How To Live A Psychologically Balanced Life
Psychologist Anastasia Besika discusses her new research on psychological balance, happiness, and life satisfaction.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 26, 2021
A new article appearing in Frontiers in Psychology attempts to define an important yet elusive term in positive psychology: psychological balance. According to the researchers, it has to do with the degree to which someone is able to possess a consistent yet flexible outlook on life while also knowing how to spend the right amount of time taking care of themselves versus others.
I recently spoke with the lead author of this research, Anastasia Besika of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, to discuss the idea of psychological balance in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of psychological balance and what did you find?
We live in a constantly changing world and we change as we age. Psychological balance refers to a natural tendency, and yet a difficult task, to adapt to change successfully by being able to continue to function effectively. In my work as a psychotherapist and in my personal life, I observed that some people deal with change, and especially with challenging situations, better than others do. How does one person seem to be able to 'go with the flow', whereas another person becomes anxious as they struggle to adapt to a new situation? This question initiated the theoretical development of psychological balance and the next step was to construct a scale in order to investigate its relationship to well-being.
The theory of psychological balance suggests that a set of values, which people in different cultures recognize as ideals, influence how we think and behave. These universal values provide us with a sense of identity and connect us to the world. Each one of us combines these ideals in a unique way as we give values different priorities. Our individual value pattern defines our psychological world: what matters to us most and what is meaningful in life. Accordingly, we set our goals that aim to manifest our psychological world and realize our dreams and aspirations. However, as change is unavoidable, we all face challenges at one point or another where external circumstances may stand in the way of pursuing our goals. It is critical for our well-being to be able to re-adjust our value priorities in a way that allows us to pay attention and focus on what is needed. Another important part of the theory suggests that after stripping down all the layers that make up our reality what is left is they and I. The Greek saying, "even heaven is not fun if you go alone" encapsulates the principle that the two perceptions of self and others form the fundamental basis of our existence in this world.
Our primary results indicate that the degree to which people's goals and actions are influenced by a set of universal values (Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, and Universalism) as well as the ability to re-adjust value priorities in response to a challenging situation, influence people's psychological balance. Those who reported high psychological balance also reported high levels of life satisfaction, meaning, happiness, and overall well-being and low levels of stress. Another important finding was that the ratio of motivation to serve personal interest and the interest of others influences the relationship between psychological balance and well-being. People who were motivated to benefit personal interest at a more or less equal degree to benefiting other people's interest reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of stress than those who gave emphasis on either benefiting themselves or others more.
What does it mean to have a self/other ratio close to 1? How can someone apply this to their own life?
Having a self/others ratio close to 1 means that your values motivate you equally to benefit personal interest and the interest of others, whether this is a significant other or people in general. Self and others are dual aspects of ourselves, since we are always at the receiving end of everything we do. Whether our actions are in our favor or in the favor of others, either way they affect us psychologically.
Being motivated to serve both self and others does not necessarily mean performing separate actions in an effort to please everybody. A single act may express concern for both our own benefit and for other people close to us or the common good in general. For example, doing your job to the best of your ability may give you a sense of self-worth, accomplishment, and material rewards and at the same time, you may provide a great service and inspiration to other people. Even though we may need to give more importance either to ourselves or to others at any given time and in any given situation, it is equally important to our psychological health to care for ourselves as well as for other people.
You mention flexibility as a key component of psychological balance. Why do you think that is and how can we all become more flexible?
Flexibility refers to the ability to re-adjust our value priorities in response to change. Some days may present challenges that require from us to divert our attention from our main goal and give priority to something else. On a bigger scale, an unexpected situation may require from us to put aside something very important to us and re-define our goals. For example, dealing with a health issue may divert our daily routines into different a direction. The current pandemic is a very good example of that. We all had to change our routines and find new ways of doing things while prioritizing staying healthy, something we took for granted previously.
