Once we stop striving for the impossible and focus on our own values and strengths, only then will we find a balanced life.
Over the past decade the workplace has become a struggle for many. Maybe it always has been, but it hasn’t been until recently that the concerns are being voiced. One cannot read any publication without finding the term work-life balance.
It’s a farce.
Life isn’t about balance; it’s about knowing how to cope with what comes.
Do workplaces need to adjust to the modern lifestyle? Yes. Is it going to happen tomorrow? No. Next month? No. Next year? Probably not.
In the meantime, however, there are coping mechanisms that are so obvious we often overlook them. Or maybe we know exactly what they are, but we just can’t seem to follow through.
Beth Cabrera, a senior scholar at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, examines these challenges in her new book, “Beyond Happy: Women, Work and Well-Being,” and presents strategies for finding well-being within oneself to better one’s own life while we all wait for the workplace to catch up.
There are a lot of books, articles and research written about well-being. How does your research fit in with the ‘Lean In’ philosophy and all the other material coming out?
It’s very different from “Lean In.” “Lean In” is about women who want to make it to the corner office and who are very motivated in their careers. “Lean In” is wonderful with wonderful advice for women who want to do that, but I do think it is the woman’s problem. One of my biggest reasons for writing the book is to add my voice to the call for workplace change. It’s a workplace problem, and we need serious cultural change and policy change. Work isn’t working for anybody; everyone’s well-being [is] suffering. While we wait for things to get better at work, this is what you can do right now to manage things better.
Your book is focused on a personal approach and what you can do right now.
I’m an organizational psychologist, and I started this research 10 years ago. My original focus was workplace change. I interviewed hundreds and hundreds of women and tried to figure out what worked and what we need to do in the workplace to make it work for more people, but in the middle of that there was the economic crisis, and demands became even higher. Rather than become more flexible and more supportive, the workplace is becoming more demanding because they let a lot of people go and didn’t replace them; fewer people are expected to do the work. With smartphones there is this expectation of people being available 24 hours a day, which is really hard for working mothers who have other responsibilities at other times of the day. I became frustrated and saw women being so frustrated. Right now women need help to manage things. I turned to positive psychology and the science of well-being to find out what we can do right now to help women until things get better. People should stop searching for work-life balance; that is a terrible goal, and that is what all stressed-out women are trying to find. But it’s an impossible goal. We’re never going to find balance. Even if things get better at work, there is always going to be a crisis that is going to interfere with your responsibilities. My book is to empower people to have higher well-being because if you have higher well-being, you can manage everything better.
With all of your research, can you give any type of timeline for when you feel the workplace might shift?
I have no answer for that. It is really slow. Even the change of men doing more of the work at home has been very slow. Even though younger men say they want to have a more equal partnership at home, even that is very slow. There is no research that says this is the tipping point and things are going to be better. I’m hopeful that it is going to get better, but realistically it is going to take a long time.
Do residents in this area need to focus more on this because the lifestyle is extremely hectic, with everything that goes into the look that people want to project to others, that they are getting it all done—somewhat wearing the “I’m so busy” badge of honor?
It is very applicable to anyone—men need this as much as women do. I just focused on women because the research shows that their well-being is suffering and that they are less happy than they were 40 years ago, but it’s good for men, teenagers. In this area things are even crazier than they are in other parts of the country with demands—busyness is becoming an epidemic. It’s a status symbol. People like to say they’re busy to show they’re important, and that is not good at all for our well-being. It’s the wonder woman perfectionist [view] that we have to look good: intensive parenting, the demanding workplace, the feeling that we need to have the perfect dinner on the table and everything else.
Even though there is a focus on women, the book is written as if it is gender neutral to where we can all gain from the knowledge you present.
Nine-tenths of the book is about well-being in general.
Some of the suggestions you give are obvious, but people still struggle.
Everything that is in the book is simple, but it’s not easy. It is the difference between knowing and doing. We know what we should do, but are we doing it? It is so important to take action and be intentional about these things. Obviously if I think about what is going well, I’m going to be happier, but that is not our natural tendency. We are hardwired to look out for threats and problems. Even though you might read it and know it, your brain naturally is looking for the next potential problem. You have to rewire your brain. Every single time you sit down and write down three good things, your brain is looking for the good. And every time you do that, the circuits fire in your brain, and that starts to become a habit. You start changing the way your brain scans the environment, and it is looking for good things.
One of the facts you pull out about the negative effects of multitasking is that the effect on our brain is two to three times stronger than the effect of smoking marijuana.
There are very clear studies that show that.
Why is that not spoken about? Is it because the workplace is so ingrained where you have to multitask because there are fewer people to do more?
Yes, there is so much to be done. That is why women say we’re so good at it because we have to take care of the kids and the family all at once. We have so much to do. It’s not to say you can’t do those things; it is just that you have to do one at a time. When we think we’re multitasking, we are switching between tasks. You can still do a lot of work; it is just going to be super efficient if you do one thing at a time. You will end up getting a lot more done, and the quality is going to be better.
You write a lot about finding what your values are, understanding your strengths and how to take those two things into account to help align your behavior, which will ultimately make you a well-rounded, happier person.
It gives your life a sense of meaning. You can be really busy and cross a lot of things off your list, but your well-being is affected once you look back over the your last week or month.Did you do something that really mattered? When you look over your life and you haven’t done anything you really care about or that has really made a difference to somebody, you aren’t going to have high well-being.
There is a section of the book where you focus on building strong relationships at work. There is a mindset that work and personal lives should be kept separate; barriers are set up, either in people’s mind or in policies at work, to keep these two lives separate.
That is a mistake. The research is very clear that if you have a friend at work, you are going to be seven times more engaged at work. The list goes on and on and on about the benefits as far and efficiency and productivity and teamwork when people have personal relationships. Policies where people shouldn’t be friends at work goes against the best practices for optimal performance.
What is the main takeaway you want your readers to get from the book?
This book is not going to solve your problems. It is not going to make problems go away. My whole book is about how you are not going to be able to find balance. Stop trying to find balance. Stop thinking that you can do something to make the world perfect to where you’re not going to have conflict. If you take care of your well-being, you’re going to have the psychological resources to better handle anything that comes your way. When you have high well-being, you are thriving. You’re more resilient. Those days happen, and they happen to everybody. [If] people have been working on their well-being and know how to be mindful and feel that what they are doing in life matters, then that gives you psychological wherewithal to say, “Today is a bad day, but I have coping skills and I will bounce back from this.”
( January 2016 )