Our society has all sorts of ideas about what a fulfilling life looks like. Lose 10 pounds right now, and be happier! Simplify your life! Be more productive than you ever thought possible! Own a brand new car for next to nothing! Do it all! Don’t do it all!
Our parents, grandparents, colleagues, friends, neighbors and others have their own ideas, too. Some believe that getting married, having kids and owning a home leads to a fulfilling life. Some believe that traveling around the world — minus a mortgage — does. Some believe that being an entrepreneur is fulfilling. Some believe it’s a 9 to 5 with plenty of free time during nights and weekends.
Some believe that attending church or synagogue is fulfilling. Others turn to meditation and yoga retreats. Some believe that working long hours and making seven figures is fulfilling. Some believe that spending their days writing, reading and teaching writing is fulfilling — whatever the compensation.
Everyone has different ideas about what makes a satisfying life. And, of course, none of them are wrong (except that fulfillment rarely comes in the form of a car, a slimmer body or a life lived running around like a robot).
The key is to figure out what fulfillment looks like for you.
“A fulfilling life reveals itself at the hands of its creator, as his or her morals, values and beliefs are exercised in a personally meaningful way,” said Darcy Lawton, LCSW, a New York City psychotherapist and former professional ballet dancer who specializes in anxiety, relationships, career guidance, motivation, self-esteem and the performing arts.
She defines a fulfilling life as “an ongoing journey of self-discovery in which an individual connects with his or her authenticity as the chapters of their life unfold.” So your definition will probably change over time. Because, after all, our perspectives, preferences, goals, desires and tastes change over time.
Lawton suggested considering these 10 questions to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like for you. These are the questions she likes to ask her clients to help them form their own definitions. Be sure to reflect on these questions periodically, since your responses may change, month to month or year to year.
- What people, places and things do you surround yourself with on a regular basis?
- What are your values and priorities, and how are you integrating them into your life?
- Think of a time when you encountered and overcame a major obstacle. How did you grow by mastering this challenge?
- Picture your future 1 year, 5 years and 10 years from now. What would you like to see unfolding in your life?
- When you visualize the life you want to live, what sensations do you experience? That is, what do you see, feel, smell, taste and hear?
- What inner talent, calling or desire have you been meaning to pursue, but find that you keep putting off?
- What outlets for self-expression allow you to feel at your best?
- When did you find yourself surprised by how much you enjoyed an experience, despite your initial resistance or discomfort? How did you allow yourself to open up to that experience?
- If you woke up tomorrow, and things were as ideal as you’d like them to be, what would that look like?
- If you watched a movie about the rest of your life, what would you want to see?
We also can find fulfillment in difficult times, Lawton added. “We learn about ourselves within the contexts of our own lives; our stories form an ongoing narrative by which we learn who we are as people.” And we can learn from tough situations and circumstances. What we want or don’t want may become clearer. Our values may evolve. A demanding, fast-paced career may no longer feel fulfilling, while a quiet, connected family life does.
Plus, we can’t appreciate the depths of joy if we don’t experience disappointment or strife, she said. “Having varied experiences, as well as a breadth of emotions, can allow us to appreciate the positive when it comes our way.”
A fulfilling life is a life lived on your own terms. It is not a life based on others’ perceptions or society’s shoulds. It is not a life based on external measures. It is a life that incorporates your deepest, truest values, desires and intentions.