woman jumping
Photo: Thinkstock
Let me introduce you to my friend Marjorie. Marjorie has a rockstar job as an advertising executive, two kids in elementary school, a husband she adores, a house with a backyard, a dog without fleas and a knitting circle that serves bottomless strawberry margaritas at their monthly meetings. If you asked her—in secret, where nobody could overhear her and think she was smug or a show-off—she'd say, "It's true. I do have a pretty happy life."

And yet, on the average day, she rushes off to the office at 6 a.m., works out during lunch, races back home at 6 to make dinner, bathe and tuck in her kids, and then spends the rest of the night paying bills or lying on the floor with the broom, trying to whack free all trapped Legos from underneath the couch.

This, you might ask, is happy? One has to wonder if that's the best adjective to use to describe our lives—and, thanks to recent developments in psychology, whether that particular emotion really motivates any of our actions. Marty Seligman, PhD, who rose to prominence in the '90s due to his scientific research in how to help patients become happier, has now reversed his earlier position in his recent book Flourish, claiming that we take a more mature, multifaceted look at our goals.

"What I want to do," he says, "is get people to open the door to understanding why they choose to do what they do." The need for a challenging career or lovable (but demanding!) children or running marathons may be motivated by something else entirely: the desire for self-fulfillment or even plain old accomplishment. These different inspirations may not result in classic joy, but they can result in something more complex and important: a sense of well-being.

Scientifically, there are all kinds of ways to evaluate and measure this quality, but one of the most intriguing is the nationwide Gallup-Healthways poll which Seligman, along with other experts in the field, contributed to. Each evening, Gallup representatives call 1,000 random American people and ask them a series of questions, inquiring about everything from their exercise habits to their marriages and bills. (As of its debut in 2008, the project has surveyed more than 1,200,000 people.) The answers are fascinating: Hawaii (no surprise) has the highest level of well-being of any state, followed by (surprise) North Dakota. Education is the key predictor of emotional health over age 65, and positivity is in abundance in people across Alaska and Wyoming.

Putting statistics aside, you may be wondering about your own well-being. Jim Pope, MD, chief officer of Healthways, the company that co-sponsored the poll with Gallup, has shared five slightly altered questions from the real nightly survey, and explained how they relate to our levels of satisfaction and contentment. You can use them as a window into the state of your life, and then ask yourself one simple thing: Am I just getting by? Or am I flourishing?
Please imagine a staircase with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the stairs represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the stairs represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the stairs would you say you're standing right now? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?

This question, according to Pope, measures expectations. How do you feel about the future? What kind of resilience do you have to bounce back from life's challenges? Your attitude towards the day-to-day is, in part, dependent on how you see the what's-to-come. "Those people who see the future in a positive way," he says, "tend to be much more aggressive about achieving that kind of outcome."

For example, at work, many of us deal with colleagues who see certain procedures (say faxing in a four-page sales report) as pointless, but they also clearly see—and know—that these procedures can be improved later (emailing in a one-page electronic version). "They are bringing a different energy to the party," says Dr. Pope, "versus a colleague who thinks something is busted and it ain't never getting better."

Did you learn or do something challenging yesterday?

Here, the issue isn't just the obvious: whether you feel intellectually engaged on a regular basis or whether you have a demanding job. That's important, of course. But the question is also about the emotional connection to your activities—either at work or at home. "People really want to have purpose in their life," says Pope. "People want to be more engaged ... and not just someone who is doing a purely mechanical task."

There are a few ways to increase that engagement: Vary your responsibilities. For example, try spending some time working, then some time parenting or doing a hobby, then some time socializing (recent research from the University of Iowa suggests that alternating tasks leads to a greater sense of meaning derived from what you do, leading to an increased overall sense of satisfaction, growth and motivation). Another strategy is to acquire new skills that improve your marketability in the larger world, for example, taking a night class in computer programming. "In that sense," says Pope, "getting to learn and do new things is ... a perk similar to receiving a bonus or healthcare coverage."

Is the city or area where you live improving or declining as a place to live?

Where you live affects your whole life, and this particular question, says Pope, examines your basic access to things that can improve—or decrease—your well-being. It's a subject that too many of us fail to examine on our own, either because we are too enmeshed in the day-to-day to notice gradual changes, or because we don't understand the connection between our immediate surroundings and ourselves. Clearly, if a giant factory moved into your town and your house suddenly smelled of toxic smoke, you would make the connection. But what about subtle changes? Even though your house may be in great shape, a tough economy can change the condition of schools and parks, not to mention how late the library or post office are kept open.

"The idea isn't, Do I have a safe place to exercise?" says Pope. "What we want to do is understand people's broader sense of their environment."

At work, do you use your strengths to do your job—or not?

Interestingly, this question has as much to do with how others appreciate us as it does with our own sense of satisfaction about our workplace. If you're using your strengths, you are more likely to have been moved into a position (i.e., promoted from cashier to manager) where a supervisor or group of peers has recognized your best qualities and rewarded you for them.

"Much of our individual self-esteem really is drawn from our perception of how other people see us as a person and the work we do," says Pope. "'Am I using my strength?' is asking folks to examine 'Am I doing what I can really do well—and am I being valued for it?'"

In the last week, on how many days did you exercise for 40 or more minutes?

In this case, says Pope, the length or frequency of your workouts is not the point of the question. Rather, the subject to consider is, Are you regularly exercising? There are huge physical benefits—not just to your life quality right now but also, as you age, to your life expectancy.

The hidden question, however, is, Are you investing in yourself? "In a time-impoverished world," says Pope, "it is a powerful thing to not feel as though you are a victim of your circumstances but that you are, in fact, taking some control."

Read More


Next Story