Reaching high levels of professional and financial success at any cost has been the modern-day Mecca to multitudes of business men and women for several decades.
Unfortunately, the attainment of such an all-consuming goal has not produced the peace and happiness that was expected. There was a dark side to success.
Fairly recently, the question of balance and its impact on mental health and happiness has taken center stage in many circles of psychological research. Dozens of studies have been conducted and published on the subject as companies and individuals alike have noticed that their chaotic lifestyle has not produced the happiness they hoped to achieve. The cost has greatly outweighed the benefits.
The majority of these studies agree on one thing – there is potential for incredible benefits from living a balanced life filled with interesting and varied experiences rather than living with an all-consuming focus on career.
The studies also included some important findings about the effects of stress. Stress is not always detrimental to health and happiness. In fact, a bit of stress here and there is actually healthy, for both plants and animals – it stimulates growth and development. It depends on the source of the stress, how relentles it is, and how it is managed.
The danger comes when relentless stress pounds the mind and body and the individuals accept it as the norm. They cope with it the best they can; but allow no time for recovery from the depletion of resources.
Professional burnout from chronic stress debilitates the individual to the point that s/he can no longer function effectively on a personal or professional level.
Psychology Today tells us that
“Burnout is one of those road hazards in life that high-achievers really should be keeping a close eye out for, but sadly – often because of their “I can do everything” personalities, they rarely see it coming.”
The individual may suffer with any or all of the following:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Sleep deprivation
- Chronic fatigue
- Cynicism, anger, detachment
- Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
- Bouts of anxiety and depression
- Physical illness
Professional burnout does not happen overnight. It comes on slowly, overtime, making it difficult to recognize. There are warnings signs, but there are rarely recognized until it is too late.
The human body thrives on moderation. In spite of that being a fairly well-known fact, there are huge numbers of people who gravitate toward extreme lifestyles. They tend to be adrenalin junkies with a need for more and greater challenges.
It may be a psychological compulsion to escape the sea of sameness that drives them to seek everything in unhealthy proportions. But, whatever the cause, there is an endless list of good reasons to avoid the rat race and live a life of moderation on all fronts.
The Pressure Starts Early
A close look at America’s higher education system is good case study for what is happening. As knowledge increases, and job requirements become more demanding, the amount of curriculum required to graduate from college goes up, while the time allotted for completion of tasks goes down.
This places students under incredible amounts of stress. If you are a recent graduate or have a child in college you are probably aware that symptoms of chronic stress are everywhere – poor eating habits, lack of sleep, chronic anxiety and depression, poor quality of work, and a decreasing appreciation for study.
As a nation, America, has created such high expectations and placed such high stakes on a single four-year period of life that the pressure is almost unbearable. Even the students with the highest scholastic standings begin to dread the moment they have to open a text book.
High schools are not much better. Even the elementary schools are intense. Kindergarteners and First Graders have homework! Is it any wonder than many children hate school?
The problem is simple. When you put too much emphasis on a single focus, and create too much pressure around it, eventually even pleasurable activities become drudgery. The joy of the activity itself is smothered by the stress connected to it.
A good illustration of this is that many artists decide to keep their art as a hobby or recreation, rather than pursuing it as a profession. They realize that if their livelihood depended on their art, the pressure would dampen the fun, and joy of creating would lose its magic.
In America the one aspect of life where this principle is most blatantly violated is work/life balance. American professionals push themselves beyond reason their entire lives with the goal of retiring early and enjoying life more. Unfortunately, they often get the early retirement in the form of an unexpected permanent vacation because they literally work themselves to death.
Today, even a “typical work week” is extreme – more often than not it is 60 to 90 hours rather than 40.
A Series of Unhealthy Extremes
In order to cope with the unrelenting pressures, people turn to energy drinks, alcohol, ice cream, cheesecake, and other comfort foods and activities to dim or wipe out the memories of everything that happened during the past week – or that they have to face in the coming week.
Life becomes a series of unhealthy extremes – each one throwing everything else more and more out of balance.
The Solution is Simple
Simple – yes! But, not necessarily easy to incorporate when you have been on the fast track for years. It is called BALANCE!
Limit the number of hours you work each week – cut it down to at least 50, but 40 would be better. Disconnect from your electronic leash at the end of the day and on the weekend.
After a busy day at work, make it a practice to enjoy a nice dinner with family or friends. Plan time in your schedule in the evenings or on the weekend to do something you really enjoy – painting, hiking, swimming, basketball, reading, going to the movies – anything that is FUN and takes your mind from the pressures and responsibilities of work.
When you take the time for self-care on the weekend, going back to work on Monday morning will be much easier. You will have decompressed and regenerated enough that you will be able to handle work stress and the occasional crisis with grace and dignity – and let it go when it is over.
Daily and weekly rest and relaxation stabilizes you emotionally and psychologically. It is a much wiser strategy than working nights and weekends 95% of the year so that you can take one extended annual vacation.
Developing a nice balance of work, rest, and fun throughout the week increases overall satisfaction with life.
Balance and Moderation in all Things
The human body and mind were not meant to handle excess.
Balance and moderation can be applied universally in life, whether it is eating, sleeping, exercise, entertainment, socializing, study, or work. For example, the body does not do well when you starve it for three days and then binge eat for three hours.
The secret of good health and peace of mind is striving to find balance in every facet of your life.
Be sure there is time in your schedule to purchase fresh, healthy foods, to prepare tasty meals and allow plenty of time to enjoy them. Eat regular nutritious meals every day to provide the necessary fuel for your miraculous body to function at the highest level.
Regular exercise in moderation is also a key factor to mental and physical health, as is regular social interaction, regular eustress (a good form of stress that can actually increase our performance at a task and your general happiness and sense of well-being), regular sleep habits for adequate rest, and regular relaxation.
The word “regular” comes from the root “to regulate” which means to keep things in their proper proportions. But, even regulation can become extreme. If you obsess over counting calories, timing your exercise to the second, and stress when you only get seven hours and twenty minutes of sleep, you need to loosen up a bit.
It is not uncommon for people to go from an extremely chaotic lifestyle to an extremely regimented one. Flexibility is critical to a balanced life. Being able to go with the flow is important.
There will be days – even an occasional week when things get out of balance. That is to be expected. It is perfectly OK, as long as you do not allow it to become the “norm” again and slip back into a permanent pattern of imbalance.
Other Possible Dangers
When making the shift from a chaotic, extremely hectic life to a more normal pace, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. One in particular is going to the opposite extreme and taking the stance that life is to be “lived fully.” That you should stop taking life so seriously and do whatever makes you happy – whenever you choose to do it – no matter what anyone else thinks.
This approach also carries with it the potential of great dissatisfaction. Meaning and direction in life, both personally and professionally, are powerful factors that contribute to health, happiness, and fulfillment.
If you remove the meaning from your work, then you remove the reason to work at all. It is the same with life. In fact, many of the happiest people claim that their source of joy comes from finding a deeper meaning to the everyday aspects of living.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that extremes of any kind are dangerous.
Recognize your physical and emotional instincts and live a lifestyle that accommodates them, but does not make you a slave to them.
Moderation and balance are the keys to a peaceful, joyful life.