The positive psychology movement is more than just an abstract theory. From its principles, you can take concrete steps that can improve both what you do on an everyday basis, and also your overall sense of fulfillment. You may not always feel 100% “happy,” but over time, you will feel more optimistic, hopeful, and able to handle life’s vicissitudes. I’ll outline some of these steps shortly.
First, we should look at the difference between happiness and fulfillment. “Happiness” is a fleeting state that reflects your enjoyment of the moment in the present. You can feel happy, if only for a moment, for many reasons. You might receive a piece of good news, meet a challenge you thought you’d be unable to overcome, or share a laugh with a friend. After the moment is over, you return to your previous state of mind, possibly with a slightly more cheerful attitude. What is the opposite of happiness? In contrast to the up of feeling anywhere from glad to elated, it’s that feeling of frustration, depression, worry, and preoccupation.
Mood states may come and go and in the absence of a mood or anxiety disorder, respond to a variety of factors, some of which are outside of your control. It’s normal to have those varying moods. We don’t have to feel happy all of the time to lead a satisfying life. Happiness is based on your inner state and if you live your life in pursuit of happiness, you may very well find, over time, that your feelings did not provide you with inner satisfaction.
In contrast to happiness, a sense of fulfillment persists over time and in the long run will contribute to your mental health. To achieve a sense of fulfillment requires that you look within yourself and examine your priorities in life, where you are in relation to those priorities, and how you can achieve them. The priorities that will help contribute to your sense of fulfillment are the ones not that help boost your mood, but that further the lives of others. According to recent research, we all benefit when we give to others rather than giving to ourselves. In this study, people who gave away a $20 bill that was given to them felt better than those who kept the money for themselves. In my own research on long-term fulfillment, I found that the people who developed the most resilience and life satisfaction were the ones who devoted their lives to making a difference in the lives of others.
You may be unhappy in the moment due to whatever outside factors impinge on you; when those factors go away, you feel happy. For instance, you’re crossing the street and a car goes by, splashing you and ruining your favorite shoes. This will cause unhappiness. However, if the street you’re crossing gets you to a place where you can work on an important life goal, you’ll forget about those shoes soon enough and refocus your attention on the job that awaits you at your destination.
Now that you understand the contrast between happiness and fulfillment, let’s take a look at ways you can apply this to your own life. These three exercises can help you clarify how to separate happiness and fulfillment in the pursuit of your life goals.
1. Distinguish between what you think will bring you happiness and what will bring fulfillment. Take a sheet of paper and make 2 columns: one for "happy" and the other for "fulfilled." In “happy,” write what you believe would make you happier in the next few months-- everything from a job promotion to a tidier kitchen. Come up with another list for the “fulfilled” column. Now compare the two: how do happiness and fulfillment differ for you?
2. Determine your reality. Purchase a pocket sized notepad, or tuck a 3X5 index card into your wallet or briefcase. You can also create your own “fulfillment app” by working on your mobile device. At lunchtime and before you go to bed in the evening, jot down different events that occurred during the day and mark them as H or F. Now think about how many of these incidents involved objects, and how many involved other people. This exercise will help you to see your own reality and what truly brings you a sense of fulfillment. At the end of the week, compare this list with the list from step 1, above. Has your perspective changed between what you thought happiness and fulfillment meant to you?
3. Make a difference. Think about your interests, skills, and talents. Are you currently involved in any volunteer activities or clubs that provide a service to the community? Maybe you simply have an older adult neighbor who could use some help with lawn care. If your time is extremely limited, could you donate an hour of your time just once a month to stuff envelopes for a charity? Could you find a local organization that sends care packages to the troops, and spend a few hours a month boxing goodies? You don't have to have an extraordinary skill or a college degree to make a difference... you just need to commit a little bit of time. Determine to find just ONE worthy cause that you will devote at least 1 hour of time to during the day, week, or month.
Hunting for your own personal happiness can leave you feeling hollow; but, a sense of fulfillment is found in knowing that you've lived a life that has positively impacted the world around you.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012