Finding Happiness at Work – Moving Beyond The Work-Life Balance Debate

During the past two decades the phrase work-life balance has been debated ad nauseam – is it achievable, how important is it, and even if it is the right phrase? We see questions about work-life balance on company pulse surveys, as part of company review sites where employees comment about the organization’s work-life balance, and academics have looked at the topic from a myriad of ways, yet most still find the conversations around this topic to be frustrating. Here is why.

We do not live two lives. There is one life that is made up of work, family, home, vacations, friends, and beyond. Trying to divide your time 50% between work and 50% between your personal life is unattainable for any length of time. Life ebbs and flows and there will be times when your family requires more of you and then there will be other times when you are traveling for work, preparing for a big launch, or closing a major deal that puts work more in the forefront. So trying to balance what can sometimes be competing forces equally makes it feel like you are failing at both.

It feels like we have the debate all wrong. Recently I read Off Balance and the following commentary from Matthew Kelly summed up the elusive nature of work-life balance.  

“The problem is all this is getting what we want is certainly not work/life balance. And getting what we want almost never leads to personal and professional satisfaction. The reason is that very few people have the requisite self-knowledge to want the right things. As we grow and gain this self-knowledge, we begin to want what we need. Because we discover that the fulfillment of our legitimate needs is more likely to lead to lasting happiness in a changing world than the reckless pursuit of whimsical desires.” 

Focus on Satisfaction 

I would recommend that notion that we stop talking about work and personal life as two opposing forces that require ideal balance and instead look at life as a continuum. The work-life balance debate feels to me that it pits work against personal life. If you are succeeding at one, you are failing at the other. I don’t believe this is true and does not need to be the case. Both personal and professional satisfaction can be achieved in one life. Drawing hard lines around either makes it feels like these are opposing forces.

While we were in school, it was critical to explore different subjects to see what you gravitated to most. Once you found a subject that engaged you, that was likely what you decided to major in it. You had a plan and an opportunity to take more classes for your major, do internships, and surround yourself with other like-minded students. I found it very satisfying to learn more about the topics that interested me the most as opposed to fulfilling requirements that seemed to have little relevance in my life. We need to apply this same approach to work and life, where pursuing our interests ultimately leads to fulfillment. This fulfillment will bring happiness as opposed to finding a perfect balance.  

How To Find Satisfaction and Happiness in Work and Life

More and more research has found that “higher life satisfaction is associated with several desirable companies’ results, such as higher career satisfaction, organizational commitment, and especially, job satisfaction” according to Diener and Tay’s research. Let’s look at three ways to increase career and job satisfaction to elevate life satisfaction. 

1. Create Meaningful Work

Doing the work to clearly define what is important to you in your life is the best starting point. The process of discovery can often take time. Sit with yourself and be very honest about what is where you find joy and a pursuit that you could imagine growing with throughout the years. You also need to acknowledge your dissatisfaction and probe into the why. Then writing up a clear action plan that incorporates both your work and personal life is step two. In order to create the most satisfying life, you need to first build your plan and then refine that plan over the years as life changes. 

2. Surrounding Yourself with Good People

Feeling as if you belong is a big determinant of life and work satisfaction. That belonging, especially at work, is often tied to finding friends at work. NPR recently reported on happiness in life and work, based on a long-running study on what makes humans happy. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School found that “The people who had the warmest connections with other people weren’t just happier, they stayed healthier longer, and they lived longer. We get little hits of well-being, if you will, from all kinds of relationships, from friends, family, work colleagues.” Find those people you can learn from, will challenge you, can trust, and will be friends with throughout the years. It is obvious at the surface that friendships matter in life and science has affirmed these findings in the office environment.  

3. Taking Breaks to Refresh

Burnout is hugely detrimental for individuals or employees. In a recent Forbes article, The Society of Human Resource Management revealed how important vacations are for both individuals and for organizations. Employees who take vacations have fewer sick days, less turnover, and lower healthcare costs. Taking time away from work reduces stress and can cut your risk for heart attack, improve productivity, and help with better sleep. Vacations cannot be viewed as a weakness. You need to approach them as a time to step away and refresh by letting your mind and body have a break. If you are constantly pushing beyond your limit, you will not be productive or effective. Finding the time to explore personal passions outside the office can create immense satisfaction and can benefit you once you are back in the office. Taking the time you need to rest and recharge will oftentimes result in new ideas and perspectives when you are back in the office.

From my observations, people want deeply satisfying lives, both personally and professionally.

Achieving happiness in life and in your career is possible and can be a simple approach, but requires focus and a commitment to defining and pursuing happiness in all aspects of your life. When you are able to create a satisfying workplace and a personal life, you can find fulfillment at the office and at home. Focusing on how you find satisfaction in each aspect of your life is critical. Being honest about pursuing work and a life that is meaningful to you and makes you fulfilled is a more important discussion when a 50-50 debate, where the balance both feels like an almost impossible task on any given day, week, month, or year. 

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