There are likely few people on the planet who have completely avoided struggle with questions of meaning and purpose. We have an inherent need to feel like our existence means something. Nearly all of us at some point have wrestled with it. Lack of fulfillment is one of the most difficult feelings we can face. So how do we find fulfillment? Better yet, how do we create fulfillment?
Fulfillment is, or at least can be, a very different thing than pleasure. Sometimes we need this reminder because society often suggests that we find fulfillment through maximizing how much and how often we feel good. Experiencing positive emotions and sensations is important to a happy life, and has a variety of practical benefits. Still, physical, emotional and psychological pleasure is subject to what psychological researchers and neuroscientists call the adaptation principle. This means we get used to it, often very quickly. Because our brains are wired to adapt, indulging in pleasure is at best fleeting and diminishing in its returns. At worst can result in addiction. Fulfillment, on the other hand, is not subject to the adaptation principle and can increase over time.
1) Find the Flow:
A bridge between enjoyment and fulfillment can be found in those activities in which you achieve “flow”, a concept originally articulated and rigorously studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as having six main components: focused concentration, the merging of action and awareness, loss of self-consciousness, a sense of control, unambiguous feedback from the activity and autotelic experience (the sense that the activity is its own reward). In other words, the state of flow is a state of merging with what you are doing to the point that actor and activity become one – getting lost in what you are doing while being fully present in it.
Activities in which we find flow may or may not be pleasurable in the usual sense. Flow most often comes from engagement with genuinely challenging tasks. Yet it comes with a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose. Only you know, or can discover, what activities get you into a state of flow. When I find flow it’s often while working on a demanding creative project or an absorbing physical activity like yoga asana, hiking or even yard work. For you, it might be athletic competition, or cooking an amazing meal, or getting your hands dirty in the garden, or creating the perfect spreadsheet, or rock climbing, or doing math equations, or dancing or any other absorbing and engaging task.
Whatever activities get you into a state of flow, engage in them as often as you can. Doing so has been shown to boost performance in athletics, creative endeavors, schoolwork, and job tasks. More generally, it has been shown to contribute positively to life satisfaction, self-esteem, finding meaning in life and decision making. It has also been shown to reduce anxiety, problem-avoidance, and social disengagement.1 If you really want to maximize flow, find a job or volunteer opportunity that requires you to do activities in which you can find that state on a regular basis. To do that, you need to know where your passions, strengths and talents lie because flow is easiest to reach through those doors.
2) Identify and Use Your Passions, Strengths and Talents:
Benjamin Franklin said that “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning” and modern psychological research shows that he was right. We have a basic need for competence or mastery and competence can only be arrived at through continual growth. One way to find fulfillment is to identify your strengths and pursue a career, volunteer position or pastime that allows you to make use of them as often as possible. You may already know your strengths, but if you haven’t explored it you, might try something like the Strengths Finder 2.0.
For even deeper fulfillment, spend your time in activities that not only engage your strengths, but that you find meaningful and important. When you do that your efforts become, as psychologists have come to call it, “Vital Engagement” where work ceases to be work but becomes an act of love 2
You may find yourself in a job that doesn’t seem to fit that bill but the good news is that you don’t have to quit your job or radically change your life to find this kind of fulfillment – you just might have to change your attitude about the work that you are doing. Psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski examined a wide variety of jobs from janitors to professionals and found that in virtually every line of work there are people who choose to see their labor as just a job, or as a career or even as a calling. Those who choose to see their work as a calling are far more likely find ways to engage their strengths on the job, to go beyond the call of duty and ultimately to enjoy and find fulfillment in their work. Finding fulfillment at work is less about what kind of job you have and more about how you approach it.3
3) Avoid Comparisons and Perfectionism:
The fact that we can choose to see our work as a calling points to the fact that fulfillment comes from within, not from recognition by others. It has become a cliché to say that comparison is the thief of joy. Clichés become clichés generally because they contain an element of unchanging truth. Whenever we compare ourselves to people who have more of whatever we want than we do – money, prestige, attractiveness, friends, etc. – we suffer as a result. Psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated what we already know in our hearts: that negative comparisons lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and even self-defeating choices.4Meanwhile, satisfaction with what we have leads to greater satisfaction with life.5
And it is not only damaging to compare ourselves to others, but also to compare ourselves to an image of what we might be if we were perfect. A healthy recognition of our faults and shortcomings and working to improve are good things. But they are very different from perfectionism, in which we punish ourselves for falling short of an unattainable standard of infallibility. Studies show that this can be deeply corrosive to happiness and wellbeing.6
To feel fulfilled in the things that you do, avoid comparing yourself to others and to an image of how you would perform if you were perfect. Work to attain a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses, forgive yourself for your mistakes, give yourself credit for what you do well, and enjoy the satisfaction that it brings you.
4) Use Stress in the Right Way:
It is important to know that like experiencing pleasure, effortful engagement is best for happiness when done in moderation. Studies of happiness in Japan show how overworking can be destructive to wellbeing. Among the hardest working people in the world, the Japanese are experiencing levels of depression and anxiety at levels unparalleled in the industrialized world. Indeed, the country has coined the phrase karoshi or “work death” to describe people who simply die from the exhaustion of working too hard for too long. This should serve as a stark warning that while it is important to find work that fulfills and pleases you, it is only one piece of the puzzle.
The Japanese experience is a reminder that we need to tend to our relationship with stress. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the world’s leading positive psychology researchers, notes stress is (or can be) a good thing. Stress makes us grow, develops our resilience, makes us look for creative solutions and so on. It is only when stress becomes chronic that it becomes destructive. Dr. Ben-Shahar uses the analogy of the stress we put on our muscles when we lift weights, which presents strain, difficulty, and actually breaks down the muscles. This stress is exactly what the muscles need to grow and get stronger – but only if given proper recovery time. If we stress the muscles over and over and over without rest the result is painful injury. The same goes for our minds and hearts.
For a fulfilling life, we need some stress. We need to push ourselves. But we also need to do that in moderation. And so Dr. Ben-Shahar prescribes psychological recovery time in three levels. Micro level recovery is the minutes and hours we take during the day to take a break. A few minutes every hour or so to remove ourselves from work, an hour or more each day for relaxation and enjoyment are important factors for avoiding burnout. Mezzo level recovery consists of the slightly longer stretches we need – a full night’s sleep each night and a day or more off each week to recharge our batteries. Finally, there is Macro level recovery. Sometimes weeks or months off are needed to really process and let go of the stress we accumulate. The occasional vacation is a necessity for fully enjoying life, not a luxury. 7
5) Live a Virtuous Life:
Modern Psychology has documented what great thinkers from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment were already certain of long ago – virtue and happiness go hand in hand. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “There is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct.” Being good and doing good are likely more important to the happy life than feeling good.
A wide variety of definitions of virtuous behavior appear across cultures, religions, philosophies and times. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson combed countless religious, philosophical, ethical and other texts and found six virtues to be universal across them: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.
But how do we develop and strengthen these virtues and thus increase our overall happiness? A good start is to look at how the authors broke down the six universal virtues into what they term “signature strengths”. These are traits that people can develop over time and not actions in themselves, but understanding them gives direct guidance into ways we might practice and develop our virtue. In fact, Seligman and Peterson suggest identifying your signature strengths (the ones you already possess to a high degree) and using them as often and in as many settings as possible. Below is the breakdown
- Wisdom: Component Strengths include curiosity about the world, love of learning, open-mindedness, practical intelligence, emotional intelligence, and perspective.
- Courage: Component Strengths include bravery, perseverance, and integrity.
- Humanity: Component Strengths include generosity and love.
- Justice: Component Strengths include duty, fairness, and leadership
- Temperance: Component Strengths include self-control, discretion, and humility
- Transcendence: Component Strengths include appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, optimism, spirituality, mercy, humor, and passion [noteMartin E. P. Seligman, PhD (2002) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psycholgoy to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. (New York, NY: The Free Press) 134-161.[/note]
Which virtue gives the most bang for your happiness buck depends entirely on the individual. Still, there is a good amount of research specifically on the virtue of humanity, and in particular the strength of giving to others. If you have no time, give money. If you have no money, give time. Studies show that those who give money to charities and those who give their time as volunteers are much more likely to be happy. Those who don’t are much more likely to experience deep sadness and hopelessness.8The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca was right thousands of years ago when he said “He that does good to another does good also to himself”.
If you want to increase your own virtue, it is a good idea not only to practice it yourself but to surround yourself with inspiration. Research by Jonathan Haidt and Sara Algoe showed that people respond emotionally to acts of moral beauty with both pleasant feelings and a desire to be a better person.9 Surround yourself with people you find inspiring, or immerse yourself in books, movies or television programs about moral heroism. You will likely be a better, happier person for it.10
6) Don’t Make Money or Happiness the Goal:
There is paradox aplenty in the research on wellbeing. One such paradox is that while doing what makes you happy may make you rich, doing what makes you rich may make you less happy. Happy people tend to thrive in doing their work, and as a result may indeed become financially wealthy. But it is not the wealth that makes them happy; it is the journey itself. Derek Bok notes that, “psychologists report that those who attach great importance to achieving wealth tend to suffer above-average unhappiness and disappointment.”11
And it may sound even more paradoxical in a blog that proposes that we make widespread happiness a social and political goal, but there is evidence to suggest that being happy should not be one’s personal goal. Some studies have shown that doing things with the conscious goal of becoming happy as a result can actually be damaging to wellbeing.12 In other words: if you are a painter, paint because you love to paint and can get lost in it. If you are an educator who loves teaching, teach with the goal of informing and opening minds. If you are a contractor, build a house that you can be proud of. The paradox is that if you do these things for the love of doing them, you are more likely to be happy; but if you do these things because you hope they will make you happy, you are likely to be disappointed.
