I don’t have all the answers. But those of you who have read any of my previous blog posts might’ve discovered that I’m perplexed by the ideas of success, fulfillment, and happiness. All my life, I was told that I should desire to be successful. This direction was given explicitly through parenting and implicitly by society. Look at that successful 25-year-old entrepreneur. Why isn’t that me? Why can’t I live up to be that person? I’m just too lazy and unmotivated #HustleCulture.
Then, I was sold to the idea that life is actually about “finding happiness”. Happiness is sitting across from me, waiting to be embraced, only after I reach some moving goal post. When I get that new job, then I can find happiness. Once I get that new car, then I can find happiness. Once I reach enlightenment, then I can find happiness.
And lately, I’ve been on a journey to find fulfillment. Would making YouTube videos fulfill me? Would gardening fulfill me? How can I be fulfilled in life? When can I be fulfilled?
After listening to hundreds of hours of podcasts over the past few months (The Minimalists Podcast is my favorite), and after reading some helpful books (21 Lessons for the 21st Century and Get Out of Your Own Way are my top two), and after eight months of additional therapy (thanks John), here are my thoughts on the matter.
Happiness is a child’s word. Let’s try to be less ambiguous; do we want pleasure or contentment? There is a disparity between these two concepts. Pleasure is a short intense state of euphoria. Eating chocolate ice cream is pleasurable. Having sex with your partner is (hopefully) pleasurable. Achieving a goal is pleasurable. Winning the lottery is pleasurable. In all of these scenarios, you experience an intense rush of emotion. However, the experience of this intense emotion is ephemeral. After 20 minutes, you no longer feel the pleasure of eating that ice cream. After a couple of hours of achieving your goal, you no longer feel the intense pleasure you felt the first 5 minutes. After an orgasm, you no longer experience the intense level of pleasure you felt right before it.
Pleasure is not a bad thing. In many ways, it can motivate us to take action in life. It can also push us to be financially reckless. I don’t need a new car, but I am familiar with the intense pleasure that having a new toy in my life brings, therefore I’m going to buy a car anyway to experience that intense rush of emotion. We don’t think about this consciously, but advertising companies are well aware of how this works. However, pleasure is not a long-term state of being. A problem arises when we picture our ideal life as a story that is consistently filled with pleasure. A classic example is retirement. Some people wrongly believe that retirement is about finally living a life full of pleasure. Sipping martini’s on the beach every day, getting massages every weekend, and constantly attending your favorite Broadway plays. Financial reality aside, you would most likely get bored of doing these things after a year or two.
Then there is contentment. To be content is the only long-term state of being that exists between happiness(pleasure), success, and fulfillment. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be contented means, “Feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.” To put it in practical terms, to be content is to recognize that you have enough. What is enough? It’s going to slightly vary between each person, but ask yourself, what are the things you absolutely need in life. Not the things you would want or like to achieve, but the things that you absolutely need to function everyday. For myself, that is shelter, security, clothes, stability, food, water, autonomy, relationships, and enough money to cover all of those things. I have all of those things in my life, therefore I am content.
But wait, that’s it? If I am content, then this is such a boring feeling. I always imagined that being content would be akin to feeling euphoric. I would be walking around with a huge smile on my face 24⁄7 and constantly feeling good (but that’s pleasure). Well, here’s my own argument against myself. I have been privileged enough to have never experienced a true state of discontent. In other words, I never experienced not having shelter, security, food, or enough money to cover those things. Therefore, maybe I’m just not familiar with the feeling of discontent enough to have a solid baseline to compare it to. I’m sure someone who has truly experienced discontent and now has the means to be content, it’s fully able to recognize how content feels. My problem is that I put my desires and goals in the way of recognizing that I’m content.
I desire to run a business, hold public office, buy a Tesla, and start my own talk show. There is nothing wrong with desiring to do these things, and I encourage myself to achieve these desires because they could induce pleasure or flow. However, it’s wrong of me to say, “Well, I can’t really be content until I run a business.” Or, “I can’t really be content until I buy a Tesla.” Dave, that’s wrong! Those are things that you want in your life, but they aren’t the things that you need to be content. It’s easy to be content. Just recognize that you have enough. I believe this is where having a gratitude journal and mindfulness meditation can help. In each of those activities, you’re observing the things in your life that remind you that you have enough. You are content.
For the past two years, my Google search history was filled with questions like, “How can I be fulfilled in life?” And, “Why am I not fulfilled in life?” I was desperately searching for an answer to tell me the function and parameters needed to obtain fulfillment. And if I found it, then everything would be complete! I could just autopilot in pleasure until death. There was one major flaw in my logic though. I assumed that fulfillment was a constant state. When I reach this moment of fulfillment, then I would just be there forever. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth.
