February 2017

Happiness and the Elusive Work-Life Balance

Author: Kent Thune

The idea and application of work-life balance is among the most prevalent trends in the overlapping realms of career, health, fitness, and psychology. And now that we’ve entered a New Year, this self-improvement idea is even more relevant and present. Unfortunately, too many people think that balancing work and life means spending less time doing things we don’t enjoy and more time doing things that make us happy. So, before you begin implementing your plan to improve your own work-life balance, you’ll want to consider the following.

While the premise of balancing the bad with the good has a yin-yang appeal, it’s not necessary when it comes to happiness. There is certainly virtue and reward in the work hard, play hard philosophy ingrained in Western culture: Work hard all day and enjoy a few hours of rest in the evening. Work hard all week and have fun and relax on the weekend. Work hard all year and earn a one-week vacation. Work hard for two-thirds of your life and spend the other third in a blissful retirement.

Somewhere in the history of the work-life balance philosophy, we distorted its meaning and purpose. In a 1968 Life magazine issue, journalist Paul Krassner noted that the work-leisure idea may have arisen in the early 1800s and was defined as having as little separation as possible “between your work and play.”
Later in the 1800s, Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noticed a backward-thinking trend when he said, “It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.”

Kierkegaard’s perspective evidently helped shape a healthy perspective of a minority of human beings in his native Denmark, as the country was identified as the happiest on earth. In a 2008 60 Minutes segment, the late Morley Safer reported that the “world’s happiest country” was determined by a scientific survey conducted by Leicester University in England. Curious about what exactly made the Danish people the happiest on our planet, Safer conducted his own research by interviewing some Danish people about their ideas of happiness. He asked one Dane to describe the qualities that a successful person would have in his country. The Dane replied, “Well, to see myself as a success, I would want to be happy and have a lot of time with my family. I think that’s very important to me. And the money is not that important.”

Another Dane responded that happiness “is more about the softer values, such as not being stressed, and feeling passionate about what I’m doing. Maybe this job is not gonna pay me a lot of money. But I’m gonna love getting up and doing it every day.”

For more reference on happiness and work-life balance, an article in BusinessWeek, “How Adults Achieve Happiness,” makes some simple points and provides useful advice derived from observations found in a survey conducted to determine if and how happiness at work and at home is correlated. Results of the survey showed that the number of hours worked had no significant correlation with happiness or meaning experienced at work or at home. If you love what you do, work doesn’t feel like work. It’s more like play.

This same philosophy resounds throughout Abraham Maslow’s findings in his studies of people he identified as healthy and happy. These people were self-actualized; they were happy because they could be themselves and they didn’t require much stimulation from external sources to be happy.

Since work and home are very different environments, our experience of happiness and meaning in life appears to have more to do with who we are than where we are. Being happy is highly dependent on being and acting as our authentic selves. When you can’t be authentic, you’ll find it difficult—if not impossible—to be happy.

The source of happiness at work is no different than that of happiness at home or anywhere we happen to be at any given point in time: The degree to which you can be yourself correlates directly with your degree of happiness. Of course, there is valid argument that a positive attitude and a good sense of humor can make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak, but it takes energy to convince yourself and others over prolonged periods of time that things are much better than they are. This is called “faking it,” and this behavior drains energy away from your authentic self—the source of your happiness. Yes, acting happy can eventually make you unhappy.

The Dalai Lama teaches that our purpose on earth is to be happy. Where we begin to lose ourselves is thinking that happiness comes from having things. But having is in opposition to being. In translation, we tell ourselves that by working harder we’ll earn more money to buy more things. But working harder erodes our happiness. We then defer our happiness until some point in the future as a sacrifice to justify working harder now and being less happy now.

If you want to be happy, if you want to achieve a true work-life balance, you’ll stop seeing work and life as competing forces. When you can’t be yourself in your job or career, it’s not healthy to “balance” it with fleeting moments of pleasure. That’s not living; that’s surviving. Understand the difference, make the necessary adjustment, and you’ll be happy.

Now get busy living! 

Kent Thune owns an investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments, and is a freelance writer. He also teaches entrepreneurship and finance at Hilton Head Island High School. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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