Tom Rath wants you to stop chasing happiness. The author of six influential bestsellers has drawn that conclusion from the latest and most practical research in the fields of health, psychology and economics, and he reveals what matters more in his latest book, “Are You Fully Charged?”
From a wealth of qualitative and quantitative insight, Rath has found that what matters most for our daily health, well-being and engagement in our work are three things: creating meaning, quality interactions and energy. Robert Cappuccio, Director of Coaching at 24 Hour Fitness, spoke with Rath about this game-changing approach to becoming your best version of you.
Robert Cappuccio (RC): Why did you decide to write this book now?
Tom Rath (TR): A lot of research is beginning to reveal how daily well-being is very different from life satisfaction. It turns out daily well-being is a lot more important, a lot more actionable and a lot more practical. But until recently, most studies just looked at people’s overall sense of satisfaction once or twice a year, instead of how they felt, what they were doing and who they were with at 8 a.m.
Another reason I decided to write this book now is because as much information as we have, we’re suffering from overload. We’re unlocking our smart phones hundreds of times a day, getting notifications on our laptops, it seems like people are coming at us on an hourly basis – and that makes it increasingly difficult to step back and focus on what matters most, and make sure we’re fully charged.
Speaking for myself, on most days I was nowhere near a full charge, even for others, and that was a real awakening for me. So I’ve tried to boil life down to simple things – not striving for purpose over an entire lifetime, but just trying for five or six – or even seven – great days in a row.
RC: You challenge the common wisdom about the pursuit of happiness, making a case that chasing it only makes it more elusive. What’s behind that observation?
TR: Well, I follow where the data tells me to go. I’ve studied happiness for many years, and one thing I noticed in studies of people obsessed with their own pursuit of own happiness is that it’s an uphill climb. In fact, more nuanced research on the topic of meaning shows that meaning and happiness are two different constructs.
It turns out when people pursue meaning or happiness for others – it could be anything you do today to make a difference for someone else – it’s one of best ways to achieve happiness for yourself and others in your network. If a friend who was feeling down asked me for advice, the last thing I’d recommend is doing things to cheer himself up. I’d recommend working on improving someone else’s well-being.
RC: “Meaning” can sound pretty daunting to a lot of people, but you’re talking about something different, right?
TR: It’s true, when we hear “meaning,” it’s often referring to big lofty constructs. In the book, I’m talking about something much more practical, along the lines of what the noted psychologist Viktor Frankl found helped the depressed teenagers he was studying. He discovered they needed small wins to make progress on a day-to-day basis.
Today, we see that impact register in functional MRIs and brain scans. If you’re a call center agent and you turn one unhappy customer into a neutral or happy one, or you’re a cook and you see how much someone’s enjoying the food you prepared, that counts as the kind of meaning I’m talking about, and it adds up.
RC: Even with a practical definition of “meaning,” it’s not uncommon to feel frustratingly uncertain about our purpose. So how do you recommend people find it?
TR: It’s a question of perspective – stepping back and noticing how your work contributes to something larger. There’s definitely more room for us to find that connection in our jobs: only 20 percent of the people we surveyed said their work was meaningful, but I have a hunch people are doing work that matters more than they realize. For example, in one study, radiologists – who look at dozens and dozens of images daily – were given files that also included an image of the patient whose file they were reviewing. So they had a picture of the person whose life might be impacted by the interpretation of the scan.
And their diagnostic accuracy increased by 46 percent when they had that photo of that real human being. We need to find little ways to infuse into our jobs an understanding of the person for whom our work makes a difference.
RC: One part of their lives that people try to control is their health – and it can seem selfish to make that a priority. So how do people find meaning and get what they want?
TR: Since I wrote my last book, “Eat Move Sleep,” which is about the impact of eating, moving, and sleeping and making small choices for big changes, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with people in caring and serving positions, such as nurses and hospice workers. They spend a lifetime putting others’ needs in front of their own. I admire that and it relates to meaning, but what I learned is whether you’re a leader trying to influence people or a hospice nurse trying to comfort someone in their darkest time, you need as much physical energy as possible to be your best – even if you don’t care about your own well-being.
We’ve got to do a better job of prioritizing that physical energy. It statistically improves your mood hours later, your brain works better and you’re more creative. If you’re dedicated to serving others, it might be the most responsible thing you can do.
RC: In “Are You Fully Charged?” you also write about creating positive interactions in relationships – but taking care of yourself also can feel at odds with relationship priorities.
TR: With relationships, I think we have a tendency to expect big shifts. But I’m talking about little moments of flow, when you feel like you’re in rhythm with the world and time stands still. That could be when you’re running with a friend, or when you elicit a positive response in someone else. For me, it’s when my daughter learns a new word, or I make my kids smile. It’s these small moments, not just big breakthroughs, which lead to energy and meaning as well.
In workplace relationships, I think a lot of our daily behaviors are driven by what we think others expect of us. That’s why I’m so passionate about people in leadership roles being role models for physical health, for example, so that their employees feel comfortable taking the time to take care of themselves. Good leaders, whether it’s at work or at home or in your community, are good at asking others what it takes for them to have an ideal day where they’re fully charged; processing that information, and thinking of ways to help them. They’re also good at spotting people doing meaningful work that makes them energized, and pointing it out.
RC: What’s the difference between someone who reads the book and someone who applies it?
TR: I’ve thought about that a lot. A woman at a book signing said she’d read one of my previous books and it transformed her own and her family’s life. That’s as meaningful as it can get, but that’s the exception. Reading a book is already a big thing for busy people, so my hope is that people can take away one or two little ideas to build into their routine, even if it’s as simple as standing while they’re talking on the phone.