What is life balance and does it really matter?

What is life balance?

The answer to that question is in your hands. You define balance for yourself. That means you have an opportunity, but also a responsibility, when it comes to life balance. You can't look to your boss, friends, gurus, or celebrities to define it for you.

That said, a better understanding of the concept can help support you in the definition process.

A recent study indicates there are over 230 different conceptualizations of balance in the academic research — work-life balance, work-family balance, work-family conflict, work/non-work balance and so on.

Lucky for us, this same research also indicates there are common themes across these conceptualizations. It’s these themes that can be helpful as you aim to better understand and define balance for yourself.

Four factors

You derive a sense of balance based on a few factors related to different domains in your life (e.g., work, relationships, community involvement, personal development, health and well-being, etc.)

These factors are:

  • Involvement: How much time and energy are you investing in various life roles?

  • Competence: How effective are you in different life domains? What are you achieving?

  • Feelings: On the whole, what are your experiences in different domains? Positive or negative?

The term involvement suggests balance is not merely about how much time you invest in various areas of your life, but also if you are fully present during that time. It's wholly possible to work out a way to be physically present, but to be so exhausted that mental and emotional presence are out of reach.

Competence indicates that it's not enough to put time and energy into something — you want to feel as though you are effective at it as well.

Feeling demonstrates that it also matters if your experiences in different domains are positive or negative. If you invest a great deal of yourself in a particular area of your life, achieve a lot in it, but don’t much enjoy the experience, the related negative feelings may have an impact on your sense of balance.

But, involvement, competence, and feelings are not the full story. There's one more element that is key. That is how your "investments" of time, competence, and feeling align with your priorities and values.

As such, balance isn’t about equality across life domains. Generally, you are not looking for the same returns in all areas of life. Instead, balance usually involves making more substantial investments, and having more positive experiences, in the areas that are most important to you.


For that reason, if you feel your career is the most important thing to you, it might make sense that you invest a lot in your work, and feel a bit out-of-balance if you are asked to make trade-offs that diminish your investments in your work. However, others may feel community and family are most important, and work is a lesser priority. Thus, long hours at the office that keep them from volunteering and spending time with family may leave them feeling off-kilter.

Thus, a pre-requisite for balance is clarity about your priorities and values. (If that area is fuzzy for you, check out the second post in this series.)

Given that priorities can change based on your life circumstances or stage of career, among other things, you should expect that balance is something you must tend to continuously throughout your life.

Sound like a lot of effort?

Why should you bother with crafting balance?

While auto-pilot may be tempting, studies indicate that intentionally crafting balance in your life is worth the effort. A greater sense of balance is related to a variety of work outcomes — such as job satisfaction, performance, and career development. However, there are even more substantial links with "life outcomes" such as life satisfaction, and physical and emotional well-being. For instance, some researchers have found significant links between a greater sense of life balance, and reduced stress, anxiety, and irritability.

This evidence suggests that balance is a key ingredient in a satisfied life. Given that, it seems wise to view it more as a basic need, than a luxury good. “Perfect balance” may be an ideal that is out-of-reach, however, small steps that positively impact our well-being are within everyone’s grasp.

To learn more about how to start crafting a greater sense of balance in your life, check out the next article in this series.

References

Casper, W. J., Vaziri, H., Wayne, J. H., DeHauw, S., & Greenhaus, J. (2018). The jingle-jangle of work–nonwork balance: A comprehensive and meta-analytic review of its meaning and measurement. Journal of Applied Psychology103(2), 182.

Haar, J. M., Russo, M., Suñe, A., & Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2014). Outcomes of work–life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(3), 361-373.

Sirgy, M. J., & Lee, D. J. (2018). Work-life balance: An integrative review. Applied Research in Quality of Life13(1), 229-254.