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Self-help book fails to hit target

Published on Thursday, 13 Jan 2011
Book: Well Being - The Five Essential Elements
Authors: Tom Rath and Jim Harter
Publisher: Gallup Press
Illustration: Bay Leung

This book starts with a bold and brave statement: "Much of what we think will improve our well-being is either misguided or just plain wrong." Like most self-help books, it blatantly tries to get you hooked, and it probably works. But for those looking for some workable recipes for success, this book may feel a bit half-baked.

For one thing, the book devotes 112 pages to the authors' main ideas, while 114 pages are packed with technical information, notes, references and hard data. There's also the gimmicky aspect of a linked online feature, complete with a packet insert that contains a password to a Gallup testing website.

The Gallup connection is no surprise, as both authors work for the global polling company. Tom Rath is the author of best-selling How Full is Your Bucket? and StrengthsFinder 2.0. He's been with Gallup for 14 years and leads its workplace research and leadership consulting around the world. Co-author Jim Harter is chief scientist for Gallup's international workplace management and well-being practices.

Despite the mass market appeal, this book features some very insightful counter-intuitive ideas, such as in the areas of money management and the "irrational man" model of behavioural economics. At the heart of the book is the concept of well-being, which the authors define as "the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities".

The authors then go into a detailed examination of these concepts. Career well-being is how you occupy your time or simply liking what you do every day. Social well-being involves having strong ties and love in your life. Financial well-being is about effectively managing your economic life. Physical well-being is having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis, while community well-being is that sense of engagement you have with your neighbourhood.

The authors believe that "an intense focus on one area can actually be detrimental to your overall well-being".

In other words, these concepts are interconnected, symbiotic and mutually reinforcing. "Most importantly, it's about how these five elements interact," they write.

The book is based largely on a Gallup global study of some 150 countries, covering more than 98 per cent of the world's population.

"Clearly, wealthier countries have citizens with higher well-being. So although money doesn't guarantee happiness, being in a wealthy country certainly increases your odds of having a good life," they write.

Interestingly, based on this measure of the correlation between well-being and wealth, Hong Kong ranks below Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Britain in terms of the well-being of its citizens, even though it has a higher GDP per capita. 

The chapter summaries are helpful, but the book is heavy on data and anecdotal evidence to the point that practical applications feel like afterthoughts. It is also very wide-ranging in its citations as to be almost shambolic. 

There's a good inversion at the end of the book, with the issue of well-being seen from the perspective of the employer instead of the employee. For managers, it's like finding a gem in a pile of narrative rubble.

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