Striving for balance is often cited as the key to happiness and health. But, what if that concept is crooked and we should be pursuing less balance, not more?
Consider the moments in life you have felt happiest and the most alive? It might be the giddiness of realising you are in love, celebrating an achievement, holding your child for the first time, winning (or just completing) a race, being with your best mate, eating your first grilled cheese sandwich, travelling, surfing, drawing, writing, singing or losing yourself completely in nature. The common thread tends to be the absolute lack of balance we have in these moments.
Rather we are completely off-balance, immersed in the experience. Our brains flood with juicy, happy hormones, our senses become heightened and, in turn, our savouring of the sensory experience heightens our happiness.
“I don’t believe that balance – which essentially asks us to never go all-in on anything – is the right solution,” writes performance coach, Brad Stulberg in a new column for The New York Times.
Reflecting on the most ecstatic moments of his life (namely falling in love, writing a book, trekking in the Himalayas. training to set a personal record in a triathlon) he says: “During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced – devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life – would have detracted from the formative experiences.”
Psychologist and director of the Happiness Institute, Dr Tim Sharp says the pursuit of balance is overrated.
“I’ve always argued AGAINST the idea of balance,” Sharp says. “One, because it’s unrealistic and unattainable; two, because as noted it’s not necessarily consistent with living a great life.
“Living a great life, in fact living our best lives often means dedicating ourselves to certain areas at the expense of others. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing (we can’t do or be great at everything).”
In his 2004 TED talk which has been watched nearly 4 million times, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores what complete immersion, or “flow” as he calls it, means.
“He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired,” Csikszentmihalyi says describing the experience detailed by a famed American composer. “His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.”
Of course, there is the risk, in the pursuit of ecstasy, that we become so absorbed we neglect other meaningful parts of our lives.
For Stulberg, instead of striving to balance the different aspects, he strives to cultivate self-awareness.
“Practising internal self-awareness allows you to honestly evaluate and re-evaluate the trade-offs inherent to living an unbalanced, flow-filled life,” he says. “It ensures that you are making conscious decisions about how you spend your time and energy, and thus decreases the chances that you’ll have regrets about what you did – and didn’t – do.
“It helps you realise when your identity may be getting too interwoven with a specific activity and that in some instances – writing a book, the first few months with a newborn baby, or trying to make an Olympic team, for example – your lack of balance may be excessive, but it can be OK because it’s temporary.”
It becomes a dance, instead of rigid apportioning of equality in all aspects of our lives.
Sharp says we can avoid the negative attributes of imbalance by checking in with ourselves and our values regularly, as our values and needs change and shift in priority over our lives. In this way, while we may not give proportionate attention, we still attend to “certain aspects” of our lives that are meaningful.
“For example, I’ve often said it’s fine to work long hours or spend significant amounts of time pursuing hobbies … as long as our health is not suffering and/or our key relationships are not being neglected.
“It’s also important to take into consideration not just short-term performance, but functioning and health and wellbeing over the longer term.”
There might not be balance, but there is far more potential for ecstasy, mastery and immersion in our own lives.