Fulfilment, interestingly, is defined as an achievement of something desired or the meeting of a requirement or need. One could argue that a sense of achievement is in itself a requirement for quality of life. The word “fulfilled” is frequently used as a synonym for “satisfied”. We often find that this is realised through a sense of control and order, and therefore our satisfaction vanishes when things go awry. This can result in the feeling that one has failed at self-fulfilment.
A more accurate description would be to say that fulfilment never entered the equation; we have technically succeeded, just at the wrong thing. Satisfaction, control and pleasure, whilst enjoyable, quickly fade. This is particularly palpable in a time of near-constant uncertainty, and is hardly revelatory. However, what may not seem immediately apparent is how much this mistake can negatively impact our sense of wellbeing and — yes — fulfilment.
Work, career and goals
By linking our sense of fulfilment to our working lives, or our self-care routines, or any area of our lives subject to change or confusion, we do ourselves a disservice. Self-fulfilment has very little to do with wish fulfilment or instant gratification, and cannot be purchased. Fulfilment is the distinctly recognisable feeling of wholeness, completion, and oneness with the self as well as the world around us. For those of us to whom this may sound rather hippy-esque and vague, it can seem like even more of an endeavour to achieve — and quick-fix remedies look ever-more tempting.
Ironically perhaps, fulfilment in the sense of self-care and mindfulness has seen a recent boom in profitability. Nowadays we can purchase step-by-step plans, journals, apps and training courses, all of which promise us the “key” to mastering “the art of fulfilment.” Here is the problem: fulfilment is relative. True fulfilment will look and feel different to each individual. So what to do?
Stop trying so hard!
In his New York Times bestseller book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson aptly describes the modern condition of striving for the mythical “better” and “more” which will make us feel best, and most like we want to be. Of this desperate, hamster-wheel chase, Manson writes that “the desire for positive experiences is a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experiences is a positive experience.”
This is a crucial first step towards fulfilment: accepting failure. And not just failure: mistakes. hiccups, Setbacks. Pretty much every negative experience which we are encouraged to “affirm” our way out of is actually an experience which we should face head on, experience, and then move on from. By reminding ourselves of our failures every time we imagine how we will succeed in the future, in an attempt to self-flagellate away the possibility of it happening again, we push ourselves further away from true fulfilment.
This notion is by no means new. The central teachings of Buddhism surround the recognition and acceptance of dukkha, a word used to describe “the ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘flawed’ nature of human existence”. The road to Zen, sadly, will not lead to a cessation in suffering, or inconvenience, or unnecessary rudeness, or unexpected bills. However, it does allow for the peaceful recognition that negative experiences in life are unavoidable, and will pass as they have done before.
This all sounds very well and good, but is it practical?
Can we even feel both fulfilled and stressed?
In this age of excess, information or technology, depending on your personal preference, it is very difficult for many of us to feel calm and content a good deal of the time — never mind one with the universe! With every positive development, it seems, comes damaging, stressful and often downright depressing news tenfold.
Alongside our growing capabilities for social and communal interaction, we often experience new anxieties, exacerbated by a constant barrage of debate surrounding whether social media is destroying or saving our society. At the beginning of this year, even before the pandemic had managed to bring most of our worlds to a screeching halt, the World Health Organisation reported that depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.
On the other hand, when happy news news or good fortune do come our way, we may feel anxious that sharing them will be perceived as insensitive, inappropriate or bragging. We should not, of course, feel bad when our hard work pays off, or when unexpected blessings fall into our laps, but at a time when a great many people are struggling, it is hard to know exactly what to feel. And how good can we possibly feel about our new puppy, or blossoming relationship, or finding that tenner just lying on the ground, whilst being plagued by a gloomy cloud of guilt? Thankfully, fulfilment is rather more nuanced than feeling “good” or “bad”.
Welcoming the negative
There are many unpleasant experiences to be had out there, it is true. However, it is the way we process these incidents that affects our sense of fulfilment. Instead of dwelling in your memory of the experience (and therefore inscribing it deeper into your long-term memory), simply acknowledge what happened, perhaps by writing it down or saying it aloud in order.
Following this, it is up to you to decide for yourself whether or not this was avoidable, and whether actions can be put in place to make it less likely to happen again. After this, do whatever you fancy. There is nothing else to be done. Any further attempts to control either the narrative of the events or the reasons they unfolded can only lead to disappointment. Remember — by struggling and striving for a life free of any misery, you are actively making yourself miserable. Once again: all very well and good, but what good does it do?
What good can mindfulness exercises do against bewildering politics and weather?
Fulfilment feels nice. In a further twist on the positive/negative experience paradox, I am here advocating the prioritisation of seeking fulfilment largely because it is a very pleasant, relaxing and contented feeling.
In terms of activities which may stimulate a sense of calm and acceptance, these are also meditative and personal, and will look different depending on what grounds us. The important thing is to take some time to release ourselves from every experience except for the experience of simply being.
There is a good reason so many of us are seeking fulfilment: as it turns out, you can buy happiness, but happiness is just too fickle. What we need is to be okay with not being happy all of the time. And instead to be grateful when we are — but aware that this, too, cannot be the case all of the time.
A final note…
In its truest and least complicated sense, fulfilment is found in those moments where we feel complete; whole; in touch with ourselves and our environments, and when these elements are aligned. We can achieve fulfilment, primarily, by simplifying its definition. It does not require material possessions or circumstantial benefits, pleasures or privileges, and these can only give fleeting pleasurable sensations: shallow, insincere imitations of true fulfilment.
Written by Lucia Victor
Lucia is an English Literature graduate, who enjoys and advocates alternative methods for managing mental health and wellness. She is interested in our relationships with our bodies, and how societal or personal issues can affect our overall wellbeing.