"10 Steps to Happiness" ~ Anna Tim, The Guardian, 12 Mar 2011
In future we shall all be able to find happiness. It will lurk, hopefully, deep in a Himalayan forest and seekers will have to drive for 20 minutes down a dirt track to reach it. At the end of it, the government of Bhutan – the Buddhist kingdom which has suffered a recent surge in suicides – envisages a Gross National Happiness centre where citizens can relearn the balance between the spiritual and the material.
Bhutan's considerably more powerful neighbour, China, is now muscling in on the act with a new "happiness index" to evaluate the work of local government officials in some provinces. Its impact will be watched, no doubt with interest, by David Cameron's government, which is planning its own assessment of the nation's spirits. Stress is the prompt for this official concern. Basic living conditions have improved immeasurably over the past 50 years, but our sense of wellbeing has not kept pace, partly because of a competitive, volatile jobs market with the longest working hours in Europe.
Economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century, because he thought we'd no longer have to work long hours to meet our material needs. But our concept of what we need has continually expanded and the working week has got correspondingly longer.
"Work-life balance" is the elusive panacea, but the phrase is also a misleading one. The implication is that life is something that happens elsewhere while we're tied to our desks. In fact, achieving balance is less about an equitable division of hours and more about whether we are allocating enough time and resources to our own satisfaction.
Around 1,500 years ago St Benedict set out the framework for a complete life – a structured mix of physical labour, exercise and devotions. Its rigours and piety would not appeal to modern secularists, but the recognition that routines should nourish our mental and physical wellbeing as well as harnessing our productivity is still a valuable one.
Experts agree that the first step to creating a balanced life is to assess what we need and want from our whole existence, not just work or home in isolation. Sometimes it's a change in perception that is required, rather than a change in circumstances, and work is not necessarily the enemy if it is managed correctly.
1. Assess your priorities
Achieving small goals – an hour each evening with your children, a weekly work-out at the gym – might transform your perception of your life. Otherwise, large-scale remedies – a career change or a house move – may be what is needed. You (and your employer) can't address your frustrations unless you have a clear idea what you want. It might help to invest in an invitingly bound notebook and keep a journal of your thoughts and hopes. The simple act of writing things down can make you feel more in control. Bear in mind, work-life balance is an ongoing process and your priorities will need to be reassessed regularly as your needs and circumstances shift.
2. Build boundaries
Modern technology means work can seep corrosively into private life. You need to make clear mental and physical distinctions between the two. Wean yourself off your email inbox in the evenings and turn your mobile off during family meal times. Similarly, you'll get home sooner if, when at work, you forbid yourself from making Facebook updates at your desk and try not to plan your weekend menus during your boss's financial review.
3. Be realistic
The pursuit of happiness is a modern luxury; throughout most of history the goal has been survival. We need, therefore, to lessen the expectations of our lives and make the best of what we have. "Stop being perfectionist; instead aim for being good enough," advises Julia Hobsbawm, author of The See-Saw: 100 Ideas for Work-Life Balance. "Don't compare your family to other families. Compare it only to your values and what you think is best for it." She suggests setting three manageable goals a day rather flailing after 30.
4. Get flexible
This is the obvious solution and one of the most effective. Flexible working gives you a degree of autonomy, and autonomy is a vital ingredient for self-fulfilment. Employees now have the right to request flexible working and employers have to have good reason to refuse, but there is the fear that if you are not a fleshly presence at your desk for eight hours a day you'll be deemed not to be pulling your weight. However, the more employees who work flexibly the less of a stigma there will be, so blaze a trail for your comrades.
They may actually get more toil out of you. In the office people can cover idleness with an air of activity; if you work from home bosses judge you on what you achieve.
When researchers from America's Brigham Young University looked at 24,000 IBM employees, they found that those with flexible working arrangements were able to put in 57 hours a week before their personal life started to suffer, against 38 hours for those in traditional posts, and when the AA based some of its call-centre staff at home their productivity rose by more than a third.
