Most people, it seems, are on a perpetual quest to find happiness. It’s a noble, albeit challenging, pursuit. And mostly because our notion of happiness is akin to finding the Holy Grail. That once we discover it, we’ve essentially discovered the meaning of life. But what is happiness, really? And, is it, in fact, what we should be searching for? Let’s take a deeper dive.

What Is Happiness?

Happiness is a feeling of joy, contentment, and excitement, yet it’s a temporary sensation, says Ontario, Canada-based clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, PhD. “Happiness is a fleeting feeling that comes and goes but cannot last, as life will inevitably lead to other incompatible feelings such as uneasiness, fear, anger etc,” she says.

And, most people think of it as arriving at certain points in life, says human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD. “If you think you’re only going to be happy, if you have a particular job, for example, then you’re in real trouble. Because it can be taken away from you at any moment,” he says. “Constantly pursuing this thing called ‘happiness’, automatically tells you it’s not here. It will come to me tomorrow or another time.”

Comparison Is A Happiness Killer

The other issue with happiness is it’s often viewed in terms of using other people as a benchmark. “Comparing our own lives to ‘snapshot’ images of happiness that we see on social media is very problematic because these images give people the illusion of perpetual happiness,” Dr. Barbera says. Thanks, Instagram.

The reality is, social media doesn’t give us an accurate perception of other people’s lives, says Richmond, Virginia-based therapist Susan J. Buniva, MSW, LCSW. “Generally, people create posts that offer the illusion they want to project.

They share the dream they have for themselves but not the reality,” she says. What’s interesting is that we are so ready to believe it. “We use these fabricated realities to convince ourselves that we are inadequate to others,” Buniva says.

Constant comparison to others can create a sense of perpetual disappointment, Dr. Wanis says. “Instead, compare yourself with where you were yesterday and your interactions with your world.”

What Is Fulfillment?

“Fulfillment is the process of living a valued life, where one pursues things that matter to them or that they are passionate about,” Dr. Barbera says. It generally comes from choosing actions that move a person towards what they value, as well as achieving goals that were guided by those values, she says

Living a life with integrity towards ourselves and one that’s consistent with our values generally leads to a more fulfilled life, Buniva says. “Fulfillment brings the locus of control inside us so that we have greater agency over our experience. We determine what is meaningful to us and then have the power to live our lives in a manner that is consistent with the meaning we long for,” she says. Whereas, happiness is more externally driven, leaving us at the mercy of outside forces or changing circumstances.

How To Shift Focus From Happiness to Fulfillment

While we’re often programmed to believe that happiness is the most important thing to seek, fulfillment is more sustainable—and across a wide range of emotions. “Fulfillment may help a person better cope with other feelings such as disappointment, sadness, loss, and anger,” Dr. Barbera says.

She suggests that people focus on living a rich and meaningful life that is in line with their values as much as possible. “This means working towards embracing a range of emotions from joy and excitement, to boredom, disappointment, sadness, fear, anxiety and even embarrassment or shame,” Dr. Barbera says. It also means being willing to choose meaningful actions even in the face of discomfort or hardship and staying true to the kind of person, partner, or parent that you truly want to be.

“The irony is that often when people stop trying so hard to feel a certain way, it helps to create more space for those feelings to naturally arise. If you embrace the continual ebb and flow of your emotions, it can help make joyful feelings all the more precious and enjoyable when they do arise,” Dr. Barbera says.

How To Create Fulfillment

People find fulfillment in many different ways. “Life doesn’t always bring us happy experiences, but we always have the opportunity to find meaning and fulfillment in our experiences; I think ultimately, that is very empowering,” she says. “It is always possible to find the meaning in our lives if we learn to shift the focus of our thinking and expand our vision.”

  1. Focus on others. Often meaning and fulfillment can be found most easily by focusing on others and how we might bring greater ease and happiness to their lives, Buniva says. “One of the things that research tells us is that volunteer work brings great fulfillment,” she says.
  2. Look internally. Buniva suggests asking yourself which moments in your life did you feel most fulfilled. Is there a theme or pattern? What was it about those experiences that meant the most to you? Do you long for more of that in your life? “Fulfillment is far more nuanced than the kind of false association we make to having the newest fashions or the nicest house on the block as determinants of happiness,” Buniva says.
  3. Be grateful. Gratitude helps people connect to a greater good. And it has a host of benefits, like encouraging more positive emotions, improving health, and dealing with adversity. You can still strive for more but appreciate what you already have, Dr. Wanis says. “Experience joy with what you have right now and recognize you can keep growing and fulfilling potential.”
  4. Foster connections. Ultimately the most important thing is relationships, connections to other people, and some sense of community, whether that community is you and your family, you and your partner, or your group of friends, Dr. Wanis says. “It’s bonding; connection; and being with people instead of feeling separate, isolated and disconnected, so you feel connected and part of something.”
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Last Updated: Jun 16, 2020