Meaning, quality interactions, energy: all are things that we want in our lives, and now is a time of year when we have the desire – and potential – for all three. Bestselling author Tom Rath’s latest investigation into happiness, Are You Fully Charged, reveals that these are the keys. This week, the companion film Fully Charged debuts, and just in time for those holiday gatherings that can leave us feeling uplifted – or frustrated.
24Life asked Rath for his thoughts on breaking through our own and others’ expectations for happiness, and how to achieve it.
24Life: Why did you make this film, in addition to exploring the subject in your book?
Tom Rath (TR): It was a convergence of two things – a career spent wrestling with the question of how you help people to lead better lives through their work, choices and behaviors, and my observations of how people learn. My book How Full Is Your Bucket had a test, and Strengths Finder 2.0 has a comprehensive companion website, intended to get people to act on what they’ve read.
But looking across the topic of well-being, it became clear that people are also inspired to change their behavior from watching films such as Supersize Me. There are community groups that get together to watch videos about managing finances. So when I worked on Are You Fully Charged?, it seemed shortsighted to stop at a nonfiction book. Even though I spent more time on the book than the film production, the most memorable lines that stay with me are from the film, because they’re from real people telling stories.
24Life: We often associate creating or finding meaning in your life with having a breakthrough – and we expect it to be a big one. What did you find in your research?
TR: I found the importance of little breakthroughs. I know that’s true in my life, as a parent of young children, but I’m inspired watching the people in the film as well. You can see where researchers who spent years and millions of dollars on research projects usually had a breakthrough in their personal lives that in turn, brought new meaning to their research.
For example, Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University and co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, has long studied social factors that affect health, health care, and longevity. The breakthrough that ultimately shaped his work came from personal experience. During his residency as a medical doctor, he made home visits to patients at the end of life. He was caring for a woman who was in her final weeks, and met her daughter. One day, he got what seemed like a random call from a friend of the daughter’s husband. The friend called to say he was miserable because his friend, the daughter’s husband, was ill as a result of the pain she was going through, caring for her dying mother.
That phone call began to connect the dots for Dr. Christakis as he realized that indirect relationships like that of the dying woman and the husband’s friend might have measurable connections to well-being. He’s since spent decades studying the phenomenon.
24Life: One of the film’s subjects talks about his realization that he was headed for a life of low energy and chronic disease, and how he shifted the focus of his choices to whether or not they would improve his health or his life. In your work on Fully Charged and your books, what have you learned about how people translate breakthroughs into change or results?
TR: The social factor is part of it; I wouldn’t preach to someone what he or she should do, but what I can do is make the right choices, and people do follow that example, whether it’s at work or at home. The most interesting thing I’ve found from my research is how much environment matters and how important it is to set the right “defaults” to make the right choices easier. Normally we have mixed nuts, bananas and apples on our kitchen counter. My son has food allergies so the chips are hidden away, but my wife happened to leave them out, so it was easy for me to grab two handfuls before this call! We eat what’s accessible, what we see.
The same goes for making healthy choices about movement easier, so you don’t end up sitting for two hours in a row. There are little ways to do that, whether it’s using a sit/stand desk, or walking around while you’re talking on phone call. I use a treadmill desk and I find I have a whole different level of energy compared to a day spent sitting on a plane – the treadmill helps me focus.
24Life: For some, this is the time of year that feels pressured by expectations to find deep meaning in the season, have absolutely conflict-free family interactions, and bestow loving kindness everywhere. From your perspective, what does it mean to be fully charged and happy at this time of year?
TR: While most studies on happiness ask people to say how happy they’ve felt over the last year, at Gallup, we studied a thousand people every night for 360 days of the year to find out when they felt happy. We found that time of day and day of the week mattered, in their responses. The good news: holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are the best days for Americans’ overall sense of well-being. Most other days, people go to work and they don’t like their work.
There’s something more to that holiday happiness than not going to work, because most people don’t have to work on the weekend. It was also the social interaction that comes with the holidays. You end up having fun even if you’re introverted, even if there are stressors: it still ends up being pretty good to be social, relax, and spend time around friends and family.
24Life: What steps could people take to get there?
TR: The ingredients of being fully charged are creating meaning, having quality social interactions, and energy. One step toward interactions is to acknowledge those aspects of the holidays. When it comes to interactions, there’s so much organizing around meals and gifts – but there’s more stress that’s imagined, so the more you can minimize that anticipated stress (like stressing about the family member who gets stressed), the better.
The challenge to energy is that people often let go of good habits they maintain in good weather. As we fall off of good eating and exercise, there are some big flags to watch, like over-eating. If you want to maximize your social time over the holidays, you need to be in a state where you can enjoy it, instead of being in a tryptophan-induced hangover on Thanksgiving afternoon.
When it comes to creating meaning, New Year’s is a good time to ask what can you commit to in 2016 that will have impact on people through your work or in the community.
Ed. note: You can preview or watch Fully Charged at http://www.siliconguild.com/fully-charged-the-film/.
About Tom Rath
Tom Rath is an author and researcher who studies the role of human behavior in business, health, and well-being. His most recent work includes a feature-length documentary film, Fully Charged, which explores the key elements of energizing one’s work and life through personal stories and interviews with the world’s leading social scientists.
Rath’s latest bestseller, Are You Fully Charged? The Three Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life is receiving acclaim as “Rath’s best book yet.” Rath has written six New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers over the past decade, including the #1 New York Times bestseller How Full Is Your Bucket? His book StrengthsFinder 2.0 was the top-selling book of 2013 worldwide on AMAZON.
Rath serves as a senior scientist for Gallup, where he previously spent thirteen years leading the organization’s work on employee engagement, strengths, leadership, and well-being. You can find out more about Rath at http://www.tomrath.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.