Finding Your Path to a Fulfilling Life

Have you made the decision to have the best life possible?

If so, are you doing something about it?

Unfortunately most people in our culture are doing very little. They are just reacting to their thought patterns and their environment. They do not have the wherewithal to take control. Otherwise they would not be cutting their lives short by substance abuse, over eating, under exercising, and risky behaviors. Or projecting their pain onto others and falling headlong into victim mentality. In short, they are able to say “yes” to life, but live in a world of mixed feelings.

This might sound like a lead-in from a religious evangelist, but it is not. That is because finding a path to a fulfilling life is not about “religious issues,” it is about “human issues.” A decisive path to a fulfilling life is available regardless of your spiritual beliefs.

Where to Start

You may start by adopting a mindset. There is no leap of faith required. The mindset I am suggesting is built on common sense, knowledge from experts, and proven studies from refereed journals.

This mindset is ideal because it aligns with your brain chemistry. Try looking at life as a “being.” You can think of it as a divine creation or a something that has evolved from the Big Bang. What does this “life being” want from you? How are you wired to support it? You can certainly skate through life ignoring its wants and desires. You can terminate your existence or sabotage your health. But that’s not what life wants, and not how your brain was designed.

Maybe there is a leap of faith here. That having a fulfilling life is easiest if you align your behavior with your brain chemistry. But if you think about it, it just makes sense. So read on and see if it makes sense to you.

What Are the Basics?

Number one is your attitude. Begin by deciding to say “yes” to life. Acknowledge the downsides but decide you are going to put some effort into fulfillment by choosing to be optimistic. Why? Because optimistic people have better health, are happier, and live longer. Optimistic people typically have a feeling of meaning and purpose. And meaning and purpose contribute to fulfillment, resilience, and ... more optimism!

These are not just opinions. They are borne out by countless studies. At the bottom of this page (The Circle of Fulfillment - Purpose) are more than a dozen. Search for any combination of these terms: optimism, health, longevity, meaning, purpose, resilience, fulfillment. Be critical when you look at your search results. Choose studies from respected journals, not Joe Blow’s website. You will likely be convinced.

What else leads to a healthier and longer life? Besides the usual (diet, exercise, sleep) and what we have already talked about (optimism, meaning, purpose, resilience), there are the following: understanding your values, establishing high but attainable goals, aspiring to reach your full potential. All of which align with human brain chemistry.

Above those aspirations is the power of metacognition. That is, awareness of one's own thought processes. Every time