You already know a lot of things you should do to improve your life. Where we often get stuck is knowing what’s most important. What comes first. Where to start.
Asking yourself these questions is: A) a powerful personal exercise, and B) a great way to provoke an existential crisis. So let’s get the answers like we did in high school and just cheat off the nerdy kid …
Gallup scientists asked way too many people way too many questions and, unsurprisingly, got some really good answers about what makes life amazing.
Gallup conducted a comprehensive global study of more than 150 countries, giving us a lens into the wellbeing of more than 98% of the world’s population. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, we asked hundreds of questions about health, wealth, relationships, jobs, and communities. We then compared these results to how people experience their days and evaluate their lives overall.
After crunching all the numbers, Gallup found there were 5 factors that were really critical. And then the estimable Tom Rath wrote them up in a wonderfully readable book titled Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.
The good news is that there are things we can do to improve in all five categories. And they were simple and interesting enough to make me stop bingeing “Ray Donovan” and start typing.
Let’s break them down — in order of importance — and get this here show on the road …
It isn’t necessarily about your job — it’s more about what you do with your time. It’s basically a measure of how subjects responded to the question, “Do you like what you do each day?”
It’s not too surprising this was the most important factor. If you don’t like what you’re doing the majority of your life, well, that’s probably not going to be a very happy life.
People who scored high in this area were “more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.” But only 20% of people scored that high. So what made all the difference?
You don’t have to be ecstatically happy with everything all the time. That makes you the crazy guy nobody wants to sit next to at lunch. But it is very important you be engaged.
When Gallup randomly tested people throughout the day to see what they were doing and how they felt (measuring heart rate, cortisol levels, and mood), they saw there was a world of difference between those who were really involved with their activities and those who were just counting down the minutes until the workday ended.
The former were far happier and less stressed. So much so that the people in the top 20% enjoyed workdays as much as weekends. (Yes, apparently that is possible.) Engagement made all the difference.
And it had long-term impact as well. People with the lowest engagement were far more likely to later be diagnosed with depression — and to have cholesterol and triglyceride levels that looked like a stick of butter.
…those who were actively disengaged in their careers in 2008 were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression over the next year… As employees’ levels of engagement at work increased, their total cholesterol and triglyceride levels significantly decreased. And those with decreasing levels of engagement at work had an increase in total cholesterol and triglycerides… Boosting your Career Wellbeing might be one of the most important priorities to consider for maintaining good health over the years.
So what do we need to do to increase engagement?
Use your strengths as much as you can. Doing what you’re good at makes you six times as likely to be engaged and more than three times as likely to be happy with your life.
One of the essentials to having fun at work is getting the opportunity to use your strengths every day. When we build on our strengths and daily successes — instead of focusing on failures — we simply learn more. Compared to those who do not get to focus on what they do best, people who have the opportunity to use their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life. Our global data show that these people can enjoy a full 40-hour workweek, while those who do not get to use their strengths get burned out after just 20 hours of work per week.
Beyond that, spend as much time as you can with people at work that you like. When surveyed, who did people least enjoy spending time with?
Their boss. What was it about El Jefe that really cratered people’s engagement levels? It wasn’t a mean boss — it was a supervisor who ignored them. And on the flip side, the best bosses focused on their employees’ strengths.
If you have a boss like this, you’re very lucky. There’s almost zero chance you feel actively disengaged at work.
The most disengaged group of workers we have ever studied are those who have a manager who is simply not paying attention. If your manager ignores you, there is a 40% chance that you will be actively disengaged or filled with hostility about your job. If your manager is at least paying attention — even if he is focusing on your weaknesses — the chances of your being actively disengaged go down to 22%. But if your manager is primarily focusing on your strengths, the chance of your being actively disengaged is just 1%, or 1 in 100.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Though “Career Wellbeing” was number one, it’s not everything. After all, there’s more to life than work. Your personal life is very important too…
Very simply, this is about having strong relationships and love in your life. Being surrounded by people who care about you, respect you and support your growth.
Gallup did a rigorous analysis of the types of people we spend the most time with and how often we feel unhappy around them. The numbers differed on average for men and women.
Guys really don’t like being around the boss and ladies struggle disproportionately more when mom and dad are around:
Who you spend time with is critical because happiness spreads like a virus. If the people around you are happy, you’re much more likely to be happy.
This research, which was based on a 30+ year longitudinal study of more than 12,000 people who were all part of one interconnected network, found that your odds of being happy increase by 15% if a direct connection in your social network is happy… This led the study’s authors to conclude that the wellbeing of friends and relatives is a more effective predictor of happiness than earning more money.
And those around you don’t just affect how you feel, they also affect your health. Whether you’re obese, how much you exercise and how healthy you eat are all massively influenced by your social network.
If your best friend is very active, it nearly triples your chances of having high levels of physical activity. We found that people with a best friend who has a very healthy diet are more than five times as likely to have a very healthy diet as well. Your best friend’s diet is an even stronger predictor of whether you have a healthy diet than the dietary habits of your parents. So the people we surround ourselves with might have more influence on our health than our family history does.
