Achieving well-being: Happiness at work among five essential elements

I was confused and a little miffed when I first starting reading “Well-Being: The Five Essential Elements” by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. I own Triad EAP, a Western Slope-based employee assistance program, and thought that surely the “five elements” would include emotional and mental well-being. Every day I observe the chaos and pain that stress, depression, relationship issues and other troubles create. Thankfully, I also witness the benefits and well-being that can be achieved when people effectively deal with their troubles.

How could Rath, a best-selling author and leader of the Gallup workplace consulting business, and Harter, author of more than 1,000 research studies, have been so mistaken? They assert that what we think will improve our well-being is either misguided or just plain wrong.  Could they be talking about me?

I couldn’t fault their methods.  Gallup scientists have been studying what makes a life well-lived for more than 50 years. They’ve looked at various countries, languages and life situations to reveal universal elements of well-being. The five characteristics to emerge that differentiate a thriving life from one of suffering are: career, social, financial, physical and community well-being. 

Although “career” is the most significant measure of well-being, only 20 percent of us respond with an enthusiastic “yes” to the question: Do you like what you do every day? 

We often spend more time with co-workers than with family, yet tend to underestimate the influence of our career on our overall well-being.

A study published in The Economic Journal looked at the way such major life events as the birth of a child or death of a spouse affect our life satisfaction over time. An encouraging finding was that people tend to recover to normal levels of well-being even after some of life’s most tragic events. However, those who experienced a sustained period of unemployment of more than a year recovered more slowly than those who lost a spouse. 

People who are engaged and enjoy their work have an entirely different experience than those who are disengaged, even when doing the same job. Gallup reports that engaged workers are happier, less stressed, experience less depression and anxiety and even have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

The lesson here is to identify your strengths and what kinds of careers best suit you, then do your damnedest to find work that allows you to focus on what you do best — your “strength zone” as Rath describes in another best seller of his titled “Strengths Finder 2.0.”

It all sounds so simple. So why, then, are so many people in careers they don’t enjoy?

A common trait for all five of the well-being elements is that they’re largely in our control. Consequently, the biggest obstacle to well-being is ourselves. Rath believes we allow our short-term decisions to override what’s best for our long-term well-being. I know this principle all too well: My nightly ice cream bar sure satisfies my short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term dental and physical well-being.

The list of short-term choices that can undermine our long-term career well-being is lengthy: getting a job with little potential for advancement rather than spending time and money in school preparing for a “strength zone” career, failing to take aptitude tests that could point you in surprisingly satisfying career directions and listening to people’s opinions rather than your own judgment. A professional counselor or coach can help someone identify their strengths and the careers that offer the best matches.

Another key component of career well-being is a positive relationship with your boss. The most disengaged and hostile group of workers Gallup studied had a manager who ignored them. Even a boss who pays attention and focuses on your weaknesses rates better than a boss who neglects to do their job at all. Rath suggests that you spend as much time as possible with someone who shares your mission and encourages your growth. 

What can you do if you have a job you enjoy, but are stuck with a boss you despise? While it’s difficult to control how your boss behaves, you can control how you react. A lousy boss represents a great opportunity to develop assertiveness and communication skills.  However, if there no signs the boss will move elsewhere or opportunities will arise for you to move, it might be in your best interests in terms of long-term career well-being to quit your boss and move to a different department or even another employer.

Of course, that decision could undermine your financial well-being — the third determinant of overall well-being. The pursuit of both career and financial well-being can be a challenge, especially when a poor economy conspires against us.

I’ve only touched on career well-being here. Challenges also persist in achieving social, financial, physical and community well-being — the most significant barrier being ourselves. The good news is that we can make simple choices throughout the day that contribute to a life well spent.