Meaning Deficit Management: A Theory to Replace Work-Life Balance?
The popular notion of maintaining a ‘work-life balance’ has been challenged often in the recent years. The origin of the idea itself — that it was mooted in the 80’s America, to convince career women that they could balance their families as well as their jobs, has been half-forgotten. Instead, the concept has pervaded across the globe, carried along with with HR jargon and corporate culture and has expanded to include both sexes. The idea has been found inadequate— not because there is no need for a ‘balance’ anymore but probably because the two categories of what we are supposed to balance are too binary, too simplistic. ‘Work-Life-Harmony’ has been suggested as an alternative but that too seems inadequate given the scenarios below.
For many inspired people who have been fortunate to find their true calling in life, their work IS their life and vice versa. The popular definition of work= job, and life= family has also been breaking down. The notion of ‘family’ has evolved from ‘joint’ to ‘extended’, to ‘nuclear’ to ‘unclear’. For many younger peoples, the notion of family has transcended the purely biological. It could mean a group of intimate friends or companions sharing similar values living together or close by.
The idea of ‘work’ as a singular profession or as a 9-to-5 job has been severely challenged too in the recent years with the nomadism of the millennial generation and especially after the pandemic when everyone was forced to work remotely. In the new ‘Gig’ economy, one could be doing several jobs at different set ups and offering a variety of one’s services on-line. Furthermore, post-pandemic, the spatial ideas of ‘office’ and ‘home’ have merged. Under such circumstances of extreme ambiguity, uncertainty, flexibility, and mobility, the need for ‘balance’ is elusive and therefore more urgent and significant.
It would be good to start by examining why is there a need for ‘balance’ in the first place. The Truth is that humans cannot live on subsistence and survival mode alone. What sets us apart from animals is that we constantly thirst for meaning. Even facing death, it is not death itself that overwhelms us but the sheer meaninglessness of it. Most humans would consider a meaningless life worse than death. It leads to Nihilism, existential angst, depression, and eventually to self-destruction. It is this fear of chaos and the human need for meaning that prompted the Human ideas of God, creation, order, society, morals, etc.
Because we crave meaning, we constantly strive to create situations around us that would provide us with adequate meaning to justify our existence to ourselves. We constantly tell ourselves “I exist because……”, “I live because…”. “I am contented because…”. “I feel good about life because…”, etc. We constantly seek external validations — from religion, from partners, from family, from community, from work, from our interests and passions — from all life situations to support these narratives. Lack of meaning leads to a vague sense of unease which slowly grows into a gnawing feeling of Meaning- Deficit.
In the west, the role of religion and faith as the provider of over-arching narratives of meaning has been eroded. This has been gradually replaced by science and technology, the State, the Capitalist-consumerist machinery, and more recently, the social media, which have now more or less amalgamated into a single formidable force. The pervasion of this ‘everyone-for-himself’ paradigm across the globe has resulted in alienation from family and community, which has exacerbated the Meaning Deficit, making it an urgent universal crisis. Can the notion of Meaning Deficit explain and help unpack the contemporary complexities of the ‘work-life- balance’?
Humans exist in several ‘spheres’ or ‘spaces’ at the same time. There is the personal sphere, the work sphere, there is the family sphere, the social sphere, and so on. These cannot be strictly separated of course, there are overlaps.
My observation is that a perceived meaning-deficit in one sphere creates pressure and stress on the other spheres for compensation. The situation naturally gets worse if one exists only in few spheres. For example, if only had a ‘work sphere’ and ‘family sphere’, a meaning-deficit at work would spill over quickly into one’s family sphere as an additional need or pressure for compensation. If the partner fails to provide the much-needed compensation, the focus might shift to the children in the family. If that need too gets frustrated, one feels stuck, with no room to maneuver.
The only option is to create another sphere to take off the pressure. May be a new relationship, start a new hobby or project ? May be join a course or acquire a skill ? Take to jogging, or enroll into a fitness regime, or pursue art or creative writing, explore religion or spirituality?
Spheres act as safety nets that can accommodate or compensate for meaning deficits. More the spheres, less the perceived deficit in one. On the other hand, there is always the danger of spreading oneself thinly across too many dimensions that could result in a lack of intensity and therefore fulfilment. Too much intensity in too many spheres could lead to exhaustion and burnout. Greater the intensity of one’s emotional investment and creative engagement in any sphere, the more returns and compensation it offers for meaning deficit in other spheres. Conversely, greater is the disappointment and disillusionment that ensues, when that sphere is deprived of meaning. Everyone has experienced the mind- numbing devastation of loss of meaning following a sudden loss of a job, a relationship, a loved one, or a community.
Meanings also have a nasty way of fading over time. What was extremely meaningful five years ago to us could no longer be meaningful today. So, it is good to take regular stock of our lives, acknowledge one’s discontentment as and when it arises and actively strive to overcome it, even if it causes a temporary discomfort and unpleasantness of dealing with change.
One must invest enough time and energy to discover what is truly meaningful to us as individuals and not be taken in by others’ narratives, however socially or politically dominant they might me. One owes it to oneself and will not regret it in the long run. The idea of emotional resilience has to do with how skillfully one handles meaning deficit as it occurs. It is meaning that we balance through work, money, relationships, and leisure. Life seems to be a constant exercise in Meaning-Deficit Management.
In a highly repressed, stratified, and patriarchal society such as ours, sadly, not everyone has the freedom or the luxury to pursue meaningful lives. However, there may be the few million lucky ones in the world at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, for whom the needs of the base layers, as well the last stage of ‘self-actualization’ have been fulfilled. Yet, surprisingly, they are haunted by a vague feeling of unease and emptiness. Some of them have made peace with the inherent un-satisfactoriness, and the temporariness of all meaning, and are beginning to relax with the persistent meaning-deficit in life with some irony and humor. They become artists, philosophers and poets.
Some have got an inkling that meaning, and meaninglessness may be inter-dependent in nature and that the ‘figure’ of meaning cannot exist without the ‘ground’ of meaninglessness, just as sanity cannot be defined without insanity. Still others realize that meaning is a mere subjective interpretation of meaninglessness, and that it does not exist objectively outside the ‘self’. Their neurosis of constantly having to manipulate external situations for internal contentment, is beginning to fade. For such few and fortunate people, the search for true spirituality has just begun.