What makes life worth living?
This is the question answered by Tom Rath and Jim Harter in “Wellbeing: Five Essential Elements” and answered in a way only Gallup pollsters can. The answer is culled from massive amounts of data gathered by Gallup over fifty years and across 150 countries to describe what 98% of the world’s population would say is the best future possible for themselves. Rath and Harter call this best possible future “wellbeing” and say that it is:
the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.
The researchers refer to those elements as career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing and community wellbeing. They were careful to pick aspects that “we can do something about,” and throughout the book they make suggestions for what individuals can do to improve their wellbeing in each of those areas.
The book’s advice is limited largely because their definition of “what we can do something about” is restricted to what individual people acting by themselves can affect. For example, their three recommendations for boosting financial wellbeing are to: 1) buy experiences such as outings with friends and loved ones; 2) spend on others such as giving to charity; and 3) set up automated payments and savings. I do these things already but I don’t see them having a huge impact on my quality of life and virtually none on my community. I’m skeptical that these acts will create the wellbeing 98% of the population seeks.
The truth is that there is far more we can do to create wellbeing than the book suggests if we choose to pursue it together as a society. Take a look at the research findings about financial wellbeing that led them to their advice, because they are really quite profound:
- Universally what matters to people are quality of the relationships and life experiences we have;
- We derive more satisfaction giving money away than spending it on ourselves; and,
- The freedom from worry of finances creates three times as much financial wellbeing than a higher income.
Notice that these things have less to do with money than we think. The quality of our relationships is more impacted by our time and attention; charitable giving (or even gift giving) can occur with very small sums of money or just volunteer time; and the last finding puts the role of high income way down the pecking order of what really creates financial wellbeing.
If we want to create a world with lives worth living, we could harness the power of economic policy and focus it on creating a society that promotes the financial wellbeing of its citizens rather than the accumulation of wealth. To do that, we might use those three research findings as goals and create the right economic conditions that allow people to have great relationships and life experiences, that allow people to give generously and freely, and that enable people to avoid and recover from financial disaster (the most common these days is just getting sick).
To know what the economic policies need to aim for, we can ask ourselves: “What is needed in order for us to have great relationships and life experiences?” “What are the things or thoughts or feelings that enable us to give freely?” and “What would financial security look like concretely in our lives and communities?”
What would your answers to those questions be? Mine are coming over the next few weeks.