As our environment changes continuously, flexibility is key in adapting to new situations that may sometimes contradict our plans and even our own needs, as we grow older. However, flexibility needs to occur within the boundary of remaining true to what we value and maintaining a sense of integrity. Too much flexibility hides the risk of letting a situation change you to a degree that your actions no longer represent your character. As a first step, increasing our flexibility may require increasing awareness over the values that influence our goals and actions and over our attitudes toward self-care and consideration for others. Increasing self-awareness may require simply engaging in open conversations with people you feel safe in sharing personal thoughts. This is most likely to encourage the other party to engage in a similar process and may have a ripple effect. One may also engage in a deeper self-exploration within a therapeutic framework, either in one-to-one or in group sessions with a therapist. As a second step, and during the process of raising self-awareness, one may identify and activate values that they were not aware of or that were dormant. Having awareness over your value system can enable you to make informed choices that represent who you are while considering the impact on others.
Can you talk a little bit about how your research connects with other research in positive psychology?
Our primary investigations indicate that psychological balance positively correlates with measures of subjective happiness, meaning, and life satisfaction. Hence, improving psychological balance may increase overall levels of well-being, which is the focus of positive psychology. In addition, as this research provides an integrative measure of well-being it is relevant to a number of fields beyond positive psychology. The theory that supports our research findings, which we currently submitted for publication, aims to bring together different paths into one framework. The theory of psychological balance attempts to explain the psychological mechanism that connects self-regulation to the self-concept through social values, personal goals, and behavior. The psychological structure strives to balance in a constantly changing environment and to experience meaning and positive emotion. Critical levels of imbalanced psychological states would be associated with psychopathology.
What values did you find were most important for psychological balance? Why are some more important than others?
According to the theoretical model, all of the 10 universal values are important and they all influence psychological balance to a different degree. We tend to have multiple values and we can change our value priorities at different times. Although we prioritize different values at any given time, less prioritized values are equally important as part of the value system. For example, a person is not typically concerned with staying healthy on a daily basis. This does not necessarily imply that they do not value their health highly. When their health is threatened, it becomes a priority to do things to improve it.
I believe that social psychologists have already identified the values that are important to well-being. People from different cultures recognize the 10 value domains as guides in the lives. Results across studies that investigated which of these values mostly contribute to well-being are inconsistent, due to multiple factors influencing the relationship between values and well-being.
However, one important finding is that extreme endorsement of any single value leads to unhealthy behaviors, for example workoholism or even terrorism. According to our theoretical approach, values influence well-being as a dynamic system and not as single elements. The question is what is the role of the value system within a wider psychological mechanism that regulates psychological balance? This is the question being addressed in the theoretical investigation of psychological balance we have submitted for publication.
Does your research have any clinical implications, such as helping to design more effective happiness interventions?
The current findings can set therapeutic tasks as they show that increasing psychological balance and considering others as you consider yourself can increase well-being and reduce stress. At this stage, the theoretical model and its scale may inform therapeutic and preventive interventions. Clinicians may refer to the model when helping people identify their unique set of values; understand their value priorities and how those relate to their personal realities. Another therapeutic aim could be to raise awareness over people's self/other ratio and help them to improve it by widening their self-perceptions in relation to the outside world. Overall, interventions may help to understand the areas of life that need attention and re-adjust what is important to people in line with their personal realities.
What are the one or two things every person looking to improve their psychological balance should take away from your research?
Life is full of challenges and the more we are able to understand ourselves, our feelings, thoughts and behaviors and mainly what makes us who we are psychologically, the better equipped we are to turn challenges into opportunities to grow and improve ourselves and our environment.
Do you have plans for follow-up studies? Where do you hope to see the research go from here?
Currently, we are investigating the idea that people who integrate social values into their value system at a higher degree have stronger psychological balance and higher well-being than people who are less value-led altogether. In future studies, we are planning to investigate the self/others ratio, aiming to identify the ratio that is critical to healthy psychological functioning. Overall, my aspiration is to raise awareness over personal values, where they come from and how they contribute to our well-being. This knowledge can be adapted to the needs and understanding of all ages and backgrounds. I truly hope that the day will come when school curriculum includes topics on self-awareness and psychological balance and how values shape people, their communities and whole civilizations.
Besika, A., Horn, A. B., & Martin, M. Psychological balance scale: Validation studies of an integrative measure of well-being. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.727737