What is a Balanced Life?

People speak of a good work/life balance, adequate vacation time, or a healthy diet and exercise regime. Clearly these are all very important factors.

A few years ago my colleague Ron Old drew my attention to a theory that beautifully articulates what I intuitively believe. This theory has been most helpful to my life and for others with whom I have shared it.

Self Determination theory by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci from the University of Rochester (2002) describes our basic needs are for balance between autonomy (the self), relationships, and competency. Regardless of culture, race, religion, or personality what is fundamental to optimal health is a balance between these 3 elements. When either of these is interfered with, underdeveloped or undermined then people are negatively affected.

Despite the immediate simplicity of this theory it is actually very well researched and highly revered. Extensively studied it is in actuality a very dense theory. For our purposes, I will keep it simple and use myself by way of example. For those interested in pursuing this further you will be amazed by its application.

First, autonomy needs are things that we do that promote self-defining features. When we engage in these activities we experience a strong sense of “this is me!”. Activities such as these inspire us to feel fully alive, engaged, and wholeheartedly present. These are moments in life that we feel fully aware of our own likes, dislikes, internal sensations and “plugged in” to our inner and outer worlds. In some sense there is no boundary between inner and outer worlds, as we feel so alive. In my own life these moments would be hiking, yoga, camping, and studies related to a greater understanding of our emotional and spiritual lives.

Secondly, relationships are necessary for many obvious and maybe not so obvious reasons. We need people with whom we invest in and who invest in us. People with whom we share our life celebrations and heartaches, build families, and relax. Also, relationships provide us with a means to know ourselves. Our relationships help us to see who we are when we are sad, happy, angry, and content. They are mirrors to reflect the “self”. Finally, what attachment theorists and neuro-scientists have been similarly indicating is that relationships are absolutely necessary for survival! Relationships promote growth (physical and emotional), develop greater brain capacity and in essence allow us to not just survive but to thrive.

In my own life I have a variety of relationships that sustain me. There are the people that I call “family”. Those people whom I will share my entire life with regardless of differences or struggles that may occur between us. Similarly, I have my professional “family”, a tremendous group of people who are my mentors, supporters, and guides. This group includes all of the people over the years that have come to see me as a psychotherapist. These are deep relationships that whether or not we are in constant contact remain a part of my life. Then there are my friends and neighbours some of which I also call family. And then there are all the people who are a part of my broader community -shopkeepers, streetcar drivers, postal delivery person, fellow dog walkers, etc. Together all of these individuals create a community for me that challenge, nurture, support and sustain my sense of my “self”.

Finally, competency is a crucial element to a balanced life. Being competent in something gives you a sense of achievement and control. There is nothing like the feeling of being able to focus your energy and attention on a goal and successfully accomplishing it. Impacting the world and your immediate environment is empowering. There is much about life that is unknown and uncontrollable. The ability to be competent in something is a soothing salve for the existential angst of our humanity.

Many people identify their professional abilities as their area of competence. However, competency is not limited to what pays the bills. Many, many, people’s sense of competence comes from activities that may never generate an income or generate a nominal profit. Achieving this final element of a balanced life may be created from your competence as an artist, a community leader, a parent, a scholar, or as an advocate. There may be many areas wherein you feel competent or only one.

Personally, my sense of competence comes primarily from my abilities as a therapist. Feeling those moments when my knowledge and experience can be shared in ways that impact another person’s life soothes me. Age-old struggles of humanity about the meaning of life or “what’s it all for?” are suspended in those moments. The connection in those moments with another person feels life defining and transcendent.

I have similar experiences of competency in other areas of my life. They are not always as evident or immediate and are often only experienced on reflection. My mothering is another predominant area of competency. In the day to day of life it can often be hard to access. It often requires a quiet moment, a deep breath and a perspective that is not limited to the moment to access this competency. In the immediate I more often feel unsure, hurried, or critical of myself. But there are times that I can feel and see evidence for the ways in which I feel I have competently participated in the growth and development of a generous, wholehearted, soulful child!

Experiencing a balanced life is not achieved by accident. It requires attention, effort, and some guiding principles. I have found that Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have provided these guiding principles. Ensuring that we really know and have a good sense of “self”, have meaningful, supportive relationships, and are able to competently impact our world are three crucial elements to achieving a balanced life.


Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (Eds.), (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.