What The New Science Of Happiness Means For Working Parents

Your overall happiness comes down to three keys: meaning, interaction, and energy. Here’s what that means for stressed-out working parents.

What The New Science Of Happiness Means For Working Parents
[Photo: Flickr user Hernán Piñera]

If you often find yourself thinking about how you might generally be happier, you’re like pretty much everyone else—including Tom Rath. The difference between you and Rath is that he’s a senior scientist at Gallup who’s spent 13 years bringing the resources of a world-class research institute to bear on the question.


The insights Rath has gathered over that time form the basis of the six-time New York Times bestselling author’s latest book, Are You Fully Charged? The Three Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. It turns out that your overall well-being is determined by the sum of your daily fulfillment, and your daily fulfillment comes down to three “keys”: meaning, interaction, and energy—to which most parents will probably respond, “I’m screwed.”

After all, it can be awfully hard to find meaning in a day-to-day that involves scraping crap off baby butts and stepping on Legos. The quality of your interactions suffer when you’re interacting with preverbal beasts or tiny little tyrants, and as for energy . . . ha! Remember energy?

We asked Rath, who has a six-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son, to provide some parent-specific summaries of the book’s most relevant research and advice. Lucky for us, he obliged.


What The Research Says: Rath’s research has proven two things that people have long assumed (but not necessarily acted on). First, the most effective way to create happiness for yourself is to focus on creating happiness for other people.

Second, money doesn’t buy squat: Four of the happiest countries in the world are in the bottom half in terms of wealth, and, in the U.S., once you get above $70,000 in annual household income, “there’s absolutely no statistically significant effect on your daily well-being,” Rath says.

What You Can Do With This As A Parent: Focus on someone other than yourself (hint: it’s your kids), and make it about the little things (bonus: you’ll save money!). “Even if I’m just reading a book with my daughter and I’m helping her recognize a new word that she didn’t pick up on two nights ago, that’s a meaningful win,” Rath says. “That’s contributing to the development of someone you care about. It’s those moments that accumulate and make a difference in life.”



What The Research Says: “Proximity matters a lot,” he says. “Your well-being is more dramatically affected by the people you see every day, people who live within a few blocks of your house, people who live within a few miles, than it is by distant connections.” Yes, you know have a scientific rationale for ignoring your in-laws.

Also, you’re affected by interactions you don’t even have: “Friends of friends we don’t know—even all the way out to the third degree—a friend of a friend of a friend—have a measurable impact on your overall health and well-being,” Rath says. This can be a frustrating realization, but flip it on its head and remember: Just by being nice to one person, you’re improving all sorts of lives.

What You Can Do With This As A Parent: “I’m convinced that one of the hardest things for a dad to do in this day and age is just to pay genuine attention to his children,” he says. His advice isn’t rocket science and (most likely) is something you’ve heard before: Step away from the phone. Rath doesn’t have any notifications on his lock screen beyond calls, and when he’s with his kids he doesn’t look at the phone unless it’s ringing repeatedly. “There are times during the day when you’ve got to be reactionary, that’s just part of life. We also have to carve out time to pay attention and not be distracted, intentionally,” he says.


What The Research Says: Sleep is even more important than you thought: People working on four hours of sleep display the same level of cognitive impairment as people who drank a six-pack of beer—with none of the delightful upside of intoxication. And exercise is a little less important than you thought: “We’ve got to find ways to get out of our chairs and move around a couple times an hour throughout the day, because that turns out to be more important than exercise for our energy levels and long-term health,” he says.

What You Can Do With This As A Parent: “It’s easy to put everybody’s needs before your own. That’s a natural instinct and it’s admirable on many levels, but I’ve learned the hard way that if I put everything else first and eat the wrong food, cut a few hours of sleep, and don’t get some activity, I’m a lethargic dad at six in the evening when my kids want to run around,” says Rath.

That’s why he spends 70% to 80% of his day working at a treadmill desk. He knows guys who set timers, to ensure they get up from their desks once an hour. And he acknowledges that this directive might seem in opposition to the previous one around meaning: “Even though it sounds a little selfish on the surface, the first step to energy is prioritizing your own health and the way you eat and sleep and move on a day-to-day basis.”


So, there you have it. The secret to happiness is to focus on everyone else, except for when you should focus on yourself, and don’t let your wife hang out with people you’re sure you think suck.

This article originally appeared on Fatherly and is reprinted with permission.