Even though most of us know about the need to have balance in our lives, the journey from knowing it to actually doing it isn’t easy. Looking at our lives with the help of a model we can use and reuse can be a great way to keep stress at bay and help us achieve the work/life balance we need.
The model I’m referring to was drawn from a study about peak periods of happiness in people’s lives, as well as various studies of the effect of stress upon health. Researchers were looking for common elements that explained the phenomena of stress survival or optimal well being. They hoped that such identification could lead to prevention of strain caused by excess stress and a model for improving well being.
Peak Periods of Happiness
In this study, people were asked to describe a three-week or longer “peak period of happiness” in their lives—a time when they felt that life was truly worth living. Ask yourself: When was the happiest period of time in my life? When did I feel that life was the most fun, the most meaningful, the most alive? Where was I? What was I doing? Who was I with? A researcher named Herbert Shepard asked people these questions. As he collected several hundred interviews, he began to notice that there were common elements in the lives of people as they remembered and described these wonderful periods of time.
The Impact of Stress
The other studies are about the impact of stress in a person’s life. After studying people who had experienced a number of stressful events over the course of a 12-month period of time, researchers found that 80 percent of such highly stressed individuals developed a physical illness within the next 12 months. The conclusion was that illnesses such as diabetes, ulcers, cancer, and heart disease quite often follow a very stressful period of time in a person’s life.
The other side of this research is interesting as well. Researchers asked: Why did the other 20 percent of those highly stressed individuals not get sick? What is happening in their lives that is enabling them to remain stress-resistant, or “psychologically hardy”? Interviews with these stress-resistant people revealed that they had some important common ingredients in their lives. Such “stress survivors” survived 12 months of frequent and/or intense stress-inducing life events without becoming seriously ill during, or one year following, the onslaught of high stress.
As luck would have it, not only were the researchers able to identify the elements related to both peak periods of happiness and stress survival, but the two sets of elements were also found to be fundamentally similar to one another. When I studied this research , the similarity of the results of the two investigations confirmed the my feeling that a simple model for life balance and satisfaction would enable many of us to better manage the day-to-day options and demands of a busy life.
The PACT Model
For convenience, I’ll be referring to four elements—Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone—as the PACT model of life balance and satisfaction. The remainder of this article will explain these four key concepts and suggest how to achieve a balance among these elements.
The first element that can create both happiness and stress resistance in your life is perspective. Perspective can be defined as the “big picture” of life. People with good perspective know their purpose and direction in life and value their past experiences while still having a keen sense of the present moment. Perspective is that broad picture of where you’ve been and where you’re going that sets the context for this moment and for today.
An example of perspective for me has always been Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a World War II concentration camp survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. When Frankl was first imprisoned, his captors burned the only copy of a prized manuscript he had written, right in front of him. As a result, his main purpose in life became to live through that horrible experience and rewrite his manuscript. It turned into an obsession. While in this camp, he observed that, in this most degrading of all human situations, some people managed to keep going and survive, but others seemed to lose their will to continue—one day they would refuse to get out of bed in the morning and two weeks later they would be dead. Frankl’s observation was that the people who were able to keep going month after month and year after year were the ones who had a purpose in their lives they could hang on to—a great love they wanted to return to, work they felt compelled to finish, a strong spiritual direction, or even a strong desire to get through each day and help others through the dreadful experience.
For each of us, perspective can translate into goals we want to achieve, values we want our lives to reflect, or a sense of living each day as if it might be our last. It’s helpful to think about perspective at home and perspective at work. Some of us have a very good idea of our work goals—our professional direction in life—but our personal life needs some thinking about. For others it’s just the opposite—we do well at home, but our career goals are uncertain. For many people, the challenge is keeping a balance between work and home that is comfortable and at the same time allows them to obtain goals in both worlds.
Any time there’s a big change in our lives, our perspective is liable to drop. Certainly a person going through a divorce, a person who has just been fired, or someone who has to make a major change in his or her life for any reason may be going through a period of low perspective. Most people, however, ultimately find that this period of low perspective becomes an opportunity for growth in their lives, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or familiar.
Next week: Part 2 – Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone