When he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Thomas Jefferson enshrined "the pursuit of happiness," something that still resonates today. But Tom Rath, researcher and bestselling author of books on well-being, thinks those of us subscribing to that notion need to rewrite the phrase to instead encourage the "pursuit of meaning."
Certainly, happiness is a positive condition. But going overboard to achieve it can be deleterious, while focusing on meaning can strongly boost our well-being. "I am hopeful that people will see meaning as a higher-level goal than surface-level happiness," he said in an interview.
He concedes that meaning and happiness have some overlap, notably when we pursue happiness for loved ones or for our community. But trying to achieve happiness for ourselves can estrange us from others, creating loneliness. It can lead to a feeling of futility when it doesn't work. If we view happiness as something derived from money, we can fool ourselves – studies show that after a certain level, increased income is not associated with higher levels of happiness.
But happiness, perhaps owing to Jefferson's phrase and the individuality of North Americans, sells. Mr. Rath has talked to authors who have been urged to weave it into their works. But he demurs. His latest book, Are You Fully Charged?, sets out three keys to energizing your life and work – meaning, interactions, and energy.
He concedes meaning can seem vague – difficult to achieve. We sometimes think it comes down from the heavens, perhaps in thunderbolts. But he reread Viktor Frankl's classic Man's Search for Meaning, and found even before the psychotherapist's own experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz, where meaning kept him and others alive, he was studying the impact of daily doses of meaning on potentially suicidal individuals. And Mr. Rath has embraced The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, which found that taking note of the headway you make each day on meaningful work brightens inner work life and boosts long-term progress.
"Instead of looking for a higher calling, it's more practical to look at what you can do in the next hour that makes someone else better off. As well, can you see the value of the work?" he said in the interview.
Too often we're in a rush, and don't stop to notice. We need to forge meaning in the moment. You would think radiologists would innately understand the value of their work, but a study found that diagnostic accuracy increased when a photograph of the patient was attached to the scan. He urges you to make work a purpose, not just a place, recognizing how you help others.
He also cautions against a default career, simply following what your parents have done. Don't become a doctor or lawyer or salesperson because mommy or daddy was. If you're a parent, help your children to step outside your towering shadow.
His second catalyst is to make every interaction in a day count rather than taking those moments for granted. In particular, seek out positive interactions with others, since research shows it takes about four or five positive interactions to compensate for a negative situation. "One of the best ways to make it positive for someone else is to be the one person who pays attention to them in a day," he observes.
Simply putting a mobile phone face up on the table during a meeting hurts the interaction. It indicates you have something else on your mind that is equally or more important. He figures 90 per cent – or more – of the notifications we receive on our mobiles during meetings are minor and aren't worth interrupting the flow of the conversation you are having. "I get breaking news updates on some of the most useless things you can imagine. They don't need to interrupt us when we are reading a book to our children. We need to dial it back a bit," he said.
An introvert, he used to feel that people who wandered around the office and socialized were wasting time. Now he realizes the interactions are actually good for productivity, even if the conversation is about nothing more noble than last night's reality TV show.
He also urges you to put more of your money into experiences with others rather than stuff. He says the research shows this will increase your well-being, since at some point more stuff is not going to make you any happier.
As for energy, his final key to well-being, it's best summed up in the title of his previous book: Eat Move Sleep. Focusing on those three elements of your life is particularly important if you're a caring person because those devoted to caring for others too often let their own health deteriorate.
He appeals to business leaders to set an example of good health in what they eat, how they keep active, and ensuring they carve out sufficient time for sleep. If they want productive workers, they should push them to also protect those three aspects of life rather than squander them in an endless frenzy of work.
His takeaway: "The only certainty is that we have today and maybe tomorrow to make a difference for other people. When you focus on others in society, it leads to accomplishing more for yourself over time as well," he says.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter