Jan Buchczik
What is a meaningful life? And how does work fit into that? (Illustration: Jan Buchczik)

It’s Easy to Find Work-Life Balance. Just Find the Meaning of Life.

In the past two years, Americans have become disenchanted with work, leading to major strikes and what is being called the Great Resignation. But what if there was a better way? This writer went looking for that ever elusive work-life balance, learning how to get outside more and stress less.

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Before I became a journalist, one of the best jobs I had was waiting tables at a barbecue restaurant atop a little bump on Snowmass Mountain called Sam’s Knob. My daily commute involved riding a high-speed chairlift, and I was guaranteed an hour and 15 minutes of snowboarding every morning before my shift. Tips were good, so I could afford to work four days a week, thus netting myself another three days to snowboard. Sam’s was where I learned that fresh snow made a sound when you were surfing through it: shhhh, softer than a whisper.

The way I felt about that job was the polar opposite of how I’d felt about the job I left not long before it, the one I worked right out of college, as a financial analyst for corporate clients in San Francisco. Particularly during the first couple of years, I worked late nights and often weekends. The office was on the 20th floor of a skyscraper on California Street, and I can still remember how the city glittered at night through the glass walls, rows and rows of glowing windows framing offices like mine, many of which were still occupied by young professionals like me, all of us eating takeout at our desks.

These two jobs may not appear to have much in common, but they were fundamentally similar in that they were, to me, J-O-B jobs. I mean that I did not find either of them inherently fulfilling; neither dishing brisket nor building Excel models made my soul sing. But in both instances I was compensated adequately, worked in a safe and comfortable environment, and had coworkers and supervisors that I enjoyed. The difference, then, was not the job itself but the life I was able to have outside it—that is to say, in the case of my finance job, no life at all, and in the case of the serving gig, one in which I spent most of my time doing something I loved.

The latter scenario is the holy grail of work-life balance. But many of us don’t have lives like that. According to a 2021 Gallup survey, more than 40 percent of Americans work over 45 hours a week. Yet, despite those long hours, roughly a third agree or strongly agree that in their current job, there’s “too much work to do it well.” All this got worse during the pandemic, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the average worker saw their calendar stack up with more meetings, their inbox swell with more email, and their workday lengthen by 48.5 minutes. No wonder nearly 60 percent of Americans feel “some level of burnout,” according to a May 2021 survey by Business Insider.

But burnout isn’t just a result of being overworked. It’s also rooted in our cultural belief that work isn’t just a means to a paycheck but a path to purpose, meaning, and character, says Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Malesic, a former theology professor who grew disillusioned with what was once a dream career in academia, says that the underlying cause of burnout is a mismatch between this lofty view of work and the more mundane reality that it’s sometimes unpleasant, meaningless, and even character destroying. This gap, Malesic writes, “leads us to exhaustion, cynicism, and despair.”

The solution, he says, is to reprioritize life above work. For many this will mean working less, “because drowning in email” is “not the purpose of a human life.” Instead, we should build a meaningful existence—one worth walking away from our desk for—and decide how work fits into that.

There’s just one obvious catch: historically, work-life balance has largely been out of our hands. “Most people don’t have much of a choice about whether, or how much, to work, given the state of wage and benefit levels in the nation and the lack of government-provided social safety nets,” notes Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and a faculty codirector of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “The power generally resides with the employer.”

But Sachs also says that we’re now witnessing important developments in the labor market. Starting last spring, in what’s being called the Great Resignation, millions of workers quit their jobs. Corporations from John Deere to Kellogg’s have recently seen major worker strikes over wages and other issues. And over the past two years, employees at Facebook, Google, and Net­flix staged walkouts and demanded an emphasis on social responsibility from executives. These displays of collective power, Sachs says, can have “real effects.”

In other words, we may be having a moment—one in which, for the first time in decades, we have some ability to redefine what work-life balance means. So let’s start by asking the right questions: What is a meaningful life? And how does work fit into that?

Sofia Flores grew up in Mammoth Lakes, California. Her family migrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was four and became part of what Flores calls the backbone of the town, referring to the Latino population that fills many of the local service-industry roles. For years her parents cleaned condos seven days a week, with rarely a day off. From age seven on, Flores spent her weekends helping out, stripping linens from countless beds. As she got older she took on local jobs, too: in restaurants, as a nanny, in a bowling alley. Her view of work is shaped by her family’s experience. “There was never shame in what you did,” she says. “You got paid, and that in itself was good.”

Flores, now 29, is a behavioral-health services coordinator for Mono County. When I ask her how work fits into a meaningful life, she recalls the way her mother would always say that this hurt or that hurt—her back, her hands, her legs—from the long hours and hard labor. “Even though my parents modeled a strong work ethic, I saw the downside, too, which is that they did not spend time on themselves,” she says. Flores feels privileged to be able to lead a more balanced life, with free time to do things outdoors like trail running and snowboarding. “That to me is balance, surrounding yourself with the things you love,” she says.

The ability to pursue your passions is a foundational element of a good life. Crucially, these are passions that you don’t do for work—what Malesic terms “leisure activities.” You know, hobbies.

We may be having a moment—one in which, for the first time in decades, we have some ability to redefine what work-life balance means.

Mountain biking is my primary sport these days, and it’s funny to think of it as a hobby, a term I usually reserve for activities like stamp collecting or gardening. That’s because, as a culture, we tend to infantilize hobbies, says writer Anne Helen Petersen, coauthor of the recent book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. Even my desire to rebrand my hobby as something loftier—my passion or my identity—suggests a need to justify its value. But hobbies are important specifically because they don’t have any financial value, says Malesic. He is also a cyclist who will never make money from his ability to ride a bike, which is ­exactly what makes it worth his time. “Anything that resists monetization creates a space outside our culture of total work,” he says. These spaces are where we’re at our best.

Petersen, who’s an avid runner and skier, agrees that such interests are key to a fulfilling life, as they’re a means to be your authentic self. “I think hobbies are a way to reacquaint yourself with things you like to do just because you like to do them, not because you’re trying to ­perform some part of your personality on ­Instagram,” she says. Even if pics do end up on the ’Gram—and I say this as a person whose account is 99 percent photos of me in a helmet—it’s not the primary motivation for doing the activity.

Of course, a good life is marked not only by the ability to do what you love, but also by the ability to be a good person, which is why a good job is also one that allows us the time and energy to engage with our communities. In Out of Office, Petersen and coauthor Charlie Warzel observe that when we’re strapped for time and merely surviving between work hours, we tend to turn inward and become more selfish. Petersen recalls an example from her own life, when she tried to volunteer with a local food bank in her former hometown of Missoula, Montana. “They wanted a steady hour of my time every Thursday, and I was like, no way can I make that commitment. It’s so little, but what if I was traveling for work or on deadline?” she tells me. Out of Office presents the case study of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand corporation that went to a four-day workweek. With one more full day, Petersen says, employees made regular commitments to volunteer or care for family members.

“One of the refrains of the current moment is ‘I don’t know how to make you care about other people,’ ” Petersen and Warzel write. “And one of the most straightforward solutions could be giving people the time and mental freedom to actually care about things that aren’t themselves and their immediate families.”

If a good life is one that offers enough time and energy to be a good person and do the things you love, and a good job is one that allows you to live a good life, what does a good job look like?

Erin Kelly knows. Over the course of five years, Kelly, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, worked with sociologist Phyllis Moen to run a study at a Fortune 500 company. When Moen and Kelly first arrived, employees were working constantly and burnout was rampant. The researchers implemented a work-redesign program called STAR (support, transform, achieve, results) that aimed to achieve both the company’s performance goals and employees’ work-life-balance goals. Changes included allowing remote work and flexible schedules, eliminating low-value meetings and tasks, and changing the reward system to recognize results instead of time spent on them. After a year, ­employees in groups that participated in STAR reported significantly lower stress and more job satisfaction than those in control groups. Over the course of three years, they were 40 percent less likely to leave the company. Their job duties hadn’t changed, but the work seemed less draining, and many were able to complete it more efficiently.

In 2020, Kelly and Moen published a book about the experiment, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. “Of course, with COVID, everyone’s really fixated on remote work,” says Kelly. “But I would argue that the critical elements are not how many days you work in the office.” Instead, STAR succeeded thanks to two key elements. The first, she says, is “whether you feel you have some choice or control over how you put your work and the rest of your life together.” Petersen agrees, noting that it’s less about working remotely and more about having some say in when, where, and how you work. In Out of Office, she and Warzel write that this requires overcoming our rigid mindset around work. “To really live life, especially if you want to live life outdoors, you have to be able to have some flexibility,” says Petersen. “When the snow is good, you go; when the sun is out, you go. What if you were able to rearrange your schedule for that and do the same amount of work, just at different times?”

The idea of giving employees more control of their schedules can also be applied to shift workers. In retail, for example, unpredictable scheduling and insufficient hours are the biggest stressors. In 2015 and 2016, researchers performed an experiment with the clothing retailer Gap Inc. in which certain stores made changes like setting schedules earlier, ­eliminating on-call shifts, and ­facilitating shift swapping between ­workers. At stores that participated in the experiment, employees reported being happier and more in control of their daily lives. There was also less staffing turnover, and sales increased. Gap Inc. eventually made some of the changes permanent.

The second key element of STAR is feeling supported at work—not just as an employee but as a person. Kelly says this means being comfortable sharing other parts of your life, such as family and personal goals, and receiving genuine support from colleagues and supervisors when it comes to integrating work with these commitments. STAR also trained managers to model behavior that prioritized life over work.

“To really live life, especially if you want to live life outdoors, you have to be able to have some flexibility,” says Petersen. “When the snow is good, you go; when the sun is out, you go.”

Sofia Flores, in Mammoth Lakes, says that a supportive manager is part of the reason she’s able to do things like train for ultramarathons and walk her two dogs in the middle of the day. “Our supervisors and director ­really believe in being able to honor your life so that it’s not just work,” she says. Flores has Wednesdays off, and if her managers see her online, they’ll remind her to use the time for herself.

In short, achieving work-life balance isn’t a solo endeavor. “You can’t just decide to live in a society that sets limits on work,” says Malesic. So which part of it really is in our hands? Kelly admits that it’s hard for her to endorse individual action as a solution to an organizational problem. But, she muses, perhaps a single employee can be “a small disruption” in an unhealthy workplace culture. “That could be as simple as not bragging about your own long hours, or blocking out your weekends for rest and recovery,” she says. “And certainly it means being supportive of coworkers who pursue those boundaries, too.”

Harvard’s Benjamin Sachs goes a step further. “There are two alternative sources of power against an employer: law and the collective power of workers,” he says. France, for example, dictates a 35-hour workweek and restricts work email from being sent after business hours. Sachs says it’s unlikely the U.S. will pass similar legislation, so workers organizing is our best bet. This can take the form of establishing unions or of more informal actions, like the wave of tech-company walkouts we’ve seen in the past few years.

As Malesic writes in The End of Burnout, “The question, in the end, cannot just be ‘how can I prevent my burnout?’; it has to be ‘how can I prevent yours?’ ”

I no longer work for a barbecue restaurant or a financial-services business. I eventually became a journalist, editing stories at magazines including Outside. Now I’m a full-time writer. I often say, without irony, that I have the best job in the world.

So it was hard for me to fully buy into this idea that I shouldn’t derive so much meaning from my work. After all, being a writer was my lifelong dream. It’s a job that feels authentic to who I am.

But my experts say I should draw more from those times when my job was just a means to a paycheck and a ski pass. As Malesic points out, my industry could change and work could dry up, or I could get injured and be unable to perform it. Even if none of those things ever happen, one day I will retire. “We’re all facing a future where eventually we can’t work anymore,” he says. “So I think it’s worth it to shift a little more toward that model where your job is a support for the things where you really find meaning.”

I was still skeptical, but a week later I got a second opinion on the subject, when my friend Catherine Jaffee invited me over for dinner.

Cat is a remarkable human being. Last year she survived ovarian cancer, completing chemo during the pandemic while running her company—a podcast incubator in Denver—and producing what would become the award-winning Guardians of the River. Then, still battling the effects of chemo, she loaded her bike up and competed in the 1,100-mile Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. I figured she understood how to have both a job and a life that matters.

So, at her house that night, after we’d downed a couple of glasses of whiskey and a cast-iron skillet of polenta and melted cheese, I asked her: What is the meaning of life?

Cat sighed, and for a moment I felt foolish, even insensitive. Maybe after everything she’d been through, she no longer believed there was a simple answer to this question. But then, without hesitation, she replied: “The meaning of life is to live it.”

The bourbon fog cleared momentarily. I looked at her. “That’s it,” she said, smiling.

The conversation soon turned to other topics, and the next day Cat texted me to clarify that the meaning of life is to live it while not making it worse for other living things in the process. (“That’s actually the hardest part, I think, do no harm,” she wrote.) I struggled through my work that day, being both sleep-deprived and a little hungover. By 3 P.M., I had produced a mere two paragraphs of this story. My instinct said to keep pushing; I try to put in my eight hours, even when the words don’t flow. But I looked outside the window, where the sun was shining on a perfect fall afternoon, and I thought about my friend riding alone on a dirt road in Kyrgyzstan, about small brown hands stripping sheets off a bed in ­Mammoth, about the sound of snow on an otherwise silent morning, and about my mountain bike hanging in the garage. I closed my computer and got up to change. I went to live my life.