Business Journal

Wellbeing on the Home Front

A global study finds that the people you share a household with have a profound impact on your wellbeing in five key dimensions

"Misery loves company," the old saying goes. And anyone stuck inside with a cranky teenager -- or a grumpy roommate -- has probably felt the truth of that statement. It's hard for others in the household not to be affected by one person's mood. But is the opposite true: Does wellbeing love company? More specifically, does living in a household with someone who has high wellbeing boost your chances of having high wellbeing?

Our social connections even three degrees removed have influence on our happiness, health habits, and in other areas of our lives.

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Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing and coauthor of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, and Sangeeta Agrawal, a Gallup senior workplace researcher, set out to answer these questions. They have come to several striking conclusions based on their research. The upshot is: It doesn't matter what relationship you have with the person over there who's hogging the remote -- he or she is going to have a profound impact on your wellbeing.

The elements of wellbeing

Wellbeing encompasses more than being happy, although happiness is important. Money and health can't guarantee wellbeing, though poverty and illness certainly provoke low levels of wellbeing. Instead, wellbeing is composed of five distinct elements that are interrelated and that influence each other:

Additional Gallup analysis of wellbeing, conducted by Harter and Wellbeing coauthor Tom Rath, encompassed a review of decades of scientific research and a comprehensive global study of wellbeing in more than 150 countries. The results gave Harter and Rath a lens into the wellbeing of more than 98% of the world's population. Their analysis revealed that nearly everyone could use a boost to their wellbeing: 66% of people are doing well in at least one of the five elements, but only 7% are thriving in all five.

"When Tom and I were doing research on the five wellbeing dimensions, one that was very strong and foundational was Social Wellbeing," Harter says. "We came across research from Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler that showed that our social connections even three degrees removed have some influence on our happiness, on our health habits, and in other areas of our lives." (See "The Power and Potential of Social Networks" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

If people three degrees removed can affect a person's wellbeing, it seems logical that the people who share the same household would have a profound impact on each other's wellbeing. To test this theory, Harter and Agrawal initiated a new study -- this time a little closer to home. To be exact, they studied wellbeing in the home.

They analyzed responses from 4,314 people in 2,157 households using the wellbeing survey that Harter and Rath had developed for the global wellbeing study. Next, they controlled for differences by geographic region and income levels. Then Harter and Agrawal sorted the responses into three categories of wellbeing: thriving (strong, consistent, and progressing), struggling (moderate or inconsistent), or suffering (at high risk). Because Agrawal and Harter included anyone living in the household (aged 18 and over), their findings apply to married or unmarried couples, roommates, parents, and adult children.

Mapping Household Wellbeing Across the U.S.

As part of their study of wellbeing in households across the United States, Gallup researchers Jim Harter and Sangeeta Agrawal sorted respondents into three categories of wellbeing: thriving (strong, consistent, and progressing), struggling (moderate or inconsistent), or suffering (at high risk). As the map below shows, each region of the United States includes households in which both, one, or no members are thriving. "This shows that wellbeing is not fatalistic based on where you live," Harter says. "There's opportunity and there's risk anywhere."

Mapping Household Wellbeing Across the U.S.

Source: Gallup

Wellbeing at home

Harter and Agrawal's analysis shows that when it comes to overall wellbeing, a person is more than two times as likely to be thriving when another person in the same household is thriving, compared to living with a person who is not thriving. Specifically, your chances of having thriving overall wellbeing are 63% if you live with someone who has thriving overall wellbeing, 29% if you live with someone who has struggling overall wellbeing, and 20% if you live with someone who has suffering overall wellbeing.

Of the five elements of wellbeing, Financial Wellbeing is the most contagious, as it were. Compared to living with someone who does not have thriving Financial Wellbeing, a person is more than two times as likely to have thriving Financial Wellbeing when he or she is living in a household with a person who has thriving Financial Wellbeing. "When people live together, they share financial stress or Financial Wellbeing," Harter says. "So one person's financial stress probably affects other people in the household."

Financial Wellbeing is an important element to get right. Do we manage our money in such a way that we don't have daily arguments about it?

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And the research reinforces this point. If a person in your household has thriving Financial Wellbeing, your chances of having thriving Financial Wellbeing are 74%. The converse is also true: Your chances of having thriving Financial Wellbeing are 37% if you live with a person who has struggling Financial Wellbeing and 16% if you live with someone who has suffering Financial Wellbeing.

"Financial Wellbeing is an important element to get right," Harter says. "Do we manage our money in such a way that we don't have daily arguments about money? When we live in the same household and we're both spending money, there's a lot of opportunity for conflict." Financial Wellbeing is about more than just net worth; it encompasses whether there's a sense of financial security in the household. One key to promoting Financial Wellbeing is doing things with your money to reduce daily stress, regardless of what your income level is.

Another element that showed a strong relationship between household members was Community Wellbeing. At its most basic level, this element of wellbeing is about feeling safe. But on a higher plane, it encompasses the level of involvement that people have with their community. Having another person in your household who has thriving Community Wellbeing has a strong effect on your Community Wellbeing: Your chances of having thriving Community Wellbeing are 62% if another person in the same household has thriving Community Wellbeing.

Those chances drop to 32% if another person in your household has struggling Community Wellbeing and to 11% if you live with someone who has suffering Community Wellbeing. "When one person in the household initiates something to benefit the community, it probably stimulates the other person in the household to do likewise," Harter says.

For Social Wellbeing, a person is more than 1.5 times as likely to be thriving if another person in the same household is thriving. Your chances of having thriving Social Wellbeing are 75% if you live with someone who has thriving Social Wellbeing, 48% if you live with someone who has struggling Social Wellbeing, and 21% if you live with someone who has suffering Social Wellbeing.

Harter and Agrawal found a pattern of household-member influence for Physical Wellbeing as well, although the relationship was not quite as strong as it was for some of the other elements. Agrawal was somewhat surprised by this. "I think people have their own exercise or Physical Wellbeing agendas, and they might not exercise together that much," she says. "So one person's Physical Wellbeing might not have as high of an impact on the other person's Physical Wellbeing as it could. If they merged their routine exercises and made them a group activity or a household activity, it might benefit everyone in the household more."

When it comes to Career Wellbeing, however, this impact is a bit lower. If another person in your household has thriving Career Wellbeing, your chances of having thriving Career Wellbeing are 52%. That likelihood drops to 33% if you live with someone who has struggling Career Wellbeing and to 22% if you live with someone who has suffering Career Wellbeing.

"Our careers are part of our identities. So if something good happens at work, we take that home, and our family members will benefit from that. And if something bad happens at work, we take that home as well," Harter says. And studies by Gallup and others have shown that although people might prefer to think that they don't take work home, they do. (See "Bringing Work Problems Home" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

Agrawal suggests that there are ways to counteract the negative side of this tendency. "Because people living in the same household do have an impact on each other's wellbeing, one way would be for people in the same household to point out each other's strengths and to encourage their career growth," she says.

Boosting your wellbeing

Whether you live with a spouse, a significant other, a roommate, a parent, or a child, the people you live with have a significant effect on your wellbeing. Meanwhile, you're affecting their wellbeing too. "Our analysis suggests that we have a lot of influence on people in our households, both through the behaviors we engage in and because we have stock in others' wellbeing. Doing things that benefit the wellbeing of the people you live with should return a benefit to you in the short or long term," says Harter.

Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal.
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