Happiness or Fulfillment

by David Bohl

We often hear someone say they’re “happy and fulfilled” at a new job, with a new living situation, even as a new parent. And they surely are, or believe themselves to be, happy and fulfilled.

But I wonder sometimes what we mean by these terms.

Let’s start with happy. Most people use the word “happy” to mean that nothing in their lives is making them “unhappy.” Their lives are pleasurable. They have what they want, they like their lives, and they are, in a word, content.

That’s great, really. Happiness is something we’d all like to have, and which we all strive for. It’s also very elusive, because the pleasure which is the root of what we call “happiness” is usually transitory.

Let’s look at Sarah for a moment. Sarah has just purchased a new car and is very happy. She loves her job, has a good relationship with her husband, and lives in a nice home. She is happy.

But what if a storm comes along, takes out the roof on the house – and drops it on Sarah’s car? She’s not going to be very happy, especially when her husband gets not just mad but spectacularly angry because if Sarah had parked the new car in the garage as he requested, the roof wouldn’t have landed on it.

Now Sarah has gone from happy to unhappy, but chances are that state will change, probably very soon, because happiness is a transitory state, in the sense that most people use the word.

Let’s look at Sarah’s job, though. She says she is very personally fulfilled by her job. Sarah is a social worker, and primary therapist, at a state-run home for mentally challenged children who need round-the-clock care and whose parents were just not able to raise them at home.

Sarah’s job is to make sure that these children remain as emotionally healthy as possible, considering their circumstances. This often involves trying to communicate with children who can communicate only at a very “young” level. When Sarah first took the job, she was overwhelmed by the needs and dependency of the children.

Now she feels there is nothing in the world she would rather do. She had considered going into private counseling, and at one point enrolled in a Ph.D. program, but later decided to stay with her current job. She could make much more money elsewhere, but she believes she has something to offer these children, and she stays because it is “a fulfilling job.”

While this job does not necessarily make Sarah happy, in the sense of always being pleasurable, on a long-term basis being a social worker gives Sarah a deeper sense of having done something worthwhile and made a difference.

Happiness is good. You won’t ever hear me argue that people should not strive to be happy. What you will hear me say is that we should recognize the difference, as our imaginary Sarah does, between happiness and fulfillment. Sarah knows the car is not gong to fulfill her deep needs to make a difference, but she loves to drive it. She also knows there will be days when she leaves work exhausted and even unhappy, but in the long run, she gets more out of her work than she puts in, and she’s fulfilled.

Happiness and fulfillment both have a place in our lives, but they need to be balanced.

To find that balance in your own life:

  • Spend some time thinking about what would really fulfill you and make you feel you are living toward a purpose.
  • If you are not currently being fulfilled in your work and life, think about changes you could make that would help you feel fulfilled.
  • Give yourself a “happiness lift” every week – do something you enjoy, or spend time with someone who makes you feel happy.

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