Skip to main content

As a working mother, Beth Cabrera suffered from the stress of trying to do it all.

She loved her job as a professor of organizational psychology and she loved being a mother – but she didn't love the person she became. She was spending far too much time complaining to colleagues or yelling at her kids (and immediately feeling guilty). She sensed her husband was tired of her "woe is me" comments. On weekends, she wasn't able to enjoy time with her family or friends because she was overwhelmed by everything else she could and perhaps should be doing.

She began to research women's careers, and found she wasn't alone. Their struggle to combine their role at work with their essential role at home was negatively affecting their well-being. But if that duality confronts women (and many men) harshly, there's another duality her research indicates we must also consider if we seek well-being.

The first dimension of well being is that we must feel good – we must seek and experience positive emotions and happiness. But that's not sufficient. We must go beyond happy to also do good. We must develop meaning within our lives, a feeling that we are doing what matters.

"In order to thrive, we need to be high on both dimensions, experiencing both happiness and a sense of meaning in life. People who are low on both dimensions are languishing," Prof. Cabrera, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, writes in her book Beyond Happy.

Both of those dimensions have three elements. Being happy starts with trying to think positively, which can improve our mental health, reduce anxiety, and help to make us more hopeful, self-confident, energetic and resilient.

That's difficult, because we often have a negativity bias, noticing and concentrating on what's wrong. So we need to change the focus of our attention, improving the ratio of positive to negative experiences and thoughts in our lives. We need to be mindful. "The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it," the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said.

She stresses it also involves suspending judgment, which so often can be negative, so you can relish the positive. She tries to catch herself when she is thinking of the future, rather than the present, to ensure she's thinking positive rather negative thoughts. Every time you park your car, take a moment to sit in stillness and enjoy that. When you boot up your computer, take a moment to focus on your breath rather than let anxious thoughts flood your mind.

Gratitude is the second element for happiness. It helps us to focus on the good things happening around us. We often think of gratitude as being expressed to others – thanking people who help us – but she reminds us it also extends to thinking about the good things we have or experience, and being grateful for them.

She suggests starting meetings by going around the room and asking what's going well in everyone's lives or work. She notices that when we ask somebody how things are going, the ritualistic response these days is, "I'm so busy!" So she begins such encounters with, "What's good for you today?" When your spouse asks how your day went, she urges you to not start with the bad. Close the day by writing down three good things that happened.

The third element of a positive approach is to be hopeful. We need goals, and we need the belief that we can achieve them – that the future will be bright. In part, that can come by acknowledging how much you have already achieved. "I keep a victory log in which I write down everything good that has happened in my life down to winning the spelling bee in Grade two," she said in an interview.

The meaning side of the well-being equation involves living life true to your values and spending time doing what matters most; using your strengths, since that not only makes you happy but allows you to achieve more; and making a positive impact or doing what matters for others.

As with being happy, you need to pay attention, thinking of the meaning in your life and why you get out of bed with energy each morning. "Doing good can be small things. You don't have to be changing the world. Anything that makes anyone's life better is meaning," she said.

Clarify your values, so you can understand them and refocus where necessary to lead a more authentic life. "It isn't always easy to live in accordance with your values but it is extremely important for your well-being. Talk to your loved ones about your values. If they know how much you care about something, they might be willing to make small sacrifices to allow you to increase your well-being by doing good," she writes.

In developing these ideas, she realized there is a foundation upon which they rest: Relationships. Being around others makes you happy. Meaning involves helping others. "Relationships are vital. They have an impact on feeling good and being good," she said in the interview.

So nurture your relationships. Call a parent or grandparent. Find time to visit with a sibling. It's good for them but it is also good for your well-being. And instead of looking for balance, which is so elusive, she urges you to find more joy and meaning in your life.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter