Following Your Wellbeing North Star

Originally posted on Desiring wellbeing is one thing – attaining it is quite another. I’ve spent my entire career helping people achieve what seems impossible, but is only difficult, and lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to help people achieve wellbeing. It seems to me that my own sense of wellbeing is created by two main factors: 1) My circumstances, and 2) my expectations.  When circumstances exceed my expectations, wellbeing increases. When they fall short of my expectations, wellbeing suffers. So one obvious way to improve wellbeing could be to lower expectations. While that might not sound like an appealing solution to everyone, let’s give it a little thought.

EXPECTATIONS: While I suspect there’s some floor below which I’d be miserable no matter how low I set my expectations – for example having a shortage of food or clean water – I’m fortunate not to be in the 2 billion people who suffer with those circumstances in our world. In order to improve my own sense of wellbeing I periodically contemplate incredible aspects of my life, such as being able to go to a grocery store and buy an amazing array of food and drink just by handing over a little piece of plastic called a credit card. And every morning I reflect on the wonder of showering in water clean enough to drink while over 1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. My sense of wellbeing increases as I take time to appreciate these modern miracles. I call this having an “Attitude of Gratitude”, and the contrast between my good fortune and a couple of worst case scenarios does seem to lift my spirits.

CIRCUMSTANCES: The other way I’ve found to improve wellbeing is to alter my circumstances. Like many people I’ve sometimes relied on pure dumb luck for this, but generally I do it through making choices about how I spend my energy, time, money, and other resources. Originally trained as a physicist, and having spent many years exercising the rigor required of excellent project management, I’m a fairly disciplined thinker. As a result I tend to have clear decision criteria that I explicitly use to make choices in my life. One easy to use tool that’s been helpful in clarifying decision criteria is what I now call “The Wellbeing North Star” (see example below) because it guides me in navigating the journey of my life, much like the North Star in the sky guides travelers at night.

This tool makes explicit the major areas of concern of our life, and the characteristics of each area when its working well, and when its not. Decisions that we face can be viewed through this “wellbeing lens” in order to shift in the direction of increased wellbeing in one or more areas. As you can see from the example in the picture, I’ve learned that a sense of wellbeing in my career comes from doing work I love for people who show my their appreciation and pay me enough money for me to feel valued. Career wellbeing is eroded when I have jobs that require me to follow a routine schedule, am underpaid relative to the value I contribute, travel too much, or work with jerks. When I have a choice about career I use these criteria to nudge my decisions in the direction of wellbeing, and away from my “wellbeing killers”. As a result I seek out certain kinds of clients and assignments, and eschew others – even if they pay extremely well.

By following these steps you can easily create your own “Wellbeing North Star”, and that’s exactly what I’d like you to do this week as part of your own journey towards increased wellbeing. The Gallup Research on wellbeing has given us 5 areas for the points of the star (physical, financial, career, social and community), but you can substitute or add other areas, such as spiritual, personal, family, or fun. (And, of course, you needn’t limit yourself to only a five-pointed star!)

Step 1: Make a list of the areas of wellbeing you want to include. Count ’em!

Step 2: Draw your star with the number of points you need, and put your name in the middle.

Step 3: Label each point with an area of major concern for your life.

Step 4: Make a table with two columns near each point of the star. Title one column “Working” and the other “Not Working”.

Step 5: Fill in the table for each area, making a list of the characteristics that describe when that area is working well – when you’re feeling positive, satisfied, or happy with that area of your life – and another list describing when it’s not working. Be as specific as possible. Think about real world experiences and make your list based on what really happens in your life, not what you’d like to have happen.

Place this “Wellbeing North Star” where you will encounter it frequently, and reflect on it daily. When you have the wondrous opportunity to make a decision in your life that could impact your wellbeing in one or more of these areas, just take a moment to reflect on which option will most effectively move you away from what doesn’t work well for you, and and toward what does.

Simple? Yup! Easy? Nope! The discipline to DO it regularly is the hurdle that 95% of people will never overcome. But today you could make a choice to take this initial step and make your star. And I sincerely hope that you will. While there are many circumstances we have no control over, those where we do have a choice are precious opportunities to nudge our wellbeing meter in a favorable direction. Don’t let those opportunities go to waste!

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  1. Kimberly, this is a great idea! I might even take it further, with a slight revision: I would start with what you described, the ‘as-is” situation, and then add a section about how I would like my life to be, the “to-be” situation. Just like process mapping, where you first start with documenting the “as-is” process, then brainstorm about improving it to create the “to-be” process. Usually these are mapped separately, but in this case it might be more effective to have the ‘as-is” and “to-be” in one map.

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