What is a “balanced life”?


In everyday culture, the word “balance” is thrown around a lot and is often misused. In psychology, it has some very specific implications. 

Let’s start by describing exactly what we mean when we talk about a balanced life, then spend some time on the most common connotation – the interface between work and family. 


So what do we mean by “a balanced life?” 

People don’t just need the fulfillment of their psychological needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they need a BALANCED satisfaction of these needs (Sheldon and Niemiec, 2006).

When it comes to a “balanced” life, the ideal isn’t measured by a certain balancing of time spent across the various life domains. It’s measured by the actual vs. the ideal time spent. In other words, are you spending time where you want to spend time? (Sheldon, Cummins, and Kamble, 2010).

That being said, the theory goes, you require balance because there are effectively satisfaction limits per domain. In other words, you can only derive a limited amount of satisfaction from a single life domain. That’s why you need more than one (Sirgy & Wu, 2009).

The target for life balance is two-fold:

  • Prompt greater participation of satisfied life domains. In other words, in whatever area you’re happy, lean into that.
  • Generally try to increase satisfaction (and decrease dissatisfaction) in each major area of your life.


The bottom-up spillover theory of life satisfaction

This theory is when you measure your life satisfaction by adding up all of your domain-level satisfaction. (Diener, 1984; Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; and Sirgy, 2012),

It’s specifically applied from life domains leisure, family, job, and health.


The Work-Family Interface in Particular

While this section is these two life domains, work and family, much of it could be applied to any two facets of your life. These two in particular share a particularly strong connection. In particular, they have the potential to do a lot of harm to each other.

The hours spent at work detract from the time you can spend at home, and stressful work experiences can spill over and influence the quality of family life. 

Work-family conflict, which refers to the mutual incompatibility of work and family (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985), has been theorized and shown to be bidirectional (Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1992).

  • Work stressors and demands make family life more difficult 
  • Family stressors and demands make work life more difficult

Work interference lowers your family satisfaction and vice versa. (Amstad, Meier, Fasel, Elfering, & Semmer, 2011; Ford, Heinen, & Langkamer, 2007; Shockley & Singla, 2011).

This work-family interface can also impact psychological strain, stress, anxiety, and even overall life satisfaction beyond these specific life domains. In other words, if there’s strain on your work-life balance, it impacts MORE than just your work and family life (Cho & Tay, 2016).

But it’s not all negative. The opposite is true as well. Work life and family life can enrich each other. 

  • Work can provide positive affective experiences, skills, and self-beliefs that are instrumental toward a better family life. 
  • If you get support from work (coworkers, supervisors, etc.) then the degree to which your work interferes with your family life is reduced. Likewise, support from your family members lowers your family’s interference with your work (Byron, 2005).
  • Skills, knowledge, self-beliefs, social capital, and material resources gained in one benefit the other (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006).
  • An enriching experience in one domain will have an impact on your satisfaction in the other domain. (McNall, Nicklin, & Masuda, 2010; Shockley & Singla, 2011).



So life balance isn’t about just spending less time at work. It’s about knowing where you want to spend time/how you want to allocate it, and figuring out how to spend time there. It’s about knowing which domains bring you the most joy, leaning into those, and figuring out how they can spill over into the other domains of your life. And finally, it’s about attempting to bring up your level of satisfaction across all important, relevant domains.



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