Work life balance

‘Work life balance: slow down’  – published in Accountancy Age 31 Aug 2006

Punishing schedules and heavy workloads often mean we feel our lives and careers are beyond our control. We have it all, but we’re unhappy. Diana Pringle urges us to take time out and wrestle with our ‘existential’ angst.

Well-being is topical. Politicians are talking of quality of life policies nowadays and even the BBC has jumped on the bandwagon with its series the ‘The Monastery’.

This has struck a chord in our society where many people worry that they have it all but are not happy. But is happiness the goal, do we want to be happy all the time? What about when we fall out with a close friend, get sacked or someone we love dies? Happiness is meaningless in a life that knows no other emotion. Maybe well-being is topical because we have never been so well off yet so far removed from understanding what it is to live well.

Some people try to be happy by avoiding unpleasant feelings. But we must allow ourselves to experience events subjectively and honestly otherwise we become detached from our own reality and end up with a bland and meaningless life. I frequently encounter clients who have developed a habit of not noticing the things that matter to them and now no longer know what does matter, if anything. They have become alienated from themselves and their own wishes. They have lost touch with how to live well.

Our subjective thoughts and feelings tell us something vital about the way we are living. They reliably reflect the assumptions and beliefs we allow to shape our lives. Instead of rationalising and blocking out our uncomfortable moods and emotions we should value them as a vital compass for living. This is not to deny the worth of our intellectual capabilities but to insist on the equal importance of feelings. Despair and futility can be a necessary first step in the quest for well-being.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. He challenged people’s ideas and beliefs and asked them to reconsider their values and priorities. To live well we must examine ourselves and be willing to see how we create our own difficulties through the attitudes we hold. When we see this we also see where we have freedom to make changes and where there are limits we must accept. Not to recognise our own hand in how things are is to buy in to the demoralising feeling pervasive in our culture that we are powerless victims of genes and external forces.

Like all important and valuable things, the journey takes time and is a ‘slow lane’ activity. It requires us to step out of our busy lives and reflect deeply, considering questions rather than pursuing answers, facing the difficult and unbearable things and in the process rediscovering our purpose and what really matters, so we can live more deliberately in future.

Paradoxically, although the notion of the individual is paramount in the West, the sense of own self is often what is missing, resulting in a person without a secure point of view who feels ’empty’ or ‘dead’ inside, disappointed with life and ‘scared of dying without having lived’. The first and most significant step towards well-being is deciding to take your existence seriously and believing what you do counts, this enables you to take possession of your life.

Well-being starts with self-examination but does not end there. Living well implies an engagement with others and a belief that there is more to life than serving oneself, we must become involved and concerned in the world. We must also reach beyond the everyday into the spiritual dimension of existence. This is where we can find inspiration, wisdom and meaning through experiencing our belonging and relationship to the totality of what is.

Well-being means accepting that life includes loss, sadness, disappointments, sickness and ultimately death because they are all part of the deal. It entails noticing the wonder of our existence and revelling in it, rather than focusing on its drawbacks. It requires us to engage authentically with existence, let things matter to us, take risks, make the most of our possibilities and live a full, vibrant life. This definition of well-being is much more than happiness, I think of it as a secular term for grace.

Existential philosophy evolved from the work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, whose common concern was to explore existence and what it means to live well and responsibly. Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to suggest ‘anxiety is not the enemy of well being, but an inevitable, and appropriate, accompaniment of living’. Nietzsche recommended engaging joyfully with destiny rather than aiming for mere happiness. Heidegger said we must live authentically in the face of death. Sartre emphasised that we are free and must use this.

Existential freedom is not about pleasing oneself but the anxiety provoking realisation that we are responsible for our lives and the world we construct. It entails accepting the freedom of others, our responsibility to them and the world we co-create. So it matters what we do and how we do it.

We often pretend we are not free where we are, as when we say: ‘I couldn’t help myself I was in love ‘or’ I had to do it otherwise I might lose my job’. Sometimes we do the opposite and pretend we are free where we are not. To be challenged on these attitudes is tough but a life of such pretence inevitably becomes a frustrated and diminished one.

Our lives are inevitably circumscribed by personal limits (this place and time, these parents, this body) and universal limits (we exist in time and space, we occupy this bit and see thus far and eventually we die).

This can be hard to accept without feeling life is absurd and pointless. Yet for well-being we must engage realistically with the freedom we do have and strive to reach our potential in the face of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimate extinction. This requires courage, a leap of faith and a letting go of old habits.

Diana Pringle is an existential coach and psychotherapist