Do you ever think about what it is in life that really, fundamentally, makes you happy – or indeed unhappy?
In 2010 Gallup (the American analytics and advisory company) did a comprehensive study on wellbeing covering 150 countries globally, asking people hundreds of questions about health, wealth, relationships, jobs, and communities.
Across borders and nationalities, they identified five universal elements that are seemingly essential to wellbeing the world over – whatever your age, social class, employment, nationality, and race.
Of course, these broad categories don’t cover every nuance of what’s important in different people’s lives, but they are a valuable insight into the cornerstones of wellbeing for most people around the world.
So what five characteristics did they define?
1. Career – how you occupy your time, liking what you do every day.
People usually underestimate the influence of their career on their overall wellbeing but it’s actually the most essential of the five characteristics: after all, for most of us our jobs are what we spend the most amount of time doing every week. People with high occupational wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.
2. Social – strong relationships and love.
This doesn’t have to be a romantic partner; it’s all about connections with people, from family to friends to neighbours to colleagues, to the strangers you say hello to on your commute. We need these daily interactions to sustain us – as we all realised during Covid lockdowns. Without them you can become very lonely and isolated, impacting significantly on your wellbeing.
3. Financial – effectively managing your economic life.
Whether you are wealthy or struggling to get by, having control over your financial situation and having enough to support you and your dependents are crucial to happiness the world over. Not having enough money – or having money but no control or security with it – is a huge source of anxiety and unhappiness. And of course, with the current cost of living crisis in the UK this is a very real stress factor affecting the wellbeing of more and more people.
4. Physical – health and energy.
This doesn’t mean getting up at 5am to do a 10-mile run (though for some, exercise is a requisite for their wellbeing); more universally it’s about being well enough to get things done on a daily basis. Being ill will clearly have an impact on your happiness; but so will simply lacking that ‘get up and go’ energy to get through everyday life.
5. Community – engagement with the area in which you live or work.
This might be a less obvious one, and it overlaps a little with the social factor: happiness is impacted by having a support system around you, a local community in which you feel safe and valued – whether that is literally your neighbourhood, or perhaps a religious organisation, your work community, or the parents at the school gate. You want to get on with your community, feel valued, know that you could call on their support if you needed it, and feel good about contributing to the community yourself.
It’s a really worthwhile exercise to spend some time thinking about how each of these affects your own wellbeing. You’ll probably find that each one has varying importance at different times of your life: when your children are young or you’ve retired career may seem less critical; there might be times you feel less in need of the social element; in the current climate you might be particularly aware of financial wellbeing.
One characteristic can also have a knock-on effect on another. For example, it could be that due to illness your health has deteriorated; that then impacts on the social element because you can’t see friends or family so much, or the career element as you can’t work.
Being aware of these defined factors for wellbeing can be a useful tool in your mental health ‘toolbox’, giving you clarity on why you feel particularly happy or unhappy, and what you could do to change things.
And how fascinating to know that thousands of other people across borders and cultures might just be feeling the same…