• Sarah Tian

My Journey of Finding Balance: Lessons Learned

Updated: Jul 15

I was extremely lucky that I found my passion for psychology early on in my high school years. Throughout my career, I'm even more grateful for having the ability and freedom to pursue exactly what I wanted. Nevertheless, my journey, just like everyone else's, was not all sunshine and rainbows. There was a time when my passion was accompanied by chronic stress, frequent burnout, and the lack of ability to enjoy all the amazing things life had to offer. After the recent completion of my PhD, I took some time to reflect on my journey and the lessons learned. I hope to inspire you to reflect on what balance means for you.


How I found my passion for Psychology

It all started with my quest for the secret of happiness in my high school years. Growing up in Hungary, in a community of Chinese immigrants and small-business owners, earning money was undoubtedly a top-priority for most to achieve better life and more happiness. However, when I saw those affluent and “supposedly happy” people suffer from the same kinds of negative emotions (depression, anxiety, anger, etc.) as everyone else did, I realized there had to be something more to the secret of happiness...

One day, as I was reading The Economist, I ran across the reporting of Kahneman and Deaton's study, which found that increases in happiness levelled off when annual incomes reached around $75,000 (in 2010). Voilà! I thought. I thought: This proves my theory that money cannot always buy happiness!

During that period, I learned about the field of Positive Psychology from Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling Upon Happiness". One take-away that stuck with me is how we are especially bad at predicting what will make us happy. For example, we tend to overestimate how material possessions will make our future selves happy. We also underestimate how resilient we could be after going through tragic events. This enlightened me to pursue my life goals beyond material wealth, to live a truly happy life.

My "bible" that further changed my life was Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. After reading it, I was convinced that to live a happy life, I needed to maximize the frequency of "flow" – a state where you are so completely absorbed in what you are doing that you even lose track of time. At that time, I found myself deeply intrigued by everything related to psychology - I loved reading books and watching TED talks about psychology. I dreamed of one day becoming a psychologist and sharing knowledge about the latest research findings to the world. It became clear to me that I often experienced the state of ”flow” when I was learning about psychology. This led me to choose Psychology as my undergraduate major and even go on to pursue a PhD in Psychology.


My "Perfect" Story

My journey from the outside was a smooth one. I seemed to have attained most of the goals I set out for myself sofar. I got a pretty high IB score in high school. I got into one of the best college Psychology programs with a scholarship. I was eager to get my hands dirty in research and was able to get into a research lab working as a research assistant during my first semester in college! I kept myself busy and graduated in just over three years with double majors in Psychology and Statistics. I volunteered at TEDx and Habitat for Humanity. I was part of various student groups and became president in one of them (Psychology International Student Association). I also had a part-time job as a survey analytics intern, and conducted research with a professor who later became my PhD advisor. Most importantly, I found my passion in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology. Still intrigued by the secret of happiness and devoted to the mission of improving people's well-being, I thought: "ok, so most people spend most of their time working, so if I can improve people's experiences at work, I would be contributing to improving people's happiness as a whole." I successfully got into the top PhD program in I/O Psychology working with the professor I've always wanted to work with. I had five fulfilling years as a PhD student, landing four internships in various industries (RAND, Google, General Mills, APTMetrics), at the same time conducting ambitious research projects on perfectionism and organizational environmental sustainability.


Apparently, all of my hard work paid off. I recently got my PhD and started working full-time.


Behind the Scenes: My Obsession with Work

My obsession with work began in my high school IB years. I was super focused on my studies – even today I’m still amazed at the high level of self-control I had at such a young age. For example, to study for the English oral exam, I locked myself in my room for a whole weekend, reciting every single possible passage that may come up in the orals. I made my own study guides for Biology, tirelessly copying down and re-organizing key concepts for hours and hours into a notebook – it was just as thick as the official study guides. I would reject almost all the invitations to parties. I stopped watching TV and dramas that I used to enjoy. I stopped hanging out with friends over the weekends. Apart from daily commutes, eating and exercising, all my time was devoted to studying. Unlike most parents who encourage their child to study more, my parents had to do the opposite, reminding me to take breaks and go out more!


