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A Good Boss or a Good Doc: Which Matters More?

06/27/2013 12:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2013

"Do you enjoy going to work every day?" might be one of the most pertinent, yet most overlooked, well-being questions ever asked. Turns out, whoever said that work isn't work unless it is tedious, tiring or just plain painful had it all wrong.

After studying well-being in more than 150 countries and interviewing people of all ages for roughly 60 years, here's Gallup's insight: "Career well-being might be one of the most important priorities to consider for maintaining good health over the years," say Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Well-Being: The Five Essential Elements.

And it makes sense. At work, lower well-being usually means higher stress and anxiety. This higher stress and anxiety translates into higher cortisol levels in the body. Higher cortisol can lead to insomnia, increased appetite, weight gain, a weakened immune function, an impaired cardio-vascular system and an accelerated brain cell loss. As if this wasn't enough, Rath and Harter also found that as engagement at work lowers, cholesterol and triglycerides tend to rise.

On the up side -- and thank goodness for it -- Rath and Harter's research also shows that improving career well-being and engagement at work have all the opposite effects. They further report that people who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths at work are three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.

This research ties very well into my own, which shows that our sleep, food, mood and exercise habits are mutually reinforcing thanks to the biochemical activity that each generates in the body. In other words, the better we do in any of these four categories, the easier it is to stay on track with the other three. Improving our health habits is therefore better done by looking at the whole and leveraging the interactions. Working on a single habit in isolation is about as effective as buying a cell phone without the accompanying charger. Eventually, you run out of juice and it's game over. (For more details on this concept, see my article "Why Happier People Are Healthier.")

Anyone who has lived both sides of the coin -- being crushed by a terrible boss as well as thriving in a supportive work environment -- can attest that career well-being boosts our mood something fierce. With a boosted mood comes a snowball effect of health-promoting bio-reactions, which in turn benefits our sleep, food and exercise habits.

Happiness researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener took a different road than mine. Rather than study biochemical activity and its repercussions, they looked at people's behaviors directly. And they confirmed that happier people tend to have better health habits, generally speaking.

For the linguists and other sharp-witted readers, let me bring a precision: Rath and Harter define career well-being as being satisfied with what you do everyday -- whether you are a C-suite executive, a volunteer or a homemaker. I have yet to meet someone who despises what she does all day and stands out as Little Miss Sunshine at the same time. It just doesn't happen very much.

So, career well-being has considerable repercussions on our mood and overall health habits. For the employed, the biggest determinant of career well-being is their immediate superior. Like it or not, your boss is either helping or hindering your health big time. Working with a good boss could be even more important than choosing the ideal doctor -- no disrespect to anyone who has had the courage, talent and dedication to survive through med school.

If you need help dealing with a toxic boss, check out the soon-to-be released Profit from the Positive by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin. They offer tools for positive contagion. And if that doesn't work, well, consider that even in these lack-luster economic times, a new boss to work with is much easier to find than a new body to live in...

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.