How to Have a Good Life? Have a Good Day

One piece of bad news that keeps getting repeated has to do with well- being. Americans are bombarded with advice about prevention and positive lifestyle choices. Yet as a population we continue to be more sedentary and obese, with unregulated stress, too little sleep, a high-fat, high-sugar diet, and so on.

So it’s encouraging to offer some good news on this front. After surveying over a hundred and five countries to find out what habits create well-being, a study by the Gallup organization (where I am a Senior Scientist) concluded that having a good day leads to having a good life. In other words, habits that make you feel good right now are the basic elements of a long, healthy life.

This conclusion was based on a fact of human nature that frustrates the wellness community: our ingrained tendency to seek immediate gratification. For example, only 10% of responders say that they buy candy, but if asked if they take candy when it is put before them, 70% say yes. You may walk into a fast-food outlet intending to order a salad, but when you get up to the counter, you’ll most likely order a burger and fries. Immediate gratification makes people play a video game rather than discipline themselves with an exercise regimen that could improve their vital statistics over the long run.

The Gallup recommendations take immediate gratification and turn it on its head, making short-term satisfaction an ally rather than an enemy.

So what makes for a good day that will also lead to a good life?

1. Work. If you do work that you love and are passionate about, that is found to be foremost among the factors for well-being. What if you have a boring job? Then it’s recommended that you spend a few hours a day away from work doing something you love. Secondarily, find someone who shares your passion, whatever it is, and spend time with that person on a daily or at less frequent basis. A walk is good as you chat about what you both love.

2. Money. Financial security is an important contributor to well-being, but how much you have isn’t the main thing. What can you do with your money today that will increase well-being? First, buy experiences rather than things. Buying a flat-screen TV may bring a shot of enjoyment, but if you buy a vacation in the Bahamas, Gallup points out three stages of enjoyment: anticipation beforehand, immediate pleasure in the present and fond memories afterwards.

It’s also beneficial to spend money on other people rather than on yourself. Giving on a daily basis makes you feel good. Third, it’s important to provide for a default mechanism that saves money automatically so that you can’t spend it all at once.

3. Interpersonal. It’s good to talk to people, bonding and connecting. Gallup recommends several hours a day of some kind of personal communication through phone calls, e-mails, or conversation in person. Feeling connected needs to happen on a daily basis.

4. Diet and exercise. Here’s an area where people probably feel the most guilt. But instead of punishing yourself for falling short of some ideal diet and fitness program, use immediate gratification to your advantage. If you eat a fatty lunch with a sugary dessert, how will you feel in two hours? Compare the prospects of a fat hangover and sugar drowsiness with how you will feel if you have salad and a piece of broiled fish instead. Feeling light and energetic is immediate gratification that is just as pleasurable — and longer lasting– than a five-minute sugar high.

The same holds for exercise. If you take a brisk walk for 20 min. in the morning, it will set an energetic tone for the rest of your day. Two such walks are even better, Gallup found, with benefits in overall health as the number increases to six. No more strenuous activity is needed for feeling good.

As far as specific recommendations, we are advised to buy healthy foods and refrain from buying processed and artificial foods. Organic is best; as is a high proportion of fish over red meat. Taking more than one vitamin supplement a day isn’t advised; Omega-3 oils as in salmon, nuts, and seeds and also unsaturated oil such as olive oil, are also good. Get enough sleep to feel well rested, around 7-8 hours for adults but no more. Again, the goal is to eat, rest, and be active with having a good day in mind, nothing more elaborate.

5. Community. It will improve your day if you give some time to a cause you believe in. That isn’t news in itself. But Gallup also underscores the latest findings that emotions and habits are contagious. Workers who are on the job with their best friend are seven times more engaged and therefore, more productive. Even chatting with friendly co-worker increases engagement.. If you spend time with cheerful people, you will enjoy a better immune response than if you spend time with depressed people. Anger, smoking, and obesity are other factors that increase if you are close to someone with those problems; the likelihood of developing negative traits decreases if you spend time with people who lack those traits.

In short, well-being isn’t a solitary project. If the Gallup findings show one thing, it’s the interconnectedness of all the ingredients that make for a good day, and then for a good life. A good day is assembled by combining all five areas mentioned above, and each is shared with your family, friends, and co-workers. As you might expect, the Gallup data is far more extensive and detailed. (A soon to be released book b y two Gallup Scientists, Tom Rath and Jim Harter, “Well Being – the five elements,” has extensive data and very specific recommendations that are bound to change strategies in the health and wellbeing arena.). This has been an overview only. But if you have joined the ranks of those who keep postponing the good things you know you should be doing, you can change your life by having a good day. A short-term goal can reap immense long-term benefits.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle