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Life balance and harmony: Wellbeing's golden thread

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The relevance of balance and harmony to wellbeing has been under-appreciated in psychology. Even though these concepts have received considerable attention across different contexts (e.g., work-life balance), this literature is fragmented and scattered. There have been few attempts to bring these disparate threads together, or to centre these concepts as foundational and important across all aspects of human functioning. This paper remedies this lacuna by offering a narrative review of these diverse works. Relevant literature is organised into four emergent categories: affect, cognition, behaviour, and self-other relations. Throughout these, balance and harmony can be appreciated as not merely relevant to wellbeing, but arguably a defining principle, a 'golden thread' running through its myriad dimensions (though this thread is itself multifaceted, comprising a cluster of interlinked concepts). Based on this analysis, an overarching definition of wellbeing is offered: the dynamic attainment of optimal balance and harmony in any-and ideally all-aspects of life. This paper provides a foundation and stimulus for further work on these important topics.
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Lomas, T. (2021). Life balance and harmony: Wellbeing’s golden thread. International Journal of Wellbeing,
11(1), 18-35. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1477
Tim Lomas
Wellbeing for Planet Earth
lololomas@googlemail.com
Copyright belongs to the author(s)
www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org
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ARTICLE
Life balance and harmony: Wellbeing’s golden thread
Tim Lomas
Abstract: The relevance of balance and harmony to wellbeing has been under-appreciated in
psychology. Even though these concepts have received considerable attention across different
contexts (e.g., work-life balance), this literature is fragmented and scattered. There have been
few attempts to bring these disparate threads together, or to centre these concepts as
foundational and important across all aspects of human functioning. This paper remedies this
lacuna by offering a narrative review of these diverse works. Relevant literature is organised
into four emergent categories: affect, cognition, behaviour, and self-other relations.
Throughout these, balance and harmony can be appreciated as not merely relevant to
wellbeing, but arguably a defining principle, a ‘golden thread’ running through its myriad
dimensions (though this thread is itself multifaceted, comprising a cluster of interlinked
concepts). Based on this analysis, an overarching definition of wellbeing is offered: the
dynamic attainment of optimal balance and harmony in any and ideally all aspects of life.
This paper provides a foundation and stimulus for further work on these important topics.
Keywords: balance, harmony, wellbeing, happiness, cross-cultural
1. Introduction
This paper explores and conceptualises the concept of ‘life balance and harmony’: processes of
balance and harmony (B/H) across all areas of human functioning. The contention is that B/H are
at the heart of wellbeing (with B/H and wellbeing both being ‘compositional’ phenomena: i.e.,
although B/H will often be referred to here as ‘a principle,’ it actually constitutes a cluster of
conceptually-related dynamics; similarly, wellbeing encompasses all the ways one might hope
to do or be well; Thin, 2020). However, B/H have been relatively underappreciated in psychology
and academia more broadly. In certain locales particularly Eastern cultures B/H have attracted
much attention and thought, reflecting the philosophical traditions in such places. Similarly, the
concepts do appear in many areas of psychological literature (like ‘work-life balance’). However,
these strands of research and theory are largely disconnected, and the importance of B/H as a
whole has not received the attention and prominence it merits namely, as a golden thread
running through all dimensions of wellbeing (i.e., a unifying principle that pertains to all its
domains).
This lacuna may partly reflect the possibility that B/H have not figured as prominently in
Western cultures as elsewhere. Thus, an important context for this analysis is the Western-centric
nature of psychology, being mostly conducted by and on people from ‘WEIRD’ countries
(Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic), particularly the USA (Henrich et al.,
2010). As a result, concepts, methods, and priorities associated with American psychology have
come to dominate the international scene (Danziger, 2002). Relatedly, psychology tends to
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overlook perspectives developed in non-Western cultures (Delle-Fave & Bassi, 2009; Lomas,
2016). For instance, the West has developed a preference over time for ‘linear’ analytic modes of
cognition, influenced by interpretations of Aristotelian logic promoting ‘either-or’ thinking (Peng
& Nisbett, 1999). By contrast, Eastern cultures have cultivated more holistic, dialectical forms of
reasoning, which accommodate seeming contradictions and opposing perspectives by seeking a
‘middle way’ (Wong, 2011). Consequently, such cultures have emphasised the importance of B/H
to wellbeing and life more broadly (e.g., socially and environmentally). This emphasis is reflected
in Taoism, for instance, whose yīn yáng motif illustrates the dynamic process of balance and
harmonisation between co-dependent opposites (Fang, 2012). Similarly, Confucius saw harmony
as the core of a good person, who “harmonizes but does not seek sameness” (Analects 13.23; cited
in Li, 2006, p.586).
These cultural biases have influenced psychology, which per its Western-centric orientation
has not focused on B/H to the extent they merit. However, such ideas have by no means been
disregarded in the West or by psychology, historically or currently. Indeed, appraising interest in
B/H through the lens of an ‘East vs. West’ polarity may be a contemporary incarnation of the
Orientalist discourse identified by Said (1978), which juxtaposed the supposed rationalism of the
West with the ‘non-rationality’ of the East (Hwang, 2020). Such homogenisation obscures the
dynamic heterogeneity of these regions (Hamamura, 2012), and overlooks the fact that across
Western academia many disparate references to B/H can be found. Moreover, B/H may be more
universally valued than often realised. Analysing lay perceptions of happiness worldwide
including in Western countries Delle Fave et al. (2011; 2016) found the most prominent category
was Harmony/Balance (comprising, besides balance and harmony themselves, features such as
inner peace and serenity). Likewise, research from New Zealand has found that when workers
are asked about their conceptions of wellbeing, B/H rank near the top of its valued constituents
(Hone et al., 2015; Jarden et al., 2018).
Thus, the issue here is not lack of research into B/H, but underappreciation of their importance.
Despite B/H having been invoked in manifold ways in psychology and related fields, there are
few overarching works with valuable exceptions like Delle Fave et al., Wong (2012, 2020), Kjell
et al. (2016), and (Gruman et al., 2018) drawing these disparate threads together, or identifying
B/H as a key principle of human functioning. However, as this paper demonstrates, B/H can be
seen as a ‘golden thread’ running through all aspects of wellbeing, and deserve a central place in
the field. Before delving into the literature, let’s briefly clarify what balance and harmony mean.
2. Balance and Harmony
In the literature, B/H are qualified in myriad ways, from ‘mental balance’ to ‘work-life balance.’
But in general, what does it mean for something to be in balance or harmony? Although these
are sometimes used interchangeably (e.g., Bourke & Geldens, 2007), balance is often positioned
as a component of a broader notion of harmony. For example, in Kjell et al.'s (2016) Harmony in
Life Scale, harmony is described as involving balance and flexibility (in harmonizing different
aspects of life). This approach is also taken here, where essentially balance is used to describe the
relationship quality between two dialectically related phenomena, and harmony to signify the
dynamic co-ordination of multiple such ‘balancing acts.’ However, in themselves, these are
complex, multifaceted concepts, as elucidated below. Moreover, they function in at least three
different ways, as: (a) analytical principles (i.e., a means for people to understand and evaluate
phenomena); (b) motivational principles (i.e., guides to choices and actions); and (c) axiological
principles (i.e., valued life outcomes themselves). These distinctions create nuanced complexities;
for instance, even if outcomes like good work-life balance can be understood analytically as good
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for wellbeing, people may yet not value these motivationally or axiomatically. With these points
in mind, let’s briefly explore how balance and harmony in themselves tend to function or be used
in the literature.
Balance usually signifies the relationship quality between two interlinked phenomena. Its
etymology reflects this usage, deriving from the Latin bilanx, which denotes two (bi) scale pans
(lanx). Such relationships can vary vis-à-vis: (a) basic nature, and (b) temporal dynamics. With
(a), they may be spectral (poles of a spectrum, e.g., hot-cold), or categorical (dichotomous
categories that are often linked, e.g., work-life). Then, with (b), balance can be synchronic (in the
moment) or diachronic (over time). An example of synchronic balance might be homeostatic
equilibrium regarding temperature (neither too cold nor hot). Diachronic balance could include
someone deeming that overall they average good work-life balance (even if at times they are
imbalanced). Moreover, many examples below involve a concern with ‘optimal’ balance. A
principle often invoked is Aristotle’s (1986) ‘golden mean’ (Telfer, 1989). In that, optimal balance
does not involve crude calculations of averages, nor simply identifying the mid-point on a
spectrum, but carefully finding the ideal point (which may be skewed towards one pole).
Relatedly, the Swedish notion of lagom sometimes known as the ‘Goldilocks’ principle – refers
to something being just the right amount (Dunne, 2017).
The concept of harmony is slightly more elusive, as is its etymology, which derives from the
Latin harmonia (joining or concord). In that respect, one could use it interchangeably with balance,
i.e., a relationship between two entities (Stuart et al., 2010). However, people frequently refer to
balance and harmony, implying they have slightly different ideas about what these terms mean
(otherwise one would suffice). It thus helps to consider arenas where harmony is often invoked,
such as music, which indeed is how ideals of harmony were often elucidated in classical Chinese
and Greek philosophy (Li, 2008). In music, harmony can denote a pleasing, ordered arrangement
of multiple notes. In that respect, if balance describes the relationship quality between two
interlinked phenomena, harmony could be conceptualised as the relationship quality between
multiple such ‘balancing acts.’ A harmonious marriage, for instance, implies not merely balance
with respect to one aspect of life (e.g., division of chores), but successfully managing numerous
such balancing acts across many areas of life.
With such conceptualizations in mind, I sought to draw together the disparate threads of
research and theory relating to B/H in the psychological literature. In that respect, I endeavoured
to ‘cast the net’ as widely as possible. For that reason, this is not a systematic or even a scoping
review, both of which set clear parameters and boundaries, and methodically and exhaustively
cover a given topic (Munn et al., 2018). Here, the relevant literature is too scattered and diffuse,
and I did not know in advance where its boundaries would lie. Moreover, such an expansive
approach meant an unwieldy amount of literature which would not be amenable to these more
focused approaches. For instance, ‘work-life balance’ is but one instance of B/H among dozens
considered here, but a Google Scholar search for this phrase alone returns around 187,000 results.
As such, rather than conduct a tightly defined and limited review, I preferred an open-ended
and even ‘meandering’ approach: exploring without a prescribed goal, and even inspired by
Taoism wandering ‘purposefully without aim’ (Ingledew, 2016). In this spirit I hoped I would
be led down unfamiliar pathways, and stumble upon unexpected ideas. This process is not as
exhaustive or rigorous as a systematic review of course; as such, I cannot claim to have identified
all relevant literature pertaining to B/H. However, this exploratory approach is better suited to
my goal of drawing together scattered works across diverse contexts.
I began with an initial expansive sweep of the terrain using Google Scholar, first entering
“balance” and “psychology,” and then “harmony” and psychology.” For each query, I read the
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abstracts, and in most cases the full manuscript of the first 200 items (with some overlap
between the queries). Then followed a second stage in which I explored intriguing leads in these
papers (i.e., relevant literature discussed within), which led me to a further 300 or so papers.
Throughout all this, I approached the literature guided by the ethos of Grounded Theory, an
approach to qualitative analysis in which data are explored for emergent themes, thereby
iteratively generating theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1997). As I proceeded through the literature, I
grouped together relevant ideas and research into thematic categories. In that respect, four
overarching categories emerged: affect; cognition; behaviour; and self-other relations. These are
illustrated in the figure below, together with key concepts that helped constitute the categories
(as elucidated in the text below). The figure also conveys the overarching conceptualization of
B/H deployed here, namely: balance constitutes the relationship quality between two interlinked
phenomena (as signified by the various scales); and harmony reflects the dynamic co-ordination
of multiple such balancing acts (as signified by the arrows linking the scales, and overall by the
central harmonic musical notation).
Figure 1. Dynamics of balance and harmony, featuring core categories and concepts.
It should be noted that the categories are not discrete or rigidly separated: some concepts fall
within multiple categories, so situating them within a given one for the narrative below was a
judgement call. Moreover, some concepts did not fall neatly into any of these four categories
such as in relation to gender (Lomas, 2013) or political affiliation (Lomas, 2017a) so they do not
account for all relevant B/H dynamics. However, rather than awkwardly shoehorn such
additional concepts into these four, or create a fifth ‘miscellaneous’ category, these further forms
are treated as targets for a future research agenda, as elucidated in the conclusion. Nevertheless,
overall, this structure proved a useful way to organize the disparate literature.
The four categories are discussed in turn below, each featuring a wealth of relevant concepts.
Indeed, given the broad remit of this review, it is not possible to cover each concept in depth.
Emphasis is therefore placed where possible on meta-analyses and systematic reviews, since in
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themselves they offer summaries of the concepts at hand. In some respects, the review itself
reflects the literature in being somewhat diffuse and scattered; B/H are complex ideas, and are
conceptualized in myriad ways across the various literature fields. Thus, even though B/H are
identified here as a key principle of wellbeing, this principle is itself multifaceted, involving a
cluster of interlinked concepts. Even so, an overarching theme emerged from the analysis,
namely that B/H is a ‘golden thread’ running through all dimensions of wellbeing. One cannot
say B/H are the only such thread; others may also be relevant and merit attention. For instance,
axiological commitment to wellbeing itself may be another such thread. But certainly, it seems
that across all potential dimensions of wellbeing, principles of B/H apply, as elucidated below.
3. Affective Balance and Harmony
The first category is a broad swathe of literature which invokes B/H in relation to emotions. This
features numerous overlapping concepts (and near synonyms), including balance, equanimity,
and equilibrium, as well as complexity, diversity, and granularity.
Let’s begin with ‘affect balance,’ which conceptualizes wellbeing in terms of synchronous
balance between positive and negative affect (PA/NA). Since Bradburn's (1969) pioneering work
in this area, a wealth of research has emerged. For instance, although PA and NA are usually
regarded conceptually and experientially as a continuum, their underlying neurophysiological
dynamics may be more complex. Lindquist et al. (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of 397 studies
(using FMRI and PET paradigms) to test three hypotheses, in which PA and NA are supported
by systems that are: bipolar (increasing/decreasing monotonically along the valence dimension);
bivalent (independent); or an ‘affective workspace’ (a flexible set of valence-general regions).
Overall, they found support for the latter, with valence flexibly implemented by various valence-
general limbic and paralimbic brain regions. Efforts have also been made to understand what
type of balance constitutes wellbeing. In that respect, researchers have estimated high wellbeing
to involve a ratio of PA to NA of around 2-3 to 1 with Parks et al. (2012) putting it at 2.15:1, for
instance, and Fredrickson and Losada (2005) at 2.9:1. However, such work has been critiqued,
particularly the latter for issues including attempting to link such ratios to physical laws (Brown
et al., 2013). As such, while the general principle may be broadly accepted wellbeing involving
PA outweighing NA the precise dynamics of this ratio are still to be determined (Nickerson,
2018).
Still in this affective state-space, a second parameter of interest is arousal, where attention has
focused particularly on low arousal emotions (which, as with B/H generally, are emphasised in
Eastern conceptions of wellbeing; Leu et al., 2011). One could conceivably be in balance if
experiencing high PA and NA simultaneously, as in highly-charged mixed emotions (Lomas,
2017c). More often though, ‘emotional balance’ (or ‘equanimity’) is invoked for low arousal
states (i.e., ‘neutral’ emotions involving minimal PA and NA). That said, many such states tilt
towards positivity, conceptualised as ‘low arousal positive affect,’ as captured by Lee et al.'s
(2013) Peace of Mind scale. Without such tilting, one is in the realm of constructs such as
detachment, which is somewhat ambiguous vis-à-vis wellbeing. In psychospiritual traditions
like Hinduism and Buddhism, it is valorised as reflecting an ability to eschew attachments (seen
as a root cause of suffering), as captured by the Quiet Ego Scale (Wayment et al., 2015) or the
Ashtanga Yoga Hindi Scale (Raina & Singh, 2018). However, in other contexts, detachment can
be problematic, as in the clinical conceptualisation of schizophrenia spectrum disorders and
dissociative disorders (Renard et al., 2017). Moreover, even in psychospiritual contexts, intense
detachment states can adversely affect people with mental health vulnerabilities (Lomas et al.,
2015). Finally, whereas equanimity implies synchronous balance (neutrality at a given moment),
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emotional equilibrium can describe a diachronous process that averages out over time. Here
scholars sometimes refer to emotional homeostasis (Hiew, 1998), which describes a complex
system’s ability to self-regulate around a desired set-point. Thus, emotional equilibrium usually
refers to people’s capacity or tendency to swiftly return from either NA or PA to a neutral
baseline (Golombek & Kutcher, 1990).
Then, in a different conceptual space are constructs of emotional complexity, diversity, and
granularity. Complexity is defined as “having emotional experiences that are broad in range and
well-differentiated” (Kang & Shaver, 2004, p.687), while diversity similarly means experiencing
a “variety and relative abundance” of emotions (Quoidbach et al., 2014, p.2057). Both are
premised on the value of having a range of emotions, synchronously and/or diachronously, and
more relevantly here that these should ideally be in some form of harmony (rather than
fragmentation or tension). For instance, a meta-analysis by O’Toole et al. (2019) linked emotional
complexity to behavioural adaptation. Relatedly, emotional granularity (or differentiation) refers
to “specificity of representations [and] experiences of emotion,” and an “ability to make fine-
grained nuanced distinctions between similar emotions” (Smidt & Suvak, 2015, p.48). In that
respect, granularity appears to help people better manage their emotional experiences, especially
more diverse or complex ones (Ong et al., 2017). Intriguingly, in such models, it is helpful for
negatively valenced emotions to be included, albeit not exclusively (Werner-Seidler et al., 2019).
Thus, while people usually prefer pleasant emotions, at times negative emotions like sadness
(Lomas, 2018), anger (Lomas, 2019a), or boredom (Lomas, 2017b) are not only natural but
valuable. Consider that people sometimes actively seek such emotions e.g., listening to sad
music for reasons including emotional catharsis, understanding experiences, and finding
meaning amidst difficulties (Vuoskoski et al., 2012). Relatedly, some of the most cherished
experiences, such as love, can involve a potent mix of emotions (Lomas, 2017c). From this
perspective then, wellbeing includes the harmonisation of diverse emotions.
Moreover, this category is not limited to emotions, but covers all valanced qualia. Consider
even pleasure and pain, where common sense and philosophical traditions like utilitarianism
(Donner, 1991) might deem their respective presence and absence the ultimate arbiters of
wellbeing. But even here some balance is important. People clinically incapable of feeling pain
are liable to injury, since pain serves an important evolutionary function as a warning signal to
avoid noxious stimuli and protect damaged tissue (Eregowda et al., 2016). Relatedly, a person
continually stimulated by pleasure may lack motive force to address bodily needs; for instance,
food intake is regulated by unpleasant hunger sensations (Führer et al., 2008). Thus, at least some
sensitivity to discomfort is important, with wellbeing relying on an optimal balance between
presence and absence of pain. For instance, Nelson et al. (2014) elucidate the role of emotional
learning including both pleasure and pain cues during sensitive developmental periods. That
said, as noted above vis-à-vis the golden mean and lagom principles, attaining balance regarding
a given phenomenon involves carefully finding the right amount (which with pain is weighted
towards its absence).
Finally, we can take an even broader existential perspective with respect to emotions. A key
theorist in this respect is Wong (2011, 2012, 2016, 2020), who has advanced the notion of ‘mature
happiness’ (Wong & Bowers, 2018). Drawing on Chinese philosophy, he positions B/H as the
core of wellbeing, in its deepest, most fulfilling sense. This includes an optimal balance between
the presence and absence of suffering. Most models of psychotherapy, for example, hold that
development requires people becoming aware of and integrating negative aspects of themselves,
a process which although uncomfortable is ultimately beneficial to wellbeing (Johnson, 1993).
However, this type of flourishing does not necessarily come easily or quickly, but rather is
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attained through hard-won experience, hence ‘mature.’ In this respect, Wong has been inspired
by Frankl (1985), who influentially advanced the idea that meaning and redemption can be found
even amidst life’s difficulties. Overall, Wong has arguably done the most to highlight the
importance of B/H in psychology, and this paper aligns with his work and makes a similar case.
4. Cognitive Balance and Harmony
The second broad category is ‘cognition’ – an overarching term encompassing all forms of mental
activity (excluding affective processes, which warrant a category unto themselves, as per above).
A useful framework of relevant phenomena is provided by Wallace and Shapiro (2006). Drawing
on Buddhist philosophy, they elucidate four forms of ‘mental balance’: conative; attentional;
cognitive; and affective. We’ll consider these in turn, excluding affect (as this was covered above).
With the latter though, it is worth adding that Wallace and Shapiro emphasise its self-regulation:
not merely experiencing balance, but actively facilitating it through emotional regulation skills.
In that respect, they invoke the value of meditation as they do with the three other types in
promoting such skills (Farb et al., 2012).
Conative balance refers to intentions and volitions, and the extent to which these are optimally
balanced for wellbeing. An example is Block and Block's (2006) notions of ego control and ego
resiliency. The former differentiates people on whether they characteristically express affect and
impulse (under-control) versus inhibit such tendencies (over-control). Resiliency is then the
ability to strike an optimal balance between under- and over-control (adapting according to the
situational dynamics), which is linked to outcomes like creativity (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010)
and goal attainment (Seaton & Beaumont, 2015). Likewise, Vallerand et al. (2003) differentiate
passion that is harmonious (accommodating to other aspects of life) versus obsessive (all-
consuming). A meta-analysis by Curran et al. (2015) linked the former to positive outcomes (e.g.,
PA, flow, and performance), and the latter to negative ones (e.g., NA, rumination). Consider, for
instance, exercise, which we’ll explore in the next section (on behavioural B/H). While insufficient
exercise can be harmful, so too can be excessive exercise (Blond et al., 2019), from physical issues
like injury (McKenzie, 1999), to psychosocial outcomes associated with addiction (Johnston et al.,
2011). Thus, one would ideally find a middle way between too little and too much passion, both
synchronically (in a session) and diachronically (over time). Another example is categorical
balance between different behaviours. A person may enjoy both exercise and gastronomy, say,
and research into harmonious passion suggests their overall wellbeing not merely physical, but
also psychosocial would be served by diachronically balancing these seemingly competing
desires (Curran et al., 2015).
Attentional balance is also crucial to wellbeing, particularly from a Buddhist perspective. A
quale (e.g., sensation) may be unpleasant to varying degrees; however, its effect is powerfully
influenced by one’s attention (e.g., whether one fixates on it or focuses awareness elsewhere).
Crucially, in Buddhism and in the psychological literature (Rueda et al., 2005) attention is not
a passive capacity, but an active one capable of self-regulation. Moreover, it can be trained, which
is a central purpose of meditation. In this sense, Wallace and Shapiro argue for balance between
attentional deficit (inability to focus) and hyperactivity (the mind being excessively aroused or
distracted). This may be cultivated through practices like mindfulness, which can be defined as
sustained, voluntary attention on a familiar object, without forgetfulness [i.e., deficit] or
distraction [i.e., hyperactivity] (Asanga, 2001). Note that such ideas around attentional deficits
and hyperactivity do not align with their use in clinical contexts as attention-deficit/hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD). In relation to the latter, for instance, ‘dual-processing theory’ (Sonuga-Barke,
2002) explains ADHD in terms of dysfunction in either of two neuropsychological processes
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(behavioural inhibition or reward dysfunction). Here too though issues of balance may yet come
into play. Rutledge et al. (2012) draw parallels between dual-processing theory and the dual
systems theory of self-control, where McClure et al. (2004) showed that self-control involves two
brain systems (reward, and cognitive control). Rutledge et al. further suggest that ADHD may
be addressed by training cognitive deficits via a ‘process-specific approach’ – such as programs
to improve attention or working memory which has some parallels with the kind of attention
training encouraged by Wallace and Shapiro.
Finally, Wallace and Shapiro's notion of cognitive balance refers to mental engagement with
reality (again invoking deficit and hyperactivity). Cognitive deficit means a relative lack of
engagement (being absent-minded or inattentive), whereas hyperactivity means being overly
engaged (caught up in one’s assumptions; imposing biases and projections upon reality). In
Buddhism, the ideal is again mindfulness noticing clearly but non-judgementally (Kabat-Zinn,
2003). Other examples of cognitive balance include striking an optimal line between Type I vs.
Type II errors (false positive vs. negative conclusions) (Tversky & Marsh, 2000). When meeting
strangers, for instance, one must be wary of both naivety and suspicion (Type I and II errors of
assuming trustworthiness and untrustworthiness respectively). Another example might be
balancing cognitive ‘styles,’ such as analytic and holistic modes of cognition (Peng & Nisbett,
1999). Finally, this form of balance also relates to flow, a rewarding state of absorption which
depends on parity between task demands and capacity to manage them (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
If demands outweigh capacities, this generates stress and anxiety, whereas the reverse can
produce boredom and apathy (see Fong et al. (2015) for a meta-analysis of flow state dynamics).
5. Behavioural Balance and Harmony
The third area in which B/H are prevalent might be termed behavioural, an expansive indeed
vast overarching category encompassing all the ways people act and operate in the world. This
covers a great swathe of phenomena, from character and lifestyle to ‘body maintenance activities’
and physiology.
The topic of character has made a recent resurgence, particularly with the notion of ‘character
strengths’ (Peterson et al., 2007). A prominent approach is the Values in Action taxonomy, which
classifies people according to their interests and capabilities, and encourages developing these
as pathways to wellbeing (Niemiec, 2017). The concept of character has a long pedigree of course,
traceable to the likes of Aristotle. Most relevant here is his aforementioned golden mean, where
virtue treads the middle line between opposing vices of excess and deficiency. This is not simply
moderation, nor splitting the difference between opposites (e.g., being moderately truthful).
Rather, actions should be carefully calibrated based on context, and may fall anywhere upon a
spectrum as appropriate (per the lagom principle). In that respect, Rashid (2015) and Niemiec
(2017) have pioneered an approach to understanding mental illness and distress generally
based on under- or over-use of strengths. From that perspective, strengths (such as perseverance)
are not positive in themselves, but only insofar as one finds middle ground between under-use
(e.g., laziness) and over-use (e.g., stubbornness) (Gruman et al., 2018). Such notions have been
applied promisingly in relation to conditions including social anxiety (Freidlin et al., 2017) and
obsessive-compulsive disorder (Littman-Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019). Then, in considering such
balancing acts across myriad strengths, we might speak of characteristics being in harmony. In
that respect, Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) have argued that eudaimonia requires the skilful
harnessing of many interdependent virtues, guided by ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis).
A second behavioural area in itself exceedingly broad might be termed lifestyle. Here
Matuska and Christiansen (2008, p.9) articulate the notion of a balanced lifestyle as “a satisfying
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pattern of daily occupation that is healthful, meaningful, and sustainable to an individual within
the context of his or her current life circumstances.” In this arena, the most widely studied
interaction is work-life balance (i.e., time/energy devoted to work relative to other areas of life).
This is a huge literature the largest of any topic here whose range is revealed by the many
systematic reviews and meta-analyses that themselves summarise only aspects of it. For instance,
in a medical occupational context, Dimou et al. (2016) found that poor work-life balance is the
most commonly reported factor for burnout (of which 40% of surgeons met the criteria), while
Pulcrano et al. (2016) observed that good work-life balance is associated with work satisfaction
and quality of life. Such factors matter greatly for wellbeing: a meta-analysis of 485 studies found
a robust link (r = 0.37) between job satisfaction and health (Faragher et al., 2005). Other analyses
have explored factors that hinder work-life balance; these include, at a personal level, negative
characteristics such as NA and neuroticism (Allen et al., 2012), and more systemically, a
collectivistic culture and higher economic gender gap (Allen et al., 2015). Then, in work itself,
other forms of balance have also been well-studied. The effort-reward imbalance model identifies
a key source of work-related stress as work demands outweighing its benefits (Siegrist, 2016).
Such imbalance affects wellbeing, including increased risk of depressive disorder (Rugulies et
al., 2017). Thus, ideally, efforts and rewards would be balanced, or even tilted towards the latter
(more reward for less effort). That said, research on flow suggests it should not be tilted too far,
as engagement is impeded if work is insufficiently challenging (Llorens et al., 2013).
The notion of lifestyle balance overlaps with literature on what one might call ‘body
maintenance activities’ (keeping the body healthy and functioning well), or alternatively ‘energy
balance-related behaviours’ (Kremers, 2010), encompassing processes like rest, activity, and diet.
To begin with, optimal sleep involves balancing insufficient and excessive sleep, both of which
can harm wellbeing (e.g., see Yang et al.'s (2015) meta-analysis of their impact on coronary heart
disease). Relatedly, balance is needed between rest and activity, particularly finding the middle
line between under- and over-exertion, as mentioned in the previous section vis-à-vis exercise.
B/H is also important regarding types of activity. For instance, guidelines from the National
Institutes of Health recommend a good mix of endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance
activities (National Institute on Aging, 2018). Such multi-modal training can be very beneficial
(see e.g., Lam et al.'s (2018) systematic review of clinical trials involving its health impact for
people with cognitive impairment and dementia). Another focus in this area is diet. With any
individual element, rarely can it be categorically deemed helpful or harmful; after all, even ‘water
intoxication’ can be dangerous (Radojevic et al., 2012). Rather, it depends upon the lagom
principle of the right amount. Then, an overall balanced diet is important (or ‘harmonious,’ per
our usage here, as it involves multiple elements). There are perennial disagreements about what
this involves (Laudan, 2000). Nevertheless, research is emerging on the value of intake patterns
like the ‘Mediterranean’ diet (e.g., vegetables, fruits, legumes, cereals, and fish) (see Sofi et al.'s
(2008) meta-analysis showing its impact on health).
Finally, B/H also pertains to physiological dynamics. These overlap with body maintenance
activities, except are more (but not totally) outside voluntary control. These include homeostatic
processes like temperature, which is ideally self-regulated by the hypothalamus to stay within a
healthy range (around 37°C) (Osilla & Sharma, 2019). People also assist this self-regulation via
behaviours e.g., adjusting clothes and the environment that may be understood as forms of
embodied cognition (Lee et al., 2014). Even with illness, although generally always counter to
wellbeing, its mechanics can often be considered in terms of B/H. For instance, with many bodily
processes such as the immune or cardiovascular system it is important that these are neither
under- (hypo-…) nor over-active (hyper-…), but calibrated to an optimal level (Al-Jameil et al.,
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2015). Here again, humans may have a role in maintaining this balance, e.g., self-administering
insulin in diabetes to avoid hypo-/hyperglycaemia (Sircar et al., 2016). Thus, even with health
and illness, B/H are at their core.
6. Self-Other Balance and Harmony
The fourth category goes beyond the individual to include their wider environmental contexts.
This encompasses numerous relationship forms: of the person to other people; in society more
broadly; and between people and their ecological context. First, it is worth contextualising this
section by elucidating a key point about human existence. Bakan (1966) argued that humans have
two fundamental modes of being: agency (as autonomous self-contained entities), and
communion (as also inextricably part of networks of other people and processes). Cultures
differently emphasise these modes: following distinctions articulated by Hofstede (1980) and
Triandis (1988), decades of research suggests the West tilts towards the former (individualism),
and the East towards the latter (collectivism) (see Taras et al. (2012) for a meta-analysis). That
said, critics such as Hwang (2020) have critiqued this kind of dualistic binary, as noted above. In
any case, caveats aside, it seems neither mode can be totally negated without severe harm:
erosion of communion can lead to individual isolation and societal disrepair (Bellah et al., 1996),
whereas denial of agency can degenerate into totalitarian dehumanisation (Danoff, 2000). So,
people and cultures must balance agentic and communal existence (e.g., meeting the needs of
individuals and the group).
Navigating such dynamics applies to social relationships of all kinds, from dyads such as
marriage (Rothbaum et al., 2000), to larger groupings like friendship networks (Levpušček, 2006),
to society more broadly (Ip, 2014). With marriage, for instance, most scholars and therapists agree
successful partnerships involve a dynamic balancing act of give-and-take (Pillemer, Hatfield, &
Sprecher, 2008). At some points and vis-à-vis certain goals, couples may be in synchrony. But in
other instances, these may be in tension, meaning one person must give way. But diachronically,
balance can be maintained if the other acquiesces at another time (and people may realize that
doing so, while ostensibly a sacrifice, ultimately serves their wellbeing by facilitating a stronger
partnership, involving future reciprocation). For instance, reviewing bonds among older adults,
Fyrand (2010) suggests reciprocity is a key predictor of mental health and relationship strength.
Conversely, its lack, or worse, ‘negative reciprocity’ tit-for-tat destructive acts is linked to
poor relationship outcomes (e.g., marital distress) (Salazar, 2015). The importance of reciprocity
partly involves people wanting fair treatment, as elucidated by game theory (Debove et al., 2016).
However, people also tend to value treating other people fairly and not ‘over-benefiting’ from the
relationship at their expense (McPherson et al., 2010). That said, such dynamics are not universal,
with psychopathy for example which may be a trait continuum characterised by lack of
reciprocity (Gervais et al., 2013).
Considering the myriad balancing acts that constitute a successful partnership, it makes sense
aligning with the terminology of this paper that there is an ideal of a ‘harmonious’ marriage’
(Tsouvala, 2014). The metaphor of harmony is then even more applicable when additional people
are brought into play from expanding the dyad into a family (Guanchen & Shijie, 2013), to
society as a whole (Ip, 2014). In these cases, harmony might best be seen as attaining that crucial
balance between agency and communion across numerous people (at varying levels of scale).
There are of course debates within societies about where that balance lies (or ought to). As noted,
Western cultures generally tilt towards individualism, and Eastern cultures towards collectivism
(although the picture is complex, with the modernization theory of cultural change, for instance,
indicating some universal movement in the direction of individualism; Hamamura, 2012). In
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both cases, one justification given by their proponents is that their particular emphasis is more
conducive to social harmony (Chan, 2010). This goal may be more commonly explicitly invoked
in Eastern rather than Western societies, given the former’s emphasis on collectivism (Uchida et
al., 2004). But even if ‘harmony’ is less often used in Western contexts, nevertheless the ideal
frequently expressed may be construed as a form of harmony, where people co-exist and interact
productively (Hall & Lamont, 2013; Arcidiacono & Di Martino, 2016).
Finally, we can expand our frame still further and put society in the context of the ecosystem.
Here concern moves beyond society being in harmony with itself, to the necessity of it being in
harmony with the natural world upon which it depends materially and existentially (Kjell, 2011).
In this respect, cultures differ in the extent to which such harmony is valorised, or even seen as
relevant at all (Lomas, 2019b). Less industrialised cultures particularly indigenous ones are
generally seen as having more successfully developed and/or maintained philosophies of such
harmony, which means balancing humans’ needs with those of the natural world (Izquierdo,
2005). By contrast, more industrialised countries particularly in the West are dominated by
disconnected, predatory, instrumentalist modes of relationship which view nature more as a
resource to be exploited (Emel, 1990). Notions of harmony with nature have previously tended
to be niche concerns in such societies. But growing recognition of the climate crisis has brought
environmentalism to the fore worldwide (Pihkala, 2018), including realising that aspirations for
progress must be balanced against the earth’s capacity to sustain it (Schumacher, 2011).
7. Conclusion
This paper has proposed that B/H are not merely relevant to wellbeing, but may be a definition
feature a ‘golden thread’ running through all its dimensions. This case was made by exploring
the great wealth of references to B/H scattered throughout psychological (and related) literature.
However, despite this extensive work, the concepts have hitherto been underappreciated in the
field as a whole. The research and theorizing above has been fragmented and disconnected, with
few attempts to weave it together, and to place B/H at the heart of wellbeing. This lacuna may be
due to concepts of B/H having been less influential in the West relative to Eastern cultures (Peng
& Nisbett, 1999) and relatedly to the Western-centricity of psychology (Danziger, 2002). Yet
research by the likes of Delle Fave et al. (2011, 2016) suggest B/H may be far more widely valued
than is often realized.
The paper began by differentiating forms of balance according to their basic nature (spectral
vs. categorical) and temporal dynamics (synchronic vs. diachronic). It then suggested that if
balance denotes the relationship quality between two dialectically related phenomena, harmony
is the relationship quality between multiple ‘balancing acts.’ After an open-ended and expansive
search of the literature, guided by the aims and processes of Grounded Theory, relevant works
were assembled imperfectly into four overarching categories: affect; cognition; behaviour; and
self-other relations. ‘Imperfect’ because some ideas either, (a) pertained to multiple categories
(but were placed in one for the sake of the presentation here), or (b) did not align with any of the
categories (as elucidated below). Affective B/H included: emotional equanimity and equilibrium
(mainly synchronous); emotional diversity, complexity, and granularity (mainly diachronous);
the pleasure-pain calculus; and the existential notion of ‘mature happiness.’ Cognitive B/H
included: conative; attentional; and cognitive forms. Behavioural B/H included: character;
lifestyle; body maintenance activities; and physiology. Finally, self-other B/H included: relations
of the person to others; within society more broadly; and between people and their ecological
context.
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Throughout the categories, B/H were seen as not merely integral to wellbeing, but arguably
its sine qua non. Take almost anything relevant to wellbeing with the sole but important
exception of illness and one usually cannot say categorically whether its presence or absence is
conducive to wellbeing, except in terms of B/H. Indeed, even with illness in some sense the
opposite of wellbeing (or wellness) principles of B/H still apply. That is not to say all forms of
B/H are the same; in fact, these are complex concepts, with considerable variation in their nature,
dynamics, and expression. Nevertheless, these do appear to be fundamental principles that run
as a golden thread through all aspects of wellbeing. This includes functioning as: (a) analytical
principles (i.e., a means to understand and evaluate phenomena); (b) motivational principles (i.e.,
guides to choices and actions); and (c) axiological principles (i.e., valued life outcomes in
themselves). In these respects, an overarching definition of wellbeing is offered here: the dynamic
attainment of optimal balance and harmony in any and ideally all aspects of life.
The centrality of B/H to wellbeing has already been elucidated by the likes of Kjell (2011),
Wong (2012), Delle Fave et al. (2011, 2016), and (Gruman et al., 2018). Moreover, they have shown
that B/H may be more widely appreciated than is frequently realised. Indeed, emerging work is
beginning to give B/H their due prominence. For instance, I am part of a new Global Wellbeing
Initiative, a partnership between Gallup and Wellbeing for Planet Earth (a Japan-based research
foundation). This is focused on developing new items for the Gallup World Poll that reflect more
non-Western perspectives on wellbeing (to augment current wellbeing-related items, which can
be deemed as Western-centric, such as life satisfaction and high arousal positive affect) (Lambert
et al., 2020). These include an item relating to B/H “In general, how often do you feel the various
aspects of your life are in balance” – which has so far been included in the 2020 and 2021 waves
of the poll. It will be instructive to assess how such items complement existing ones in creating a
more comprehensive framework of wellbeing, and to explore regional variation in responses.
As such, this paper adds to a burgeoning discourse around the importance of B/H, even the
review here is non-exhaustive and incomplete. On that latter point, the analysis can of course be
improved through subsequent work. For instance, some forms of B/H identified in the literature
did not fit neatly into the categories, like individuals balancing qualities deemed stereotypically
masculine and feminine (Lomas, 2013), or society balancing left- and right-wing political agendas
(Lomas, 2017a). These merit further research, as does the question of whether there are aspects
of life where B/H are not relevant, or times when these are not sought by people. In any case, this
paper provides a foundation for asking these vital questions, allowing us to better understand
these dynamics at the heart of wellbeing.
Acknowledgments
I would like to thank everyone involved with the Global Wellbeing Initiative including the teams from
Gallup and Wellbeing for Planet Earth, as well as the wider community of scholars for all their work in
discussing and conceptualizing the topics featured here. These conversations and interactions have been
very inspiring and illuminating, and have strongly shaped the content and direction of this paper. Please
visit www.globalwellbeinginiitiative.org for more details about the initiative.
Authors
Tim Lomas
Wellbeing for Planet Earth
lololomas@googlemail
Publishing Timeline
Received 11 November 2020
Life balance and harmony
Lomas
www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org 30
Accepted 19 January 2021
Published 1 February 2021
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