So what do we need to do?
First off, sheer amount of social time was a big issue. We need a minimum six hours of social time a day to be thriving. This increases happiness and minimizes stress. As one self-employed writer who works from home was very happy to learn, phone calls and emails do count.
Even just three hours of social time drops your chances of having a bad day by 10%. The more time you spend around friends and family the better. (Yes, introverts, they studied members of our tribe and it was true for them as well.)
Across all of our studies on daily wellbeing, we found that one of the best predictors of good days versus bad days is the amount of time people spend around friends and family members… When people have almost no social time in a given day, they have an equal chance of having a good day or a bad day. However, each hour of social time quickly decreases the odds of having a bad day. Even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day to 10%. And each additional hour of social time — up to about six hours — improves the odds of having a good day.
If you have a best friend at work, you are seven times more likely to be engaged at the office, increasing that “Career Wellbeing” score. Two-for-one deals are always a good thing.
Our research revealed that just 30% of employees have a best friend at work. Those who do are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job. In sharp contrast, those without a best friend in the workplace have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered work and personal life. Time to talk money. Turns out life’s not all about dollars and cents — but it’s a lot about how you feel about dollars and cents…
This doesn’t mean “having piles and piles of moolah, baby.” It was a more general measure of how you managed your economic life.
In fact, the research showed that how you felt about your financial situation was more important than how much money you actually had.
What we found was that financial security — the perception that you have more than enough money to do what you want to do — has three times the impact of your income alone on overall wellbeing. Further, a lack of worry about money has more than double the impact of income on overall wellbeing…
Problem is, we’re often more focused on doing better than others than actually doing better — and this leads to a lot of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses stress. Almost 50% of people would prefer to make $50,000 (if everyone else is making $25,000) than to make $100,000 (when everyone else is making $200,000.)
But there’s a clever way to fix this that doesn’t involve stealing money from other people…
By increasing your “Career Wellbeing” score (increasing engagement) and “Social Wellbeing” score (spending more time with people who love you) you’re far less likely to be concerned with whether others are making more money.
The differences in how people perceive their pay are largely dependent on how engaged they are in their work. Those with high Career Wellbeing perceive the same amount of pay much more favorably than those with low Career Wellbeing do. Even when asked to compare themselves to the people they spend a lot of time with, those with thriving Career Wellbeing and thriving Social Wellbeing are nearly two times as likely to say they are satisfied with their standard of living.
So how do we up our “Financial Wellbeing” score? Again, it’s less about making more money and more about how you feel. So don’t fret too much over earning more cash — focus on how you spend what you already have.
And spending money on others boosted happiness more than spending more on yourself.
…the participants who spent the money on a gift for someone else or who gave it to charity experienced a significant boost in wellbeing by the end of the day, while people who spent the money on themselves did not.
And if it’s a choice between a vacation or a new car, purchase the vacation. Experiences beat material possessions handily when it comes to happiness. When you buy things, you inevitably take them for granted, while activities create positive memories that you can relive indefinitely. Also, experiences are often social, meaning your “Social Wellbeing” score also gets a boost.
Buying experiences such as going out to dinner or taking a vacation increases our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Experiences last while material purchases fade. Even if you feel better immediately after your purchase, studies show that our satisfaction with material goods decreases over time.
Another critical point Rath emphasizes is that “setting positive defaults” can help us make smart long-term financial decisions. Having a percentage of your paycheck automatically shuttled to savings is far more powerful than vague statements about “wanting to spend less money.”
When we automate our finances we not only have to expend less effort to do the right thing — we’re also less tempted to do the wrong thing.
(To learn 5 secrets from neuroscience that will increase your attention span, click here.)
Work, personal and money are all big things. So big it’s easy to forget that that body of yours needs some attention too…
Gallup and Rath defined this one as “having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.” (Being too tired to get off the couch and dying young have rarely scored high on any measure of happiness I’m aware of.)
Exercise. Do it. Not only does it make you happier and less stressed but the more energy you expend at the gym, the more you’ll have in your daily life.
People who exercise at least two days a week are happier and have significantly less stress. In addition, these benefits increase with more frequent exercise. We found that each additional day of exercise in a given week — at least up to six days when people reach a point of diminishing returns — continues to boost energy levels… As a Mayo Clinic publication stated: “A lack of energy often results from inactivity, not age.”
Most scientific studies overlook another powerful component that contributes to major statistical increases in happiness and life satisfaction:
Feeling sexy as all hell.
To their credit, Gallup and Rath don’t ignore the sexy quotient. It matters. Exercise makes you feel attractive and feeling attractive makes you confident. In fact, research shows that your sexy quotient may be as powerful as formal metrics like BMI.