My workaholic tendencies really peaked during my PhD studies. This should not have been a surprise because of the nature of the demanding workload, especially in the first couple of years: we had to teach undergraduate courses, take classes ourselves AND conduct research. I would study until midnight on most work days and at least 6-8 hours each day on the weekends. Unlike in college, where we had summer and winter breaks, as a PhD student, our work never finished. When we didn't have to teach or take classes during the "holidays", it was a perfect opportunity to catch up on our research. It was especially grueling during summer holidays where I did full-time internships AND worked on research outside working hours. I remember when I interned at Google, my schedule in the entire summer was as follows: I would work 8 hours every work day, and then work on my research for another 3-4 hours after a quick dinner. For most of the summer, I also had to work full work days over the weekends to hit research and conference submission deadlines. It was definitely the most intense period that I worked thus far, pretty on par with my experience in high school: apart from eating and exercising to maintain basic physical health, my time was all devoted to work, work, and work.


A Wake-Up Call

By the end of the summer, I felt really burnt out. I could not help complain to some of my coworkers that I could not wait to end this internship and not have two jobs. I'm still shocked that I said that because I was living my dream of becoming a Google Intern. I must have been truly exhausted.


The semester after that summer, I hit a low point in terms of my mental state. One evening, I came back home from work and just wanted to lie down and do nothing. I experienced something I’ve never felt before – a sudden shutdown. I could not physically get myself up from my bed. My arms and legs would simply not follow my mind. I wanted to get up but all I could go was just roll around in bed in frustration all night... Luckily that never happened again, and my goal is to prevent that from happening again.

It was a wake-up call that something had to change. Even though I studied well-being and had the intent to improve people's well-being, but ironically my own well-being was in danger. I was such a hypocrite. I always thought I had set clear boundaries – I would rarely stay up passed midnight and I managed to hit the gym at least twice a week. But clearly, that wasn't enough for me. I was just surviving, not thriving.


Reflecting on that period, my workaholic tendencies had penetrated every aspect of my life:

  • Mental/Emotional. I often felt isolated, depressed, anxious and burned out. I would experience a "break-down" every month or so, unable to control my emotions and let it all out by crying. The first thing I thought about each morning when I woke up was all the things I had to do in my "To-Do List". Everyday, I was obsessed with checking off everything on my daily To-Do List and felt especially accomplished if I was able to cross-off something in the next day's to-do list. I could not enjoy vacations with my family and friends. I could not stop thinking about work and would often work on the road-trips, in the car and in the hotel. I treated vacations as pointless distractions that conflict with my goals at work.

  • Withdrawal effect. Reflecting back to college when I had proper summer and winter holidays, unlike feeling relieved and excited for the holidays, I would feel a deep sense of uneasiness, emptiness and sadness after the final examinations. Now I recognized that because of my workaholism, I was experiencing a withdrawal effect from work.

  • Social. My friends and family see me as always busy and end up not reaching out to me fearing they would disrupt my busy life. My closest friends confessed to me that they can also feel the pressure when interacting with me. They feel like they can only talk about work. They would even pretend they work really hard as well due to the peer pressure.

  • Physical. I had recurrent wrist and neck pain, after constantly working in the same position for long hours in front of the computer without proper breaks.

After that "wake-up call" and over a year of deep reflections during the pandemic, I gradually figured out a new perspective: a way of living that is much more sustainable and resilient, but equally productive. My well-being has been never as good as now.


Lessons Learned

Here are some key lessons I learned throughout my journey that has helped me be more balanced, happy but still productive:

💡Take rest seriously!

Like lots of people out there, I used to see rest as a sign of weakness and laziness. I saw rest as merely “not working”. I thought overwork and self-sacrifice was a demonstration of my commitment and passion, and the only path to attaining excellence. Currently, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to work longer hours. But wait a minute, shouldn’t attaining more success lead us to be more secure, comfortable and work less to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Listening to Calm’s masterclass on “The Power of Rest” completely changed my views towards rest. I learned that:

  • Rest is not just the “absence of work”. Doing some other activity like engaging in passionate hobbies is also rest. The more the activity can detach you from the stress from work, the more restorative it is.

  • Proper rest is necessary for productive work and a healthy life. In fact, the more you love your work, the more you are likely to burnout, so the more rest you need!

  • Lots of ambitious and competitive people (from athletes, scientists to politicians) discovered the value of rest and leveraged rest to boost their performance.

  • Rest is not only restorative but also gives room for creativity!

