The Work-Life Balancing Act*

256px-Adi_Holzer_Tightrope Walking

Do you “live to work” or do you “work to live?”

Psychologists call for balance between your work and your “life,” but this is like a tightrope walk on a high wire. We struggle to give equal honor to personal industry as well as friends, family, and recreation. We strain to avoid a big fall.

Goldilocks might have said that we are looking for the kind of combination of work and life that is neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right.” Once it is found, even the best of us have to adjust to keep that tenuous balance, to pull back from “too much” or “too little” so that we can get to the point of “just right” for a bit of time, before we again lose our balance and recalibrate.

We serve different masters in the office and outside of it, one to the right and one to the left, both pulling at us for attention. Thus, the first lesson to achieving equilibrium is to realize that it will be a challenge for as long as we are employed, requiring regular monitoring and refinement.

The dangers implicit in work are clear at each extreme. If you stress too much over your job — work too hard at it — you will be burned-out or burned up; unable to sleep well, anxious and depressed.

In some circumstances, of course, you don’t have a choice. But few people on the death-bed have been heard to say, “You know, I should have spent more time in the office.” Still, care too little about your vocation and you risk being unproductive, bored, boring, and adrift; dependent upon others and struggling with unhappiness.

Before you can begin to rejigger your work-life tension, it might be useful to think about what work means to you. It probably has more than one of these meanings:

  1. You work because you need to make a living.
  2. You work because you want to create jobs for others.
  3. You work because you enjoy the act of working itself, not the product of the work.
  4. You work because you relish the learning (how to understand or do new things) that comes from work.
  5. You work because you hanker for competition (with coworkers or other companies).
  6. You work because you want to achieve recognition and/or wealth.
  7. You work because you hope to create something (a better mouse trap, a scientific discovery, a masterpiece of art, etc.).
  8. You work because you wish to attract a mate (who will be drawn to your competence, your ability to make a living, or your status).
  9. You work to improve your self-esteem.
  10. You work to pass the time and avoid sinking into negative (anxious or depressed) feelings when not otherwise occupied.
  11. You work to make the world a better place.
  12. You work to “find yourself,” as suggested by the protagonist, Charles Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what it is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Sisyphus mural_russia_03

Some of these valuations hold risk. If you only work to make a living (which is certainly a necessary goal) you are in greater danger of being bored (or frankly hating what you do) than if you are looking for something that captures more than money. If you labor to create jobs (for your kids or strangers) that responsibility can be a burden and, in the former case, can even rob your offspring of the initiative to make their own way. If you work to better your children’s lives, but neglect them because of your work, you might well defeat the project that motivated you in the first place.

One more peril occurs when you see your job placement as just one step up a never-ending ladder toward higher status or money. This trip to the top is usually called the “rat race” and you are in danger of turning yourself into a rat in order to get ahead, only to discover that paycheck doesn’t buy as much happiness as you expect it to. Or perhaps you do it for “show,” to get others to admire you. But, if you are very concerned with what friends and neighbors think about you, consider these words of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, in his Meditations:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

If you love the work itself you are a lucky duck. If you lose yourself in the process of making the task-oriented effort, unconscious of the passage of time because of your absorbing focus, you may even attain the joyous frame of mind called “flow.” Flow is the word given by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to the state that athletes call “being in the zone.” But, you needn’t be a sports hero to get there. It happens whenever you are fully engaged and single-mindedly immersed in the job at hand, generating both a peak in your performance and a state of positive emotion.


How important is work according to the experts? Freud thought that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” But, while work can drive you crazy, work failures might not be as devastating as you think. Daniel Gilbert and colleagues found just that in an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998.

The authors looked at how happiness might be affected by work disappointment. Specifically, they studied assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin who either succeeded in getting tenure (a promotion that guarantees a permanent position) or failed to get it (which usually means you have to leave for a different college or a different line of work).

Measures of happiness taken over a period of 10 years after the tenure determination indicated that “the outcome of the tenure decision did not have a dramatic and robust influence on (the) general happiness (of the teachers).” The researchers concluded that we commonly ignore our emotional resilience and durability when we think about life’s disappointments, something that they called “immune neglect:” a failure to recognize our own psychological capacity for immunity from long-lasting devastation following events such as the temporary professional disappointment that the unlucky assistant professors experienced.

In my own working life, I honored the desire to make a good living, but also had the good fortune to achieve a “flow” state at least some of the time because of my pleasure and involvement in the therapy process. Nonetheless, the work vied with the importance of “being there” for my wife and kids.

When I erred, it was surely to work too much, even if I never missed a school event or conference. Which meant that I heard way too many performances of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by dozens — no hundreds — no thousands, of little out-of-tune violinists at my children’s school concerts! At least that is the way it felt. But, it was all in a vital cause.

I also tried to hold two ideas in my mind simultaneously:

  1. That the work of being a therapist was good, important, and rewarding. My patients deserved my best efforts.
  2. That, in the big picture, the world would go on without me and that I would not be remembered alongside of Freud and B.F. Skinner. In other words, I was replaceable, regardless of how well I did my work and how much I might have helped some people. That attitude saved me from reaching for something too grand and self-important — from driving myself even harder than I did. It also allowed me to feel a sense of accomplishment for what I could do for others, rather than what I couldn’t do in the realm of greatness.

I’ll grant you that holding these two ideas simultaneously is difficult. Whatever your line of work, you have to give it some significance to do it justice. You only get out of it what you put into it, as the old saying goes. But, if you make it a matter of life and death — well — you are probably going to die a lot; meaning you will not live very well or happily.

My advice would be to look for work that is satisfying in the act of doing it; that is, a process that just might get you to the “flow” state. Work should also fulfill the basic need to make a living and, ideally, command at least a little respect in the world. To my mind, subsistence is most important, keeping yourself interested is pretty important, status and wealth are less important. As for glory and immortality? Forget about them in favor of some balance, if your boss will allow it.

Unfortunately, having a good work-life balance is — well — a lot of hard work!

*This essay is not meant to dismiss the very real and desperately important work of child rearing, but rather to look at conventional employment for which you are paid as compared to the part of life that doesn’t reward you with a paycheck.

The first image is called Life is Like Tightrope Walking by Adi Holzer, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second picture is a recent mural done by AEC and waone, which graces the side of a building in Ekatreinburg, Russia. It is called Sisyphus. Finally, We Can Do It is a wartime poster done in 1942 for the Westinghouse Corporation by J. Howard Miller.