How do you measure a harmonised life?


Some friends recently posed a fascinating question and invited me to the conversation: How do you measure ‘harmony’ as opposed to “balance”? This to provoke some discussion … but before I get to the question, some context is helpful.

Life balance, or in particular work-life balance is a weak idea. It is weak for two reasons. Firstly it is often a proxy for a discussion about spending too much time in the office. Work-life balance is really a conversation about choosing when to arrive at and leave work, or about ignoring your smart phone on weekends. I like the framing of this I once heard in a workshop from former ANZ CEO John MacFarlane who suggested the real problem with work – life balance is that people don’t have a life. A bit harsh maybe, but the point I think he was making is that sometimes peoples’ life outside of work is less engaging, less stimulating, and perhaps even less relationally satisfying than on the inside of the revolving doors.

Secondly, the idea of balance is a zero sum game. In other words, the implication is that to achieve balance we need to take from one part of life and add to another. This even-ness might have a conceptual attractiveness, but in my experience, people who really live well don’t think in terms of ‘time spent’, which is almost always the currency of a work – life balance conversation.

So what is the alternative? Just because the idea of balance is weak, doesn’t mean the challenges of living well and in line with what really matters is a trivial pursuit. On the contrary, most of us live with a fairly perpetual uneasiness that we could be making better choices about how we are living.

‘Harmony’ is a more promising frame. What does harmony mean when applied to living?

Harmony to me means resonance. It means being in tune. It means being synchronised and rhythmic. My online dictionary says: ‘a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts.’ I like this, and it ushers us to the important question, ‘what parts?’

This, for me is where harmony trumps balance. Harmony makes sense when we know what parts we are ordering. Another way at the conversation is the simple but unending question, ‘what matters (to me)?’ I have pondered that question from many angles over the years, and the framing that I have found most helpful over recent times comes from Martin Seligman via Clive Hamilton: Pleasure, goodness and meaning.

These for me are the three fundamental drivers in life. The drive for pleasure. The inclination we have to experience the world pleasurably through our five senses. We want to enjoy life.

The drive to be good at stuff. We self-optimise. We like to be competent and we strive to be better at the things we are good at. This might mean running, it might mean professional competence / promotion, it might be parenting …. Whatever our game(s), we want to be good at it.

The drive to engage in meaningfulness. We want our lives to matter. This doesn’t necessarily mean we want to change the world, it could as easily mean contentment with an ‘ordinary’ but deep life in an isolated community.

For me, these three things need to be harmonised. Unlike balance, you don’t steal from one to enhance another. It is about assessing our living over a reasonable period of time and ‘diagnosing’ how these things are shaping my motivations and my choices.

What do I really like? Is there enough pleasure in my life?

What am I good at? Am I getting to do enough of it?

What really matters to me? What do I consider of fundamental importance? Am I getting to make a contribution in that area?

So then, to the question of measurement! Measuring balance should be straight forward. As I suggested above, the currency is typically time, so its about assessing the quantity of time assigned to particular aspects of life.

Harmony is measured over time, but it is not a measure of time. It is a measure of, to borrow from the dictionary, the pleasing ordering of the parts of my life to optimise pleasure, goodness and meaning. Different activities dial up different dimensions of these, but over time, it is my contention, that if one of these is weak or missing, our lives are impoverished.

Practically, what does this look like? It is not about how much time I spend at home versus the office. It is about interrogating all aspects of my life to see how I can increase pleasure, goodness and meaning. To refer back to John MacFarlane’s argument, it is about making choices to increase pleasure at home, to improve my ‘competence’ at home, and to ensure I am investing in what really matters (to me) at home.

But also at work … How can I improve my pleasure at my ‘desk’? How can I get better at what people say I do best, at work? And how can I ensure that the investment of my time and energy in the workplace makes sense to me in the bigger scheme of what matters in society?

So, measuring harmony is in one sense subjective, because pleasure, goodness and meaning are as varied as our personalities and experiences. But that doesn’t mean it’s not recognisable, and that its very existence doesn’t inspire others to live better, in harmony with the natural human order of pleasure, goodness and meaning.

So, maybe raising more questions than answers … what do you think?