5. Learn to say no
Easier said than done, but you can decline positively. If you can't take on another project because it would unbalance the three you are expertly juggling already, explain this. Phrased cannily it will proclaim how much you are already achieving. Yes-men are not necessarily respected and are often dumped upon. Hobsbawn suggests applying equal rigour to your private life in order to stretch time. "Let something go that you feel you ought to do but can do without, whether it's cleaning or networking parties or visiting friends," she says.
6. Living to work or working to live?
We've come to expect our jobs to be fulfilling, but in a 1992 book Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue that we've confused work with paid employment. They reckon that paid employment by itself can't fulfil, but work – as in productive effort which can include domestic responsibilities – can and does. Work and employment may overlap partly or wholly – the key is to understand the distinction. The authors suggest we ask what work we find fulfilling then ponder if and how our paid employment can help us realise it. We might require a job that in itself fulfils us – or a less demanding one to fund an outside passion. Possibly turning our hobby into a career would dull its lustre. Even if we can't change our job, knowing why we're really doing it – and what not to demand from it – can help clarify our perceptions.
Your job might be costing you more than you think, according to Dominguez and Robin. If you require tropical holidays and frequent aromatherapy to relax, and if supper is a pricey Waitrose ready meal because you don't have time to cook, it might make financial sense to go part time and live more simply. "We need to move away from the consumerist identity to a productive one," says Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. "Your income will decrease but you'll be living more of a life."
Kane reckons a recession is a good time to reassess priorities. "If we aim to reduce our consumption, we will be able to work less and invest in life more. Imagine all the things we could do without having to shop: play and pray, create and relate, read and walk, listen and procreate."
A recent report by the thinktank The New Economics Foundation recommends the working week is cut to 21 hours to ease unemployment and improve quality of life. "So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume, and our consumption habits are squandering the earth's natural resources," says Anna Coote, co-author of the research. "Spending less time in paid work could help us to break this pattern. We'd have more time to be better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours."
8. Get back to nature
Half an hour prodding soil will reduce office stress far more effectively (and cheaply) than a glass of chardonnay. Studies from the University of Bristol indicate that simply touching friendly bacteria in soil has a similar effect to taking antidepressants, while research by the mental health charity Mind found that 94% of people who engage in green activities such as gardening felt it had eased depression. Gardening (or angling, or rambling) reconnects us with seasons and cycles and, when our handiwork bursts into bloom, gives a heady sense of purpose.
"The garden teaches you that things die, but things come back and there is always this constant cycle," says Nicola Carruthers, chief executive of Thrive, a charity that helps disabled people through gardening. If you don't have access to a garden or allotment, even watching seeds sown into a planter can boost sagging spirits. Or make time to circuit the nearest green space after work. It will create a soothing mental boundary between work and home.
9. Nourish the spirit
The demand for mentors and life coaches suggests an appetite for seeking cosmic meaning behind the drudgery. "We should all be living more within the moment as our hunter gatherer ancestors did, but now we have a surplus of time and goods we've lost the art," says Dr Desmond Biddulph, chairman of The Buddhist Society. "Religions teach you a way of learning to reconnect, as does meditation. Yoga, for instance, is the idea of pulling energy back into the moment. Meditation and prayer reduce anxiety, which is the main destroyer of work-life balance. There's no rational reason why we should feel happy. Life is short and, for most humans, very unpleasant, and yet people do feel happiness when they stop thinking and worrying."
He suggests starting the day with 15 minutes of tranquillity, whether it's a cup of coffee at the kitchen table or quiet reverie on the train to work. "Once you are relaxed, priorities come naturally," he says.
10. Engage with others
Mahayani Buddhists regard virtues as skills for life, not as moral duties, and reckon that qualities such as generosity increase happiness. "Altruism makes people calmer and more fulfilled," Biddulph says. A relationship with family, friends and community is an essential ingredient for wellbeing and Nicholas Buxton, clergyman and author, wonders if the dash for material reward has diminished our view of our own human worth. "Maybe," he says, "fulfilment means engagement with others and finding purpose in looking outwards."