The 5 Elements of Wellbeing

Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, state that contrary to what many people believe, wellbeing isn’t just about being happy. Nor is it only about being wealthy or successful. And it’s certainly not limited to physical health and wellness. In fact, focusing on any of these elements in isolation may drive us to frustration and even a sense of failure.

When striving to improve our lives, we are quick to buy into programs that promise to help us make money, lose weight, or strengthen our relationships. While it might be easier to treat these critical areas in our lives as if they operate independently, they don’t. Gallup’s comprehensive study of people in more than 150 countries revealed five universal elements of wellbeing.

These are the universal elements of wellbeing that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They describe aspects of our lives that we can do something about.

These elements are the currency of a life that matters. They do not include every nuance of what’s important in life, but they do represent five broad categories that are essential to most people.

Rath and Harter go on to explain the Five Elements of Wellbeing in greater detail as listed below.

Purpose (Career) Wellbeing

Do you like what you do every day?

This might be the most basic, yet important, wellbeing question we can ask ourselves. Yet only 20% of people can give a strong “yes” in response.

At a fundamental level, we all need something to do, and ideally something to look forward to, when we wake up every day. What you spend your time doing each day shapes your identity, whether you are a student, parent, volunteer, retiree, or have a more conventional job.

We spend the majority of our waking hours during the week doing something we consider a career, occupation, vocation, or job. When people first meet, they ask each other, “What do you do?” If your answer to that question is something you find fulfilling and meaningful, you are likely thriving in Purpose (Career) Wellbeing.

Social Wellbeing

There is something about having close friendships in general that is good for our physiological health. Relationships serve as a buffer during tough times, which in turn improves our cardiovascular functioning and decreases stress levels. On the other hand, people with very few social ties have nearly twice the risk of dying from heart disease and are twice as likely to catch colds — even though they are less likely to have the exposure to germs that comes from frequent social contact.

Another implication is that proximity matters. A friend who lives within a mile of you will likely have more influence on your wellbeing than a friend who lives several miles away. Even your next-door neighbor’s wellbeing has an impact on yours.

Because your entire social network affects your health, habits, and wellbeing, mutual friendships matter even more. These are relationships in which you and one of your close friends share a friendship with a third person. Investing in these mutual relationships will lead to even higher levels of wellbeing. This is why it is critical for us to do what we can to strengthen the entire network around us. Simply put, we have stock in others’ wellbeing.

Financial Wellbeing

When a team of Harvard researchers surveyed people about their spending on themselves, their spending on others, and their happiness, they found that spending on oneself does not boost wellbeing. However, spending money on others does — and it appears to be as important to people’s happiness as the total amount of money they make.

When we are feeling down, trying to cheer ourselves up by going on a personal shopping spree is unlikely to help in the long run. Sadness may even lead us to spend a lot more money on ourselves than we otherwise would. People who were shown a video designed to induce sadness offered to pay nearly four times as much for a product when compared with a group that did not watch the video. Despite this major difference, people in the “sadness” group insisted that the video’s sad content had not influenced their decision.

Even though we don’t realize it, a bad mood could lead to a cascade of poor financial decisions. While spending on ourselves isn’t likely to help much, this research suggests that the worst time to make a major purchase is when you are feeling down. We spend the most when we feel the worst. So much for “retail therapy.”

Far more effective at increasing our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others is buying experiences such as going out to dinner or taking a vacation. 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.

Physical Wellbeing

Even using conservative estimates, the majority of us do not get enough exercise. Just 38% of people we studied report that they have exercised or had a lot of physical activity in the past day. Among 400,000 Americans we surveyed in more depth, only 27% get the recommended 30 minutes or more of exercise five days per week.

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.

A recent experiment revealed that just 20 minutes of exercise could improve our mood for several hours after we finish working out. Researchers monitored participants who rode a bike at moderate intensity and another group who did not exercise. Those who exercised for just 20 minutes had a significant improvement in their mood after 2, 4, 8, and 12 hours when compared to those who did not exercise.

As a Mayo Clinic publication stated: “A lack of energy often results from inactivity, not age.” On days when you don’t have 20 or 30 minutes to exercise, a mere 11 minutes of lifting weights has been shown to increase metabolic rate, which helps you burn more fat throughout the day. Anyexercise is better than an entire day with no vigorous activity.

Community Wellbeing

“Give blood. All you’ll feel is good.”

As this slogan from an American Red Cross campaign illustrates, giving is good for both the recipient and the donor. Psychologists have conducted experiments to determine if this Red Cross claim is true — and it turns out that this is one slogan that passes the truth-in-advertising test. People reported experiencing increased moods before and after they donated blood.

At the highest end of the Community Wellbeing continuum is giving back to society. This may be what differentiates an exceptional life from a good one. When we asked people with thriving wellbeing about the greatest contribution they had made in their life, with few exceptions, they mentioned the impact they have had on another person, group, or community. Not only had these individuals made a substantial contribution to something bigger than themselves, but they also had been recognized for their community involvement.

About the Authors:

Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements is written by #1 New York Times bestselling author Tom Rath and bestselling author Jim Harter, Ph.D.

Tom Rath has written five of the most influential books of the last decade. His first book, How Full Is Your Bucket?, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. His 2007 book, StrengthsFinder 2.0, was Amazon’s #1 selling book worldwide in 2013. Tom’s most recent New York Times bestsellers include Strengths Based Leadership and Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. His books have sold millions of copies and made more than 300 appearances on the Wall Street Journal‘s bestseller list.

Jim Harter, Ph.D., is chief scientist of Gallup’s international workplace management and wellbeing practices. He is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing, which is based on the largest worldwide study of employee engagement. Harter’s latest book, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, is based on a global study of what differentiates people who are thriving from those who are not. His research has been reported on in bestselling management books and in publications such as The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and USA TODAY, and the Harvard Business Review.

Rath, Tom, and Jim Harter. Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Gallup Press, 2010.