Fulfilment in life is the experience of using your unique talents and skills to meaningfully work towards a goal that you believe is of vital importance to the world.
In this article we will unpick what this means, why this is important, and what you need to do to achieve it.
But first, if you want to know how fulfilled you feel in your life right now, take our quiz:
What is fulfilment in life?
Let us look at each of the components of fulfilment in life: the experience of fulfilment, the use of personal skills and attributes, meaningful work, and a goal of vital importance.
The experience of fulfilment
Fulfilment in life is not a feeling. It can be a feeling, as in we can feel fulfilled. But the experience of fulfilment can also include many other feelings.
Let us say that I am really interested in addressing the issue of climate change.
I may have a job that is working towards this aim, I may be doing unpaid work, I may be incorporating a range of behaviours into my everyday life, all of which may help me feel fulfilled in what I am doing with my life. But I will come across things which stop me from doing what I believe is necessary.
Some days I may feel very frustrated, upset, or angry and myself, the world, and the way things are that are getting in the way of that overall aim. But these do not necessarily make me feel any less fulfilled.
The experience of fulfilment is a deep belief about the direction of your life and your efforts to do something that you think really matters.
The use of personal skills and attributes
Fulfilment in life isn’t just about doing something you care about. There is also a personal connection with the way you go about doing something you care about.
Let us say I have a talent for art and I really want to address the issue of climate change. I could go and work in a large corporate business that has a stated aim of doing just that. The fact that I may not be using my talents as an artist may start to make me question if I am wasting a big part of what I have to offer the world. I may start to feel disillusioned and out of place.
But if I get a job or work independently that uses my art talents and skills to address the issue of climate change, then the overarching goal and the method of achieving that goal become aligned for me and I am more likely to be able to weather the frustration, upset, and anger that I might feel in the course of seeking to address the issue.
The experience of fulfilment in life requires you to feel like you are actively doing something to achieve the goal you think is important.
This means you have to put time and effort into it. And you have to feel that that effort is making a difference, no matter how small.
Let us say I am working as an artist to address the issue of climate change, but that I do very little that I think will address the bigger issues, or I don’t get enough time to do what I think will make a difference, then I am likely to feel that I am not meaningfully engaged in fruitful work. This will lead to frustration and disillusionment.
Meaningful work is proactive behaviour that will make a difference to the wider goal.
A goal of vital importance
For you to feel fulfilled in life, what you are seeking to achieve needs to link to something that you think is important to achieve; not just on a personal level, but on a wider social and global level.
Let us say that I think it is important to get the pot hole in the road outside my house fixed. I can lobby local politicians, contact the local authority, or even rally people in the street and get the pothole fixed. I may feel a sense of achievement and even fulfilment to a certain level, but this won’t last because the issue is not important enough.
But let us say I think it is important to address the issue of climate change and I believe that what I am doing is making a difference to that issue, then even though I may not solve it in my lifetime, I can see how my time and effort is helping. This is more likely to result in me feeling fulfilled.
In fact, many will say you need to choose a topic much larger than you would be able to achieve in your lifetime so that it doesn’t feed into your ego – which may result in you wanting to achieve it for the wrong reasons.
So fulfilment in life relates to a goal of vital importance because it is a goal that relates to higher values and principles that you have – the goal needs to be much bigger than you are and are able to actualise.
So what is the feeling of fulfilment?
The feeling of fulfilment starts with a context in which you have put a lot of time and effort into something – like climbing a mountain, working through a difficult task, addressing a complex relationship challenge.
It then moves towards a climax that you feel very satisfied with; you like the outcome that you have attained from all that time and effort. It then resolves itself into a sense of peace and calm. You might be exhausted, you might be bruised, but you feel the effort was worth it and you are at peace with yourself and the world, even if this is just for a moment.
This is fulfilment.
The more meaningful you find the outcome the more fulfilled you feel.
So we can see there is a distinction between the feeling of fulfilment and the experience of being fulfilled in life. One is a temporary feeling and the other is a more stable state based on long term aims and efforts.
Why is fulfilment in life important?
We all need meaning in our lives. Without it life is hard and can end up being depressing. Fulfilment in life is the realisation of our own personal meaning of life. By working towards something that is meaningful to us we end up feeling a sense of fulfilment.
Fulfilment in life is important because seeking to attain it gives us direction and meaning.
Of all the things you can seek to attain in your life, fulfilment is the one thing that will guide you towards doing something that will help others, make a difference, and give you hope. In the end, you may even feel happy about what you are doing!
Why happiness isn’t important
You don’t have to go far in the personal development/self-help world to see books and people making the case that happiness is the most important thing we can find in life. But fulfilment and happiness are not the same, and can often be opposite.
Happiness at its core relates to feeling good. I might say I feel happy, for example, if I really wanted an ice-cream and then got one that tasted good. I am not likely going to feel very satisfied with my life or fulfilled by eating that ice-cream!
But some people in the self-help/personal development world define happiness as being a more long term state related to a sense of satisfaction in life. If you redefine happiness as this then you may very well be talking about fulfilment and not happiness.