One of the primary reasons people exercise regularly is because it makes them feel better about themselves and their appearance, and it boosts their confidence. If you exercise today, you are more than twice as likely to feel physically attractive tomorrow. Feeling attractive is not just important for our self-confidence. Researchers at Columbia University found that our psychological perceptions of our body image could be as important as objective measures like body mass index (BMI).
I’m sure you’re shocked, but recent groundbreaking and controversial research shows the food you shovel into your face affects your health. I’ll pause to allow you to recover from the surprise.
What is notable is that restaurant choice can matter more than food choice. Eating at a place where the menu is bursting with healthy options makes you more likely to choose them. But when you go to a fast food restaurant the presence of a salad on the menu actually makes you more likely to eat junk.
One experiment revealed that just having a healthy option on a menu (a side salad) actually made people three times as likely to select an unhealthy option (a side of french fries) when compared to a menu without the side salad as an option. So when the burger joint adds a healthy salad to its menu, it gives us an excuse to go there for lunch… But if we choose to have lunch at a restaurant that serves mostly healthy choices instead, it increases our odds of making a good decision at the last minute.
And do I even need to mention getting enough good sleep? Please. You know, it, I know it, Gallup and Rath know it. I’m not writing anything else about it. Use the time you saved not reading stats on sleep to go take a nap.
(To learn the 5 questions that will make you emotionally strong, click here.)
So what’s left? To truly have a good life, you need to be a part of something. And that something is not merely the Costco Gold Star Membership …
They defined this one as a “sense of engagement you have with the area in which you live.” Yeah, it’s last on the list but Rath says this can be the difference between a good life and a great one.
There’s a lot of ways we can invest in those around us but the one that pays the most dividends to everyone involved (including the almighty “you”) is the one we’re usually least likely to pick…
Giving others your time.
When we surveyed more than 23,000 people on this topic, nearly 9 in 10 reported “getting an emotional boost” from doing kind things for other people… Several studies have shown a link between altruistic behavior and increases in overall longevity, and researchers have speculated that this might be due in part to how well-doing inoculates us against stress and negative emotions.
Being engaged in a positive community ends up molding us into better people (like it or not). Studies show we usually don’t give up bad habits because of willpower or snarky blog posts; it’s because we’re influenced by those around us.
When it comes to smoking, you are 61% more likely to smoke if you have a direct connection with a smoker (compared with the likelihood based on chance). At the second degree of separation, you’re still 29% more likely to smoke if your friend’s friend is a smoker. And at the third degree, you are 11% more likely to smoke… Most people did not quit smoking on their own. They quit because it was no longer socially acceptable to smoke.
So to increase your “Community Wellbeing” score, Rath recommends three things:
- “Identify how you can contribute to your community based on your personal mission.”
- “Tell people about your passions and interests so they can connect you with relevant groups and causes.”
- “Opt in to a community group or event. Even if you start small, start now.”
(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how to get started and create an upward spiral that leads to an amazing life …
Oh, and let’s also see what activities ranked as most and least enjoyable. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t include that. I don’t like to feel guilty. Reduces my “Blogger Wellbeing” score to single digits …
This is how to make your life amazing:
- “Career Wellbeing“: Be engaged. Use your strengths. Hide from your boss.
- “Social Wellbeing“: Spend time with the good people, not with the bad people. (If you want something less obvious than that, go read all those words I wrote above, lazybones.)
- “Financial Wellbeing“: Usually it’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you feel about what you have. Increasing the prior two factors prevents you from negatively comparing yourself to others.
- “Physical Wellbeing“: Exercise, eat right and get your sleep, obviously. As we all know in our heart of hearts, feeling sexy is important. Restaurant choices can matter more than food choices.
- “Community Wellbeing“: Helping others helps you. Therefore, helping me helps you. Why don’t you call more often?
So what did the research show made us happiest?
And what got the thumbs down?
Personal medical care, huh? “I can’t wait to go to the dentist tomorrow” is a sentence yet to be spoken on planet Earth, that’s for sure.
So how do you get started? Get a good night’s sleep. (As a grown man with the sleeping habits of a college student during finals, I concur.) Hit the gym. And then get to work and find a way to use those strengths of yours with people you like.
When we break this downward spiral and get a good night’s sleep, we’re off to the right start. This allows us to wake up refreshed and increases our chances of exercising in the morning. If we can use our strengths at our job every day, this connects our daily activities to a much higher purpose and allows us to get more done. Between work and time with our friends and family, if we can get in six hours of social time, chances are, we’ll have 10 times as many good moments as stressful ones.
There’s something else worth noting. It is utterly impossible to score high on all of these factors without other people. You cannot do it alone. So don’t.
Take a second to think about how you can help others achieve these five. How what you learned here can improve their lives. Not only will that immediately improve your “Social Wellbeing” and “Community Wellbeing” scores, it’ll also get you motivated and maybe get you an “amazing life” buddy.
Making other people’s lives amazing is among the most powerful drugs known to man.
Your own life becoming amazing is its most common side effect.
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This article first appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.