“Flight of a Thousand Birds” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Should life be this balanced?

I was intrigued when I ran across an article on the New York Times website titled The Unbalanced Life. It’s widely accepted that we should strive for balance between the various areas of our lives, but Brad Stulberg, the author of the article, tells us that he has been happiest and most alive when his life has been unbalanced:

“Falling in Love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. 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.”

Though he advocates sacrificing balance to pursue a passion, Stulberg acknowledges that there is a cost to this approach to life. Not only do we miss out on other facets of life, the intensity of our passion may prevent us from being aware of what we are lacking:

“When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without every really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.'”

When it comes time to stop performing the activity–when the event you trained for is over, the money runs out, or the book/play/painting is finished; when you can’t compete successfully anymore, or you’re injured or muddleheaded or exhausted–you’re not only likely to miss what you had been doing but also to realize everything else you have neglected. You also might discover that your sense of self became so completely entangled with your passion that you don’t know who you are anymore. As Stulberg notes, “It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.”

Despite these problems, Stulberg doesn’t think striving for balance is the answer. Instead he advocates for internal self-awareness, or “the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.” Then, presumably, you’ll not let the thing you’re passionate about control your life. You’ll be deeply involved in something that excites or entrances you, but still will keep up with work, family responsibilities, or the like.

Self-awareness is certainly a good thing; it might help prevent the sort of disaster fueled by passion that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the account of an Everest expedition that went disastrously awry. Still, I’m not sure that self-awareness is enough. I’ve known at least a few people who, while pursuing some passion, clearly knew that they were missing out on important things or were negatively impacting themselves or others. At the time, they just didn’t care. They loved what they were doing so much that the consequences didn’t matter.

Stulberg is a proponent of the “Do what you love” approach to life. Many who follow this  path don’t think that it matters what you love, as long as it stirs your passions or emotions sufficiently. Unfortunately, some of us are stirred by things that are really harmful to ourselves or others–substance abuse, gambling, rape, torture, child molestation, and on and on. Other loves do harm in more subtle ways–television, shopping, and overeating come to mind. Some people who do these things lack self-awareness regarding the harm they’re doing, but many are aware.

St. Augustine wrote about the loves that guide our lives. We go astray, he thinks, if we love the wrong things, fail to love the right things, or excessively love things that are only worthy of limited love. In his view, we are fully happy only if we love God first, then order the rest of our loves in accordance with their  ultimate importance. (David Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness is an excellent guide to Augustine’s approach.) It’s great to devote ourselves to things that we are passionate about. Writing and running have long been two such things in my life, and they both give me joy. But some passions can harm us and others, and we need more than self-awareness to keep that from happening. We also need to know what things are worth loving, both as to our highest devotion and as to lesser allegiances. That sort of analysis can present us with a dilemma if our passions don’t match what we know is worthy of our devotion. That is an issue for another post, though.

I recently came across a  description of a research study that found a correlation between engaging in meaningful activities and happiness.  The lead researcher was Michael Steger, a psychologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.  He and colleagues had a group of 65 undergraduates complete an online survey that assessed how many times they participated in pleasure-seeking behaviors and how often they participated in meaningful activities, such as helping others, listening to friends’ problems or pursuing life goals.   The survey asked participants how much purpose they felt their lives had each day and whether they felt happy or sad.  Online entries were made every day for a three week period.  

As we might expect, the more the students participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purpose they felt their lives had.  The meaningful activities listed in the article included both doing good deeds for others and activities that fostered the person’s own goals.  It would be interesting to know whether each was equally associated with happiness ratings.  Perhaps the more interesting finding of the study is that pleasure-seeking behaviors were not correlated with happiness.  I guess that’s bad news for hedonism.  I’m sure the Puritans would be glad.