When it comes to maintaining balance in life, two words spring to my mind: happiness and choices. For me, happiness is a synonym of balance and it comes as a consequence of the choices we make.

Some of you may have seen the TED Talk “What makes a good life?” by Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It presents the findings of what was perhaps the longest research study ever conducted, which largely aimed to find out what makes people happy. For 75 years, the researchers tracked the lives of 724 men, and met with them regularly to talk about their lives, work, family, community, problems, successes, etc. Once 75 years of data had been collected, the results were ready to be presented and the overriding conclusion was that happiness is built through good relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest and happiest at age 80. It was clearly apparent that loneliness is toxic and harmful to humans, with people who didn’t take care of their relationships experiencing lower levels of happiness. Interestingly, lonely people tended to suffer even more from physical pain than non-lonely people, seemingly because it was magnified by their emotional pain.

The results are hardly surprising, are they? We’ve known for a long time that neither money, fame nor power equals happiness. However, if happiness is that simple, why is it also such a rare feeling? It’s because building relationship is difficult. It takes time. It demands making constant and not always easy choices. And nowadays, in a world with an abundance of everything, making good choices can be a tremendous challenge.

There are two books that have inspired me to write this article on choices. The first is a Polish text,  Choose well enough by Agnieszka Jucewicz and the second is an American bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k by Mark Manson. Both books are available for Polish-speaking readers but I’m afraid that the first one was not published in English.

Here I will share with you my key takeaways from these books and some of my own insights into the meaning of happiness and choice in life.

Balance is established when we feel confident in four distinct dimensions of life

  1. A sense of purpose – maybe what I am doing now is tedious and exhausting, but in the future it will pay off, e.g. raising children, difficult studies, entry level jobs.
  2. The sense of self-agency – I’m quite satisfied with the results of my efforts, work, relationships, etc.
  3. A sense of value–what I am engaged in is consistent with my values or at least is not against them.
  4. A sense of self-esteem – what I do allows me to think about myself in a better way than if I did not do it.

Choice is a problem of abundance

Imagine you are going to a party for which you promised to buy some wine. You enter a small shop, where the seller offers you 5 wines to choose from, all of medium quality. You choose one and, when you open it at the party, it turns out not to be very good. Who is guilty? Well, the shop, because there was not enough choice, of course! However, what if you had gone to the supermarket, where there were 500 types of wine on offer, but you still picked a bad one. Who is guilty in this instance? You, obviously. You had plenty of choice and still made the wrong one. In the modern age, we make so many choices every day and it’s hard not to feel constantly guilty for sometimes making the “wrong” ones, but we must understand that this is a result of the problem of choice abundance. By keeping our choices straightforward and simple, and by going easy on ourselves when we occasionally make mistakes, we can let go of a lot of guilt.

Learn to live well enough

Moderation brings you closer to happiness. Happiness is easier achieved by people for whom enough means good. They have less stress and more motivation for joy, rest, and laughter. At the other extreme, we have extreme perfectionists. They will only be satisfied if they achieve everything and have the best of everything.  But the cost of this is a lot of effort, stress, and sacrifice.

Acceptance of what we have and the choices we have made

Sometimes we are in a situation where change would cost us too much and we are not ready for it. In this instance, we should just accept this decision and focus on the positives. When making choices, it is always worth considering what we would like, as well as the needs and wants of others. Choices tend to be happier if their subjective attractiveness (I like it) coincides with objective attractiveness (it is important for or needed by others).

Tackling helplessness

We often perceive ourselves as helpless because it protects us from fear, frustration, or anger. It is easier to believe that we are helpless in a situation than to accept that we are just scared. For example, you may believe that you simply cannot ask your boss for time off when really, you are more than capable of asking, but are afraid they will react with anger. But time off is not a luxury, it is a basic necessity. The fact is that we are only ever truly helpless in childhood and in the face of certain inexorable situations, such as illness, sudden death, or natural disasters. In all other situations, we can fight helplessness and take control over our own circumstances.

We always have a choice

We cannot always choose what happens to us but we can always choose how we react to it. We are fully responsible for what we do at that moment. Maybe it was my colleague’s fault that he did not complete a task, but now, it is my responsibility to deal with it. I can get angry, I can do it myself, or I can do nothing, but ultimately, it’s my choice.

The Millennial generation is choosing balance

This is actually possible in every job, but it is stifled by rules and management that operate under the assumption that people don’t want to work. The fact is, people do want to work and they will, as long as they feel respected, appreciated, and that their needs are recognised. The Millennial generation seem to understand this better and are demanding working conditions that reflect that. A colleague of mine who works for a large corporation told me recently that it is difficult to find good employees these days. He said that young people are demanding flexible time for their own hobbies and interests, which he deemed as having an entitled attitude. I see it differently. To me, it’s choosing good balance.

By making the right choices in life, we get closer to balance. Good choices are those that are consistent with your values. The difficulty of making good choices is often related to the fact that we are simply not aware of our own values. I encourage you to take part in our Work Life Balance Development Course. It will provide a space for you and each participant to reflect on yourvalues and how to lead a balanced life.

You can also read more about work life balance in our previous articles.