Last week I talked about the difference between success and fulfillment. I define success as achieving a predetermined outcome (usually external, observable, and measurable). I think of fulfillment as internal and subjective, a sense that life is rich, full, and meaningful.
Both matter. Yet, success can feel hallow and empty if our lives are not balanced, filled with love, grounded in the present, and a deeper sense of personal purpose. In fact, chasing success (wealth, beautiful home, building a business, community status, power, etc.) are all outer symbols and expressions of a desired inner experience. It is the inner experience we really want—to feel peace, pleasure, aliveness, joy, love; to find meaning; to sense that our lives are full, and that we’ve somehow made a difference.
So today, I’d like to teach you how to find greater fullness and meaning in your personal life. This is certainly not a comprehensive list. In fact, I invite you to think about what you might add.
- Put relationships first. There is a lot of research that proves that our relationships are more important to our fulfillment than any other factor. As stated by one of the authors of the Harvard Men’s Study, “The clearest message that we get from this 80-year study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Good relationships trump the size of your 401(k), the house you live in, your job title, your number of followers on social media, and so on. Spending time with people we like releases dopamine into the brain that has direct benefits to our physical and psychological health and results in a strong sense of joy. Really, we don’t need research to prove this point. We know from our own experience the importance of good relationships—family and/or friends. We are social creatures and our need for human contact is as real as our need for food and shelter if we’re to experience a full and meaningful life.
- Express gratitude. This can take many forms—seeing the goodness of life, counting your blessings, offering a genuine thanks to someone who has served you in some way, looking on the bright side of a setback, not taking things for granted. Lots of research proves that those who find ways to both feel and express gratitude daily (verbally or through journaling) are less stressed and depressed. They report a greater sense of purpose, more control over their lives, deeper self-acceptance, and more options for coping with difficulties. As a matter of fact, expressing gratitude is more highly linked with mental health and well-being than any other character trait. And the good news is that we can train ourselves to see the good in life and express our thanks daily.
- Find your pause button. People who are fulfilled are self-aware and connected to their inner experience. So I encourage you to stop whatever you’re doing a few times a day and take stock of yourself. It need not be long, perhaps a couple of minutes. Start by paying attention to your senses—what do you see, hear, smell, touch? Then focus on your breathing for a few breath cycles. Now look inside—what are your inner sensations? Feelings? Thoughts? Then go back to whatever you were doing. The value of this pause is to take you off automatic and keep you connected to your inner being, the source of satisfaction and fulfillment. It will help you become more emotionally aware and intelligent. It may also alert you to stresses and negative thoughts and feelings that can inhibit your effectiveness and, thereby, give you options about how to manage them.
- Be present to simple experiences. Another way to add richness to our lives is to slow down and savor those little experiences that we so often take for granted. Something as simple as eating an orange can be immensely pleasurable. Likewise, sitting on your back porch to enjoy the sights and sounds of summer may bring a richness to your life. In fact, most any activity can become pleasant if we are willing to wake up and be present during these experiences–eating a meal, doing dishes, putting the kids to bed, walking from your car to your place of work. In our hurry to get to the “big” things, we miss out on the “little” things which make up most of our experience. And one day, we’re going to look back and realize that these little things were really the big things all along. Slowing down and savoring life does not come naturally to most of us in our harried lives. Doing so takes a conscious decision and practice. Yet research shows that it is greatly associated with increased feelings of happiness and appreciation of life (fulfillment). Of course, you’re not going to do this all the time, at least at first. So I suggest you pick a day of the week or even a morning or hour each week in which you will commit to being present and enjoying the moment.
- Find a purpose. Viktor Frankl, the well-known Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Auschwitz during the Second World War observed the differences between people who survived or even thrived versus those who succumbed to the horrors of this experience. He taught that the survivors had a purpose, something to live for that helped them transcend their circumstances and find joy and meaning in everyday life. Likewise, today, people who feel the greatest fulfillment are engaged in a cause which they believe makes a difference to others. Some find this in their employment, either through the nature of the business or their unique responsibilities. Many find it outside of work through some form of service in their community or church. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting you have to give up what you’re doing in search of some life-altering cause like ending world hunger. New opportunities abound. And, chances are pretty good that you are already doing something that makes a difference. How can you give it a different spin by thinking and talking about it in a way that feels more like a purpose rather than duty, something which actually motivates and inspires you? There is little that will bring more fulfillment than knowing you are involved in a meaningful cause.
- Set and accomplish a meaningful goal. This harkens back to the meaning of success. Setting and accomplishing a goal not only helps you improve in an area of life or make a contribution to society but also gives you a sense of mastery and control as you realize that you’re not a passive heir of whatever life dishes up but are an agent of change who influences and affects the course of your life. Having a personal goal, freely chosen, is motivating and invigorating. It is a way to bring a renewed sense of excitement and meaning to your life. Is there a goal you’ve had in the back of your mind but put off for one reason or another? Why wait? Is there a way you can make it happen now?
- Engage in a regular spiritual practice. I’m talking about any kind of practice in which you quiet your mind and connect more deeply with your heart, your body, even your higher spiritual power. A spiritual practice can take many forms—meditation, prayer, deep body relaxation, yoga, tai chi, journaling, etc. The benefits of these practices are well documented and include lower blood pressure and heart rate, stronger immune system, greater calm and contentedness, greater resilience and mental focus. Research shows that people experience significant benefits with just 20 minutes of spiritual practice a day.
- Make time for fun and play. Play is engagement in any activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious purpose. How often do you play? I mean besides video games. Play is usually social and includes getting your body up and off the couch and moving. Being totally engrossed in play refreshes the mind and body as you let go of mental stress and self-concern. So, what kind of activities do you love? How can you bring more of these activities into your life?
- Visit a hospital or an old folk’s home. I read a quote recently. “A person’s most useful asset is not a head full of knowledge but a heart full of love, an ear ready to listen, and a hand ready to serve” (author unknown). Little brings more perspective, love, and joy to our lives than serving others. And the truth is that there are countless people in this world—likely in your own community—that are lost, lonely, or suffering who need your love. Why not figure out a way to extend it. It will bless them. It may bless you even more.
Of course, it’s relatively easy to come up with ideas to increase our fulfillment. Execution is the hard part. A modern day problem is that we are going so fast that we don’t take time to enjoy life, whether it be spending more time with friends, making time for play, savoring life, engaging in a spiritual practice, or serving someone in need. If that’s the case then we have to consider our priorities—what we say “yes” to and “no” to; how we might organize our lives differently.
So I invite you to consider your life. How fulfilled to you feel? Where are you on a scale from 0 to 10? What do you find brings the greatest fulfillment into your life? (Feel free to share a comment.) What might you do differently to increase your fulfillment, even a little?