Happiness Is a Balancing Act
Happiness depends on the balance of positive to negative resources.
Posted November 1, 2011
The balancing act goes on all through life. If you have small children, you are balancing work and family; if you have aging parents, you are balancing work, leisure and family; if you have a chronic illness you are balancing your health needs with the needs of others. In my work on coping with transitions, I found that happiness depends on the balance of your coping positive resources to deficits. If your positive resources outweigh your negatives you will be able to cope more effectively. The important point—it is never one thing; it is a combination, it is the balance.
Why do I equate good balance with happiness? There are many definitions of happiness that are often equated with well-being. As the saying goes, "You know happiness when you see it but it can be difficult to define." I have found that when individuals cope effectively with a challenge they feel proud, and happy.
An example: The Counseling Department, at the University of Maryland, where I was a Professor had a contract to set up a career development center at the Goddard NASA Space Flight Center. We were therefore in a position to study the long-term effects of having one's job eliminated during a Reduction in Force (RIF) in the mid-eighties. In addition to a weeklong outplacement counseling service, NASA assigned a professional in human services to serve as a "buddy" to each individual until all those involved replaced their jobs. In our interview the week they were let go, they used phrases like "this is worse than a diagnosis of cancer;" "It is like being kicked in the back, hit on the head." In our interviews six months later, we heard comments like, "If I can handle this I can handle anything."
For the most part their Situation was terrible-for some their pensions were about to vest, for others they felt they were "too old to work but too young to die." Their coping Strategies were increased through counseling; their Supports were definitely increased through NASA's "buddy system" intervention. For most of those interviewed they were helped to tip the balance in favor of positive resources. They had achieved a sense of well-being.
We can generalize from this example.
Step I. Identify the features common to all transition events and non-events, however dissimilar they appear.
These features are the potential resources or deficits one brings to each transition and it is important to remember that these resources or deficits change. They can be clustered into four major categories, what I call the 4 S's: Situation, Self, Supports, Strategies.
• Situation: This refers to what's going on in your life at the time of change;
• Self: This refers to the person's inner resources. Is the person optimistic, resilient, and able to deal with ambiguity or not;
• Supports: This refers to the people and activities you can count on for support during your transition;
• Strategies: This refers to the ability to use a variety of coping strategies. There is no magic coping strategy.
Step 2 Apply the 4S System to your transition
People often ask, "Should I change careers?" "Should I move to a new city?
" There is no easy answer to these and other questions about transitions. However, one can look at one's 4 S's and ask: Is my Situation good at this time? Do I bring a resilient Self to the move? Do I have lots of coping Strategies in my repertoire? If all S's are positive, a move might be a good decision. However, if one's Situation is problematic, one's Supports minimal, there might be a decision to delay the move until one builds supports in the new community and one's Situation improves.
Elizabeth was thrilled to be offered a new job in her field. The only hitch-it was in another city. Her Situation was terrible at the time of the offer. She had a son with Cystic Fibrosis about to have a lung heart transplant. Her Supports were non-existent in the new city and at a time like this she needed all the help she could get. Even though her Self was a plus-she was an optimist and she used lots of coping Strategies. On balance she felt her Situation and Supports tipped the balance in favor of not moving for her excellent job opportunity.
• Many psychologists will point to one factor that makes a difference in how one copes. For example, there are books on imaging yourself thin. If imaging alone were the answer I would be thin! I learned that it is not one factor like optimism, imaging, therapy that makes the difference-it is the balance of positives to negatives.
• Even though we recognize that coping with transitions takes time, we see that people differ in how they cope with what seems to be the same transition, and often cope well with one transition but feel ineffective in the next. The difference is their balance of coping resources. When things do not go well, it is often because there are many more deficits than strengths.
Hopefully the 4 S system will take some of the mystery—if not the pain—out of change and show the way to happiness..
Overwhelmed: Coping with Life's Ups and Downs
Copyright, November 2011