First off, what does fulfillment mean? If we look at the Merriam-Webster dictionary it doesn’t provide a lot of useful information.
Definition of fulfillment 1: the act or process of fulfilling 2: the act or process of delivering a product (such as a publication) to a customer
Okay let’s look at fulfill
Definition of fulfill 1a: to put into effect : EXECUTE 1b: to meet the requirements of (a business order) 1c: to measure up to : SATISFY 2: to develop the full potentialities of
Weird, this doesn’t say anything about life. So what does it mean to be fulfilled in life? Maybe develop the full potentials of life? That still sounds vague. So what do people mean when they say to, “find fulfillment in life?”
I’m convinced that everyone means flow when they talk about fulfillment. Therefore, people want to do activities that are fulfilling because they are in a state of flow when performing those activities. Flow is a mental state in which someone is fully immersed in an activity. It’s characterized by intense feelings of focus, awareness, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Time flies by quickly when you’re in a flow state. I normally recognize flow as being the only time when I don’t feel the need to check my phone for hours. Flow can come from all sorts of activities. However, it is usually connected to one of your core values. For example, I love adventures. Yesterday, I took a solo road trip to a beach town I haven’t visited since I was a kid. During the whole journey down, I was in a state of flow. The experience of driving a couple of hours and exploring a place that was new to me was satisfying in a way that’s hard to explain. Another example is that I love being able to make a difference. For the past 2020 election, I was a poll worker for 12 hours that day. Yes, it was tiring and intense but those 12 hours also satisfied my inner self in a way that’s hard to explain. I was focused, felt clarity in my life, and it didn’t feel like 12 hours compared to what a normal workday might feel.
So if fulfillment means to be in a flow state, then can I say yesterday was fulfilling? I was definitely in a flow state for a good chunk of the day. So by my definition, yes, yesterday was fulfilling. But that feels weird to acknowledge right? For myself, I always pictured fulfillment as this state of permanent being. In actuality, fulfillment is also temporary. It lasts longer than the very short bursts of pleasure, but you’re not going to be fulfilled every hour of the day, every day of the week. For example, suppose I volunteer at a charity today. Or suppose I help a friend through a difficult situation today. I’m confident that I would find those two events fulfilling and look back at the day as fulfilling. But three days later, when I’m on the toilet taking a shit, am I still going to be like, “Damn, I am so fulfilled right now!” Of course not. I would have to do something else that gets me into the flow state and repeat the process over.
Again, fulfillment is a good thing. It means that you are in a state of flow with whatever activity you’re doing. I personally would love to be in a state of flow for at least half my days, every day of the week. However, being in a state of flow 24⁄7 is impossible. In fact, it might burn you out. Many people get into a flow state while coding, but you can’t code 24⁄7. You have to take a break, and maybe get flow from other things. But for this reason, what counts as fulfilling is endless. For some people, playing video games is one of the things that is fulfilling. They are in an intense state of concentration, enjoyment and clarity. For other people, it’s gardening, volunteering, playing an instrument, etc.
I think it’s harmful to picture fulfillment as a permanent state that you reach with one thing. I also believe it’s harmful to identify fulfillment as only certain types of activities. Volunteering, giving back, and contributing is scientifically proven to bring happiness (pleasure), but not necessarily fulfilling for everyone.
Success doesn’t make sense when it’s vaguely applied to people. The Minimalists offers a great scenario to explain this. Suppose a kid asks how can she be a successful nine-year-old. What would you say to her? What does a successful nine-year-old look like? Yet, we seem to be able to apply that concept to adults. Am I successful? Successful according to who and what way? We need to have some criteria. For example, NASA could say that they want a successful mission to Mars. For them, that might mean that their rover lands in one piece on the ground and is able to make contact back to Earth. That makes sense. But if someone were to say, “I want to be successful.” What’s the criteria? Money? Status? Marriage?
The problem is society as a whole treats success as just attainment and abundance. Society likes to promote people who have attained an extraordinary amount of money, knowledge, prestige, power, influence, etc. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon. The novel problem we face today is that advertisers, influencers, and businesses use this definition of success to try and make you feel bad about your own level of contentment. They want to use this implied deficit in your life to make you buy certain books, products, ideas, etc.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to admire the qualities of certain people. There are a lot of good qualities to admire about Elon Musk, Lil Nas X, and Brené Brown. But don’t let yourself or others create a deficit in your own contentment because you don’t have the abundance of status, knowledge, wealth, or even talent that they do. We are all born differently. One thing that I like to remember is that Elon Musk didn’t one day just wake up and say, “I want to be the richest and most controversial/admired/talked about person in tech.” He just has a crazy obsession for lots of things and realized the financial means to do so.