping; it is also good for you.
  • Exercising is better at eliminating fatigue than prescription drugs.
  • Loneliness can double your risk of dying from heart disease.

We could list every insight ever produced from this research and encourage leaders to work on all of them. Instead, we took another approach. Using all these insights from across the industry combined with our surveys and analysis, we created the five elements of wellbeing. And our ongoing global research confirms that the five elements of wellbeing are significant drivers of a great life everywhere.

Find out how where the world is struggling most in these five elements in Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It.


Jon Clifton is the CEO of Gallup.

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