Social connection, work-life balance are keys to happiness

By Eileen Weber
April 5th, 2023
Laurie Santos
Laurie Santos, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Yale University, hosts the podcast “The Happiness Lab” and teaches such courses as “The Science of Well Being” and “Psychology and the Good Life.”

Ten states are apparently the best places to live for good work-life balance. Based on a recent index data analysis run by Remote, a human resources company, the main factors in determining the states that got the highest marks included healthcare, minimum wage, maternity leave, statutory annual leave, sick pay, average hours worked per week, overall happiness levels, and LGBTQ inclusivity.

The number one spot was taken by Connecticut followed in order by Washington, New York, California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts. East or west, it seems you need to pick a coast to find happiness.

But what does it really mean to have a healthy work-life balance? For one, it means your career doesn’t negatively impact other areas of your life. If you’re taking work home, working overtime on a regular basis, or feel the need to constantly check your email, you may want to rethink how your job is affecting your mental well-being.

Consider Finland. Apparently, the happiest people on the planet live there. And yet, it’s ridiculously cold. There’s barely any light during the winter. Dinner is most likely a sizeable portion of pickled herring. What’s to be happy about?

According to the World Happiness Report published last March, Finland took the top spot (again) for a number of reasons. Mainly, it’s because education is largely free, time off from work is plentiful, and health care coverage is guaranteed. It seems if you have more personal support and less to worry about, happiness is not far behind.

Laurie Santos, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Yale University, hosts the podcast “The Happiness Lab” and teaches such courses as “The Science of Well Being” and “Psychology and the Good Life.” She said happiness is one of the areas in which Finland excels.

“Finland is an incredibly socially connected country and that’s really important in lots of Scandinavian countries,” she said. “They change their behaviors to get more exercise so they’re out more often and they have a much better work-life balance so they’re not working as many hours. It’s not that the people in Finland are necessarily born happier, they’re engaging in all the behaviors and mindsets that we know matter for happiness.”

Santos acknowledged that happiness is very subjective. However, she noted there is plenty of research that points to the things we can do in our lives to make us happy. For example, when we focus on becoming more “other” oriented—people who volunteer more, donate more to charity, who are doing more things for others—tend to be happier. Having a successful work-life balance is part of that.

“We spend about a third or more of our life at work,” she explained. “I think it really is essential to make sure that your work-life is as happy as you can make it where you can have some free time to do some things with your family and friends.”

During the pandemic, what was termed the “Great Resignation” took place. More people, rethinking how and what they were doing with their lives, decided to leave their current jobs for something more appealing.

“I like to think of the pandemic not as the ‘Great Resignation’ but the ‘Great Renegotiation,’” Santos said. “I think many of us renegotiated the role that work plays in our lives. We saw that we could perhaps work from home in some cases or have a shorter commute and still earn a paycheck. Those changes to how people spent time with their family [as opposed to] the amount of time they physically spent in a work environment made people realize they could actually make some big changes in the way they interacted with work.“

Once employees got used to working from home, there was a big push to stay there. In some cases, employees threatened to quit if their employers didn’t at least provide a hybrid solution to being in the office. But for others, there never was a chance to work from home. For example, grocery store employees were now seen as “essential workers” and they didn’t necessarily want to be.

According to a 2022 review of labor statistics by the Harvard Business Review, the Great Resignation didn’t start with the pandemic. In fact, it’s been coming all along. There was a growing shift in labor statistics even in 2019. Although the pandemic certainly exacerbated things, it was concluded there were five factors that affected quitting or changing jobs: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance.

The review pointed out that workers are retiring in greater numbers. Many employees are reconsidering their care roles and work-life balance, particularly women. They are reshuffling within industries—not changing careers entirely or exiting the labor market. And because of pandemic-related fears, some workers are still reluctant to return to in-person jobs.

An October 2022 Forbes article zeroed in on the four-day work week. Since the pandemic, that idea has been catching on. A shortened work week has shown higher productivity and better work-life balance. Placing a boundary on the number of days in the office gives one more day to the weekend to spend time with family and friends or pursue hobbies. But if you can’t change the number of days heading to work, Santos said when it comes to happiness, sometimes it just means changing our mindsets.

“There’s evidence that focusing on things you’re grateful for and counting your blessings can make you feel better,” she said. “There’s also lots of research showing the power of self-compassion. If we can change our mindset from beating ourselves up to being a little bit nicer to ourselves, we’ll be happier. So even though happiness is subjective, there are things we can all do to feel better.”

A Harvard Medical School professor agreed. In an early February interview with CNN, Robert Waldinger, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and co-author of “The Good Life,” said that relationships are the key to what he termed “social fitness.” His comments were based on Harvard University’s 84-year study on the science of happiness, which is one of the longest running studies in the world.

“The finding in our research is that people who do the best, who are happiest and healthiest, maintain their relationships,” he explained. “They’re active in keeping contact with family, friends, and community members.”

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