The reason seems to be found in studies showing that higher moods tend to be associated with less focus on the self.13. So when we do things not because we want something for ourselves, but because we find some other value in doing them happiness is more likely to be the result.
In the wonderful Hollywood film Hector and the Search for Happiness, the main character Hector finds himself toward the end of the movie in the classroom of a wizened old Positive Psychologist named Professor Coreman who tells his class that “…the more we focus on our own happiness, the more it eludes us…in fact it’s only when we are otherwise engaged; you know: focused, absorbed, inspired, communicating, discovering, learning, dancing for heaven’s sake, that we experience happiness as a byproduct, a side effect. Oh no, we should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of pursuit!” In other words, the end goal is not only less important than the process of reaching it; it can actually be a hindrance to reaching it.
Fulfillment in a Nutshell:
All this suggests not that the American founders were wrong in promoting the pursuit of happiness, but that we need to remember what it was they meant by “pursuit”. In 1964, Arthur Schlesinger dug through the writings of the founders and their Enlightenment counterparts. He found that the term “pursuit” may have at times been used in the sense of chasing after something, but in the context of happiness it was used more often in the sense of medicine or law as a “pursuit”. In this sense, happiness is not something that you chase after, but something that you practice. Happiness conceived in this way is not the prey that one ultimately catches. It is instead a characteristic of a purposeful hunt.14 When we hunt purposefully for flow, for meaningful uses of our time, for balance in our stress, and for virtue in our lives we are more likely to catch the elusive prey called “fulfillment”.
January 20 | Ryan Rynbrandt
- Giovanni Moneta (2014) Positive Psychology: A Critical Introduction. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan) p183-201. Moneta also notes that there are risks in that flow-like states are implicated in internet and online gaming addiction, risk-taking behavior and even killing in combat. I hope it is obvious that these activities are not likely to lead to very happy outcomes.
- Nakamura and Cszikszentmihalyi (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In Keyes and Haidt (eds), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well Lived (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association) 83-104.
- Wrzesniewski, Rozin and Schwartz (1997). Jobs, careers and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33
- See for example Aspinwall, L. G.; Taylor, S. E. (1993) Effects Of Social Comparison Direction, Threat, and Self-Esteem on Affect, Self-Evaluation, and Expected Success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 and Collins, R. L. (1995) For Better or Worse: The Impact of Upward Social Comparison on Self-Evaluations. Psychological Bulletin 119.
- Easterlin and Sawangfa, Happiness and Economic Growth and Graham, Chattopadhyay and Picon, The Easterlin and Other Paradoxes: Why Both Sides of the Debate May Be Correct in Ed Diener, John F. Helliwell and Daniel Kahneman, eds. (2010) International Differences in Wellbeing (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)
- See Rice, Kenneth G.; Leever, Brooke A.; Noggle, Chad A.; Lapsley, Daniel K. (2007) “Perfectionism and Depressive Symptoms in Early Adolescence”. Psychology in the Schools 44(2): 139–156. doi:10.1002/pits.20212. and Rettner, R. (2010, July 11) The Dark Side of Perfectionism Revealed. Live Science .
- Tal Ben Shahar (2009) Happiness 101, video for PBS
- See as examples the findings of the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey by Harvard University and the University of Connecticut at Storrs and the 2001 Panel Study of Income Dynamics by the University of Michigan’s ICPSR.
- Jonathan Haidt (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. (New York, NY: Basic Books) 196-197
- It is important also to note that while happiness seems to come from adherence to a personal sense of virtue and morality, insistence that one is on the correct side of an absolute morality has also been identified as one of the four major causes of violence. People who believe that they are on the side of moral good and that those who disagree with them are on the side of evil are more likely to engage in violent and oppressive behavior.
- Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness, (Princeton:Princeton University Press) p. 15. See his footnote for some of the research
- Schooler,J .W., Ariely,D ., & Loewenstein,G . (2003). The pursuit and assessment of happiness may be self-defeatingI.n I. Brocas & J.D. Carrillo( Eds.), The psychology of economic decisions: Vol. 1. Rationality and well-being ( pp. 41-70). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Green,J .D., Sedikides, C, Saltzberg, J.A., Wood, J.V. & Forzano ,L.-A.B. (2003). Happy mood decreases self-focused attention. British Journal of Social Psychology 2, 8, 147-157.
- Arthur M. Schlesinger (1964) The Lost Meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness”, The William and Mary Quarterly, 21, 3, 325-327.