Nowadays, I set a regular timer to remind me to do stretches on my desk to avoid pains in the neck. I started to engage in deliberate rest by regularly doing fun activities (e.g. reading books before bedtime) unrelated to my work. I also don’t plan every hour of my day out. Instead, I deliberately leave empty spaces in my schedule to allow my brain’s default network to switch on. I have really started to enjoy these periods of “doing-nothing”. I’m often pleasantly surprised at all the interesting ideas that pop-up!



💡Let go of control over your life – "All roads lead to Rome"!

I used to be a big planner - I would set very clear goals for myself, and then be extremely focused on attaining that one particular goal. The pandemic has demonstrated to all of us that life rarely goes as planned. That is not to say you don't need to make plans. Having a plan is the key to attaining your goals. But the point is to be flexible with your plan and pivot as life happens.


For example, before I had always been fixated for working for Google. However, the result was beyond my control and I did not get to work there full-time. So, I asked myself: What was the reason behind this goal in the first place? I quickly realized that I wanted to work there because I want to maximize my impact in this world and contribute to improving people's experiences at work. Ok, so is there another job where I can contribute to the same goal? The answer is: Of course! And even if I cannot get a job that directly contributes to that mission, I can carve out something outside of work to contribute to that mission, such as starting this well-being blog to spread knowledge and stories to improve people's well-being! As the old saying goes "All roads lead to Rome". Once I opened up my mind and broadened my perspectives, I'm no longer afraid of life not going the way I plan it.


💡Diversify your source of happiness!

I have written about this before in my blog post: Are You Over-Invested in Life? 3 Tips to Diversify Your Happiness Portfolio. This is so crucial to happiness that it deserves another explanation. We all know that you should not "put all your eggs in one basket" when investing your money. But how many of us really follow that when trying to maximize our happiness in life? I certainly learned my lesson that I should not derive all of my sense of accomplishment and happiness from work. Nowadays, I derive different kinds of pleasures from making art, reading books and taking care of my baby pileas. I also set up regular Zoom calls with my friends to catch-up and get my dose of social happiness!


I'm especially proud of myself for being able to just do nothing! I'm always pleasantly surprised about all the creative ideas that pop-up during times when I'm supposed to do nothing! In fact several projects (including this blog) came up during times when I did not plan to do anything!


Diversifying your source of happiness and sense of accomplishment is the key for building resilience in life. This way, if something fails in one aspect of your life, you will not have a mental breakdown because you always have other things to pull you up and make you happy.

💡Find your balance of pleasure & purpose!

I really believe that one needs to have a mission or purpose, or at least some long-term goals in order to thrive in life. Check out my article on the 5 Benefits of Finding Your Mission In Life. I'm not saying we should strive to live out our purpose 100% of the time. But at least we should carve out some time in our lives to pursue something that is bigger than us.


For example, I found that I'm the happiest when I can allocate my free time as follows: spend 80% of my time pursuing something meaningful (e.g. volunteering to chat with people who need advice, writing blog posts to spread knowledge and stories about well-being, listening to podcasts and reading books related to self-improvement) and 20% of the time engaging in pleasure-generating activities (e.g. eating out at restaurants, watching movies, reading for pleasure, shopping) of life. Note, no activity is either a "pleasure" or "purpose", it all depends on your own definition. For example, watching movies could be part of someone else's purpose if they’re serious about it, but for me it is mostly just for pleasure.


💡Define what success means to YOU!

It's very natural to be tied up by the standard of success defined by others. If you pursue others' definitions of success, no wonder you are not truly satisfied once you attain that "success". Stop living the life that is supposed to be happy in the eyes of others and live the life that truly makes YOU happy.


For example, I realized that my definition of success does not involve overworking myself to attain the highest possible achievements. Currently, my definition of success is comprised of the following:

1) being both physically, mentally and socially healthy,

2) being able to improve people's well-being in whatever ways I can, and

3) having the ability to enjoy things in daily life.


Conclusions


To summarize:


💡Take rest seriously!

💡Let go of control over your life – "All roads lead to Rome"!

💡Diversify your source of happiness!

💡Find your balance of pleasure & purpose!

💡Define what success means to YOU!


Thank you so much for walking through my journey of finding my balance. I hope this has inspired you to reflect on what balance means to you and how you can proactively design your daily life to be more balanced, happy and successful based on your own definitions!

 

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