- The building blocks of a fulfilled life include resources (e.g., support), personal characteristics (e.g., curiosity), and life quality.
- Cognitive and emotional evaluations include being free of regret, achieving self-development and other important goals, and leaving a legacy.
- Sources of fulfillment include relationships, occupation, savoring life, recreational activities, and spirituality.
Published in Frontiers in Psychology, a recent study by Baumann and Ruch concluded that lay conceptions of fulfillment in life include evaluations such as “having lived life fully, attained personally significant goals, and developed oneself, as well as interpersonal, generative aspects, such as having made a contribution and been able to leave something of value.”
Before reviewing the research, it is important to note that these researchers defined fulfillment as a cognitive and emotional experience of a “sense of wholeness, fit, and value toward the self, one’s life, and one’s impact.”
Investigating What Makes Life Fulfilling
To determine lay perspectives of a fulfilling life, the authors surveyed a sample of German-speaking individuals, as described below.
Sample: 747 participants; average age of 50 years old (range of 18-93); 80 percent female; 36 percent single (never married); 55 percent with children.
- Open-ended questions: For example, “What makes for a fulfilled life?" "What does a very fulfilled life look like?”
- Quantitative measures: These included the ratings of a present fulfilling and a retrospect fulfilled life, in addition to 16 roles/activities (e.g., volunteer work, friendship, traveling) as potential sources of fulfillment.
Qualitative and quantitative analyses were conducted. The authors distinguished between core elements, correlates, and antecedents of a fulfilled life.
- Core elements: Included general description, cognitive appraisal, and emotional appraisal.
- Correlates: Consisted of sources from which one can derive fulfillment.
- Antecedents: Resources, quality of life, and personal characteristics.
In terms of frequencies, the majority of participants’ statements concerned the theme of cognitive appraisal (40 percent). Less frequent were, among others, sources (19 percent), emotional appraisal (10 percent), quality of life (10 percent), and personal characteristics (9 percent).
More detailed results and examples of participants’ statements are described below.
Core Elements of a Fulfilling Life
- General description: Abstract descriptions of a fulfilled life. “When I imagine that I am old and look back on my past life, I would like to come to the realization that despite all the mistakes I have made during my life, overall, I am satisfied with the way I have spent it.” (Male, 24 years old).
- Cognitive appraisal: Having fully lived and mastered life, had a purpose in life, attained important goals, left a legacy, developed oneself, made good decisions, lived according to personal values, acquired greater self-knowledge, and used talents and resources in a meaningful way. An example of attaining self-development goals: “I have become closer and closer to the person I want to be.” (Female, 30 years old).
- Emotional appraisal: Feeling grateful, being in harmony and at peace with oneself and with life, having experienced positive emotions (e.g., pride, joy, peace), feeling inner contentment, and not having major regrets. To illustrate, an 84-year-old female participant had this to say about the importance of being at peace: “A fulfilled life is when you are reconciled with your life in old age.”
Correlates of a Satisfying Life
The following nine categories were the sources from which participants drew fulfillment.
- Relationships and community: Sharing quality time with others.
- Occupation: Living one’s calling.
- Recreational activities: Music, exercise, enjoyment of small things, etc.
- Learning: Meeting new people and exposure to new points of view.
- Partnership: A loving romantic partnership.
- Parenting: Raising children well.
- Civic engagement: Working for a good cause.
- Spirituality: Living spiritually.
- Savoring: Enjoying every moment.
The biggest sources from which participants drew fulfillment were relationships and community and occupation. For instance, “I want professional fulfillment in a job where I add value to others through my skills.” (Female, age 32).
Antecedents of a Satisfying Life
The contextual aspects that facilitated a gratifying life:
- Resources: Social and psychological resources, such as a sheltered (but not overprotected) childhood, social integration, social support, healthy self-connection, self-confidence, and effective problem-solving and coping skills. To illustrate, a 58-year-old male participant suggested fulfillment results from going “through life with confidence and self-assurance.”
- Personal characteristics: Positive attitude, taking responsibility and showing initiative, positive traits (e.g., modesty, courage, persistence, curiosity), and acceptance. An example, for trait acceptance, was, “Being able to accept things in life that you would do differently today.” (Female, age 83).
- Quality of life: Health, financial security and well-being, personal freedom, work/education opportunities, work-private life balance, and luck.
People view a fulfilled life as associated primarily with having...
- lived a full life
- attained meaningful goals
- developed oneself
- contributed to other people’s lives
- left a positive legacy
The view of what made a life fulfilling was similar between men and women and the young and old.
The findings further suggested that there are multiple ways to have a fulfilling life—such as through boosting the core elements or by nurturing personal strengths, resources, or positive attitudes.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you live a more fulfilling life:
- What does an ideally fulfilled life look like to me?
- What makes my life whole, complete, congruent, meaningful, or significant?
- Which of the sources discussed in the section "Correlates of a Satisfying Life" matter to me? How can I cultivate the most critical ones (e.g., choosing a career that is also a calling)?
- Am I living a generative life? In other words, am I looking after and guiding future generations—be it through parenting and grandparenting or volunteering and mentoring?
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