Purpose & Pleasure
What the research tells us regarding how to “keep the balance in your life” (and how to avoid a midlife crisis)
The punch line of this article is: Don’t get caught up seeking “balance in your life” on a daily basis; rather, seek it on a weekly or monthly basis. The rationale is rooted in social psych and cognitive psych research, which I extracted from a leading economist, which isn’t too uncommon, since most economics research gets funneled into “behavioral psych” anyway. This mentality regarding Balance is a healthy reminder as we get closer to the holidays, and is the main reason I give all of my athletes a completely open-ended week in their program at the end of the year.
Purpose and Pleasure are the two points on the pendulum of happiness. Remember that both exist and each has its own time and place on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. This reminder allows you to work your butt off, either professionally or as an athlete, and not think “I'm working my life away,” and it also allows you to unwind, do nothing, and kick your feet up, or enjoy a vacation, without thinking, “Ugh, I need to get my act together.” Do all of the above.
“Keeping the balance” doesn't mean trying to have purpose and pleasure at all times throughout a given day, as that might be impossible for most of us. Sure, we’re usually productive each day with a career and/or family, so perhaps the proper context here is when you are highly focused or prioritizing specific goals in life. “If everything is special, then nothing is special.” Allow that pendulum to swing to one side and stay there for an extended period of time, knowing that it will swing back to the other side soon enough. However you choose to define "extended time" is up to you…hourly, daily, weekly, etc. Again, just be sure that you check your priorities/goals and the pendulum swings back the other way at some point!
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For example, some weeks are overly busy for our professional lives, especially during a long work trip and/or professional conference that soaks up much of our time (e.g., “Ugh, I feel like an accountant during tax season!”). A good coach will have likely proactively scheduled this as a Recovery Week, so that you’re not sitting in an airport thinking, “Ooph, I’m missing my workouts today.” At another point that month, you might have a few social events of group runs that take precedence over other parts of your life…alas, we have Balance on a monthly basis (for example).
The same is true for healthy interpersonal relationships. Meaning, a relationship of any sort, whether it’s with siblings, coworkers, lovers, or close friends, is rarely going to have a 50-50 split of responsibility, effort, and energy. Sometimes you’ll be carrying 80% of the load in a given context, and other times the other person(s) will be carrying more-than-half-the-share. What’s important is that at the end of the year there’s a mutually perceived balance in the aspects of the relationship that matter most.
As long as you know this in advance, then you’re better able to surf the ebb and flow of the different waves that enter the relationship. Once again, we’re reminded that “knowledge is power” and “foresight is a much more powerful tool than hindsight”. So, “keeping the balance” among any facets of your life should not involve constantly trying to ensure an equal share/split among those facets at all times, because otherwise such attempts prove futile and this is what drives many people bonkers. Let the ebb and flow happen.
As it relates to training, this is why I love the Periodization model of training theory (chapter 2 of my book) because it allows for this ebb and flow to occur over a period of many weeks, months, or even the entire year. We don’t need to, nor should we, try to focus on all elements of training in one week or one season. Otherwise, overtraining and mental burnout are inevitable. This is the main service I offer with LA Running Coach: The mental approach to training and racing, as in knowing when to prioritize certain types of training and workouts vs. when to back off in favor of other activities. All the while, Periodization is geared to keeping you injury free, happy, and reaching a peak level of fitness at 1 or 2 points in the year. Again, you can’t be “all things, all the time” in relation to your training. The body can’t handle it and/or you’ll mentally burn out.
The Atlantic magazine published a fascinating research article a few years ago about the experience of a midlife crisis. Why it happens, who it happens to, how intense it becomes, and how long it lasts (if at all). It was a very good empirical review of the topic. Regret is often what rests at the base of a midlife crisis (if someone is to have one), and it’s found that those with less regret tend to fly right past any such crisis, and that makes logical sense to me.
So, to come full circle in talking about Purpose and Pleasure, do all you can to avoid feeling regretful (or guilty) when highly engaged in either purpose or pleasure, as you know you’ll be hitting the other end of the pendulum in a meaningful way soon enough. If the Covid world of 2020-2022 was very much dominated by the Purpose side of the Balance, in that you were prioritizing finances, safety, health, and you weren’t traveling much, then 2023 could (hopefully) certainly be a year to shift the Balance. Or, if Covid made you engage in too much Pleasure for whatever reason, then 2023 might be your year to focus on other aspects of life that you ignored. Zoom out with your perspective (hopefully that’s the last use of the word “zoom”!).
Allow yourself to live a pleasurable life and don’t feel guilty about it. Being selfish is very highly correlated with happiness, but the key there is to change the definition of the word "selfish". As long as you’re not harming others or detracting from their happiness to gain your own, then this display of selfishness may actually be needed for your own happiness. Otherwise, how often are you needlessly depriving yourself of pleasure and happiness!? Keep the pendulum on both ends of the spectrum at various points. As a coach, I don’t want a healthy, active lifestyle to detract from your purpose or your pleasure; rather, my aim is for your training to contribute a little bit to your purpose and your pleasure.
Train hard (and rest hard)!