Journey to Fulfillment

Do you feel fulfilled?

It’s a deep question—one that requires even deeper inner work to answer.

Psychologists define fulfillment as the realizing of one's deepest desires and capacities. To find fulfillment is to dream, to strive and to struggle, and, oftentimes, to engage with adversity and challenges that strengthen and teach us lessons that we need to learn. 

We often think we can stumble into fulfillment—it's something we'll feel when we get that job or find that partner. The truth: Finding what fulfills us is an active, not passive, process. To get a deeper understanding of fulfillment, we need to learn about what really motivates or drives us. To do that, psychologists point to self-determination theory, or the idea that we’re driven by three universal motivations: the need for autonomy, for mastery, and for community. When these needs are met, that’s when we feel a sense of fulfillment, according to these experts.

To get a deeper understanding of fulfillment, we need to learn about what really motivates or drives us. To do that, psychologists point to self-determination theory, or the idea that we’re driven by three universal motivations: the need for autonomy, for mastery, and for community. When these needs are met, that’s when we feel a sense of fulfillment, according to these experts.

But while the needs themselves are fundamental, they appear differently in different people. Some are more motivated by autonomy than community. For others, mastery is everything. Your friend may find ultimate fulfillment in climbing the corporate ladder, while your sister might believe that working with handicapped children or giving back to her community is of greatest importance.

Uncovering your primary needs and motivations can help clear the path to more fulfillment, and bring focus to your everyday life.

Wondering what matters to you?  Consider performing a mini “fulfillment audit,” diving into recent experiences to understand what fuels you. Grab a pen and paper, then ask yourself the following questions. 

When is the last time you made a choice based on your needs? And how did it feel?

When you make decisions based on your own inner compass, you’re capitalizing on your autonomy. Maybe it’s turning down a job offer that would’ve led to burnout, or signing up for that expensive gym membership because you know it’ll motivate you. When you’re steering the ship, choosing what to do and what not to do can be seriously satisfying. When you make decisions based on your own inner compass, you’re flexing your autonomy. 

But while autonomy is one of our fundamental needs, that doesn’t mean that every choice we make for ourselves feels good. You might reject a dinner party invite for a few hours of ‘me time’, only to realize you’re missing human connection. You could finally adopt a family pet and find yourself in way over your head.

 To get a better sense of what does drive you, jot down recent personal choices you’ve made, and whether they left you fulfilled or not. Then, look for the common denominator.

When is the last time you mastered something?

Maybe it was getting a great performance review. Or perhaps you finally beat that game you’ve been playing on your iPad or ‘hit’ a difficult yoga posture. When we really nail something, research shows, we tend to feel fulfilled; one study found that when participants were given spontaneous positive feedback on their performance, they were more motivated to keep performing a task. 

Make a list of everything you’ve mastered recently, and think through how satisfying each activity was. If recalling something you’ve mastered brings that positive, happy feeling of success, consider how you might add more of it to your life. Love words? You might tackle a daily crossword puzzle. Like to exercise? Commit to  doing yoga three times a week.

If work seems like a dead end but it’s not time for you to seek a new job, think about taking on a new hobby. Creating the opportunity to master something in your daily life can ‘up’ your fulfillment and motivate you to engage in that which makes you feel good.

When was the last time you felt like you belonged to something?

Our childhoods are built around belonging: there are playgroups, classes, clubs, sports teams, religious groups, and more. But as we age, the onus shifts to us when it comes to finding a community. Sometimes, in our busy lives, we neglect to consciously build our community connections.

Community

Start by thinking about who you feel most comfortable with, and who knows you best. Do they motivate you to be a better person? Help you to get out of the house when binge-watching a TV show is calling your name? Think about what you like about community and the people in yours, and consider a few ways to build your community. Maybe it’s joining a club or a team, engaging in a meet up activity, or posting book reviews on Goodreads. 

Of course, not everybody wants to fit in. To some, autonomy is king, and belonging to a certain group or category just doesn’t feel right. But even then, engaging with like-minded people and being ‘seen’ for who you are can be fulfilling,

Find your ideal mix of autonomy, mastery, and community. And remember: If it’s fulfilling, it’s the right move.