Fulfilment is a better term for these ideas we are talking about for some of the reasons stated above. When you are doing something you feel is meaningful and are using your own talents and skills to work towards this goal then you may not feel much pleasure or happiness while doing it but you are likely to feel a sense of fulfilment.
Happiness has little to do with making your life mean something and making a real difference in the world. Indeed, it can be a barrier.
Why success isn’t important
When someone uses the word successful, they usually mean moving up the social hierarchy, which is more often than not related to money, status, and power. But having these things is no guarantee of feeling fulfilled.
If you read Jean’s book Behind the Masks, she talks about having achieved everything she had dreamt of only to feel that she was not very fulfilled or happy about where she was and what she was doing.
If the ladder you are climbing is up against the wrong wall then it doesn’t matter how successful you are at climbing that ladder, it will never fulfil you.
Equally, you could have very little money, status, and power but be doing something you really feel is making a difference and is of vital importance. You can feel fulfilled but be seen as unsuccessful in the eyes of society.
Why don’t I feel fulfilled in life?
Most people do not feel fulfilled and do not experience fulfilment in life.
This is because we live in a society that places particular values above others. Generally, the values that are promoted are related to the discussion on happiness and success above: feeling good and being high in the social hierarchy.
These culturally defined ideals and values are served to us through our families, friends, education, popular culture and media. Without being conscious of them, or having thought much about what you want to do with your life free from these expectations, most people internalise them and seek to live by them.
The result is that people are seeking money, status, power, love, success, happiness, and other things that do not necessarily bring a sense of fulfilment.
You can have a great looking relationship. A great looking career. A great looking social life. But these can all feel empty and you can feel alone, even when surrounded by others who are saying how great you are doing. Jean gives a great account of how this was for her in this article here.
How do you find fulfilment in life?
Finding fulfilment in life has 3 essential components: Where you are going in life, how to get there, and how to keep you on the path. These elements can be broken down as follows:
Discover your purpose
We are all unique and we are all good at different things and want different things in life. But what is common between all of us is a desire to do something with our lives that is in line with what be believe is important and significant.
By finding what you think is important and significant in life will lead you close to what it is that you would find fulfilling. You just need to find something specific to do that fits into this and commit to it.
Connect to something larger than yourself
If you choose to do something that is achievable you will find that it is not very motivating and that it can even bring out the worst in you.
If you are able to achieve what you set out to achieve in your life then it feeds into personal defenses that we have developed over our lives because the achievement can make us feel good, help us move up the social hierarchy, and gain power, even if what we are seeking to achieve is admirable.
By connecting what you commit to doing with your life to something larger than yourself, something that you would not be able to achieve in your life time, you are able to by-pass your defenses and act from a place of genuine care and concern. This is more likely to bring the best out in you even if you climb the social hierarchy.
Contribute to others
We are social creatures and by linking your purpose to how you can contribute to others will increase the sense of fulfilment you get from it. It will help define the purpose and your sense of belonging in the world.
As an example purpose in life, here is mine: To create a world where people and organisations use their power for the good of humanity.
I won’t achieve this in my lifetime! But working towards it gives me a huge sense of satisfaction, helps shape the direction I take in my career, and ultimately leads me to feel a sense of fulfilment where and when I feel what I do is in line with it.
Make a plan in line with your purpose
With a clear purpose in life you need to create a plan that will help you make changes in your life so that you can work towards your purpose.
It doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan. Just make a plan and commit to it.
Create time to reflect each day or week
Making time each day, or at least every week, to reflect on what you have been doing, how you have worked towards your goal, whether you have been able to live by your values, will help develop a sense of fulfilment.
It may be that you realise you do not think what you are doing is helping you to work towards your purpose. In which case this regular exercise will help inform and guide your decisions around work, relationships, and life.
It may be that this exercise helps you realise that what you are doing is very much in line with your purpose and this is where you will feel fulfilment as an emotion.
But this exercise is important because in life you will experience both of these and so you will need some way of learning from your experience and knowing how to keep you on your chosen path.
Develop a supportive network
Growth, development, and living your purpose cannot be done in a vacuum. You need to have a set of supportive people who know and understand you and your aims to be able to stay on the path.
Of course, there will be times when you can and need to do things on your own. But if you do not have a good network behind you, you will falter.
It may be that you have a good set of people you can rely on already. It may be that you need to find new people, or change the configuration of those that you see regularly. Either way, you will need be clear with them about what your plans and what you want and need from them to help you along the way.
To sum up
Fulfilment is at the heart of a live worth living.
It is a feeling that transcends others because you can feel bad, frustrated, angry, or even happy and feel fulfilled because it is a feeling tied to the important things in life – who you are and what you do with your life.
If you are able to align who you are and what you do with your life you will find fulfilment.
But you will need help and support along the way to attain it and keep on the path that will sustain it.
So the question becomes not about what can I do to reach fulfilment in life, but more about who am I? how do I express myself authentically? how do I get past my defenses? How do I know what my core values and principles are?
It is such questions that will lead you to fulfilment in life and to answer these questions you need to do the work on yourself.