Filling Your Bucket with Positive and Productive Strategies

Have you ever read what you considered to be a “cheesy” book, but then found yourself thinking about it…a lot?

That’s what happened to me after reading How Full is Your Bucket: Positive Strategies from Work and Life, by self-help author Tom Rath and the late Donald Clifton, former chairman of the Gallup company and “the father of strengths-based psychology.”

Many years ago, a professional friend gave me an extra copy she had, and it sat on my bookshelf until a few weeks ago – when one of the shelves collapsed, sending books everywhere. And, one of the books I picked up to return to the shelf was this self-help book.

A Quick Read

I’m not quite sure why I moved the book to my desk rather than replace it on the bookshelf. Perhaps it was our current political environment that prompted my action. Regardless of your point of view, it seems like everyone is in a bad mood. Some are angry about certain policies. Others are angry at those who oppose certain policies. In short, it’s a pretty dysfunctional and dismal time.

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when I picked up the book, and I read it in one sitting. It’s short with a big font and only 111 pages, including lots of graphics.

If you’re feeling like you can stop reading this review right this minute – it’s okay! I won’t be offended. But if you would like to add a little more positivity to your life, I’ll share the highlights. This IS a book with some redeeming value!

Filling Our Buckets

The book introduces the “Theory of the Dipper and the Bucket.”

In short, the theory goes like this: We all have invisible buckets. We fill our own bucket and the buckets of others when we say or do positive things. Conversely, when we have negative thoughts or criticize, become angry or show disdain, we make automatic withdrawals from our bucket and those who are the recipients.

I do not like “back-channel” conversations where someone criticizes or speaks negatively of others behind their back, and I try to avoid them. The book suggests a way to put a positive spin on some of these conversations. The authors relate a story about the CEO of a company who religiously made a point of visiting different work places to give authentic praise to his employees. His favorite line was “I’ve been hearing a lot of good talk behind your back!” (p. 29) A useful idea. Think how often we do hear good things about others “behind their back” and overlook the opportunity to put some positivity in their buckets.

Positivity Matters

Rath and Clifton fill the book with data about the importance of positivity over negativity. For example, they cite John Gottman’s research that demonstrated successful marriages have 5-to-1 positive to negative interactions. This research surfaced an astonishing fact. A study, conducted in the early 1990s, interviewed 700 couples that had just applied for marriage licenses. Each couple was interviewed for fifteen minutes. Using the 5-to-1 rule, the researchers predicted which marriages would last and which would end in divorce.

Returning to the study ten years later, the researchers found that their predictions had been 94 percent accurate! This telling and powerful data underscores the rationale for positivity.

Five Bucket-Filling Strategies

The authors suggest five strategies to help keep your bucket full along with the buckets of those with whom you relate:

  1. Prevent Bucket Dipping
  2. Shine a Light on What is Right
  3. Make Best Friends
  4. Give Unexpectedly
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule (Do unto others as they would have you do to them)

I suspect practicing these strategies is harder than it seems. For example, we should be careful when praising someone to ensure that our praise is genuine and specific. If we aren’t mindful of the type of praise we’re giving, we might come off as “brown-nosers” or inauthentic. Remember Eddie Haskell from the TV show Leave it to Beaver? (For younger readers, how about middle school suck-up Martin Prince on The Simpsons?)

I think I’d rephrase the third strategy to read: Expand and Deepen Your Friendships. To be clear, Clifton and Rath suggest the following steps:

Listen to your friends with unconditional, positive regard. Support them in their endeavors. Encourage them. Be a mentor, or at least be the person they know they can always go to for a kind word.

But don’t stop the process with family and friends. At work, become the person known for noticing when others do a great job. Learn something new about each person you work with or interact with. Create positive interactions with acquaintances—even strangers (p. 97).

After reflecting on this book, I’m glad I read it. Perhaps it’s not cheesy at all. Authentic kindness goes a long way. And it seems like we’re a bit short on kindness now. So go fill your buckets and those of others. I bet it will make you feel better and maybe even give you a more positive outlook about the present and future!


The book comes with reproducibles for educators to use, including ideas to incorporate each of the five strategies.

Pinterest has a teacher’s page devoted to bucket filling materials that you can use with students:

There is also a children’s version of the book, augmented with professional learning resources. Here’s a nice video read of the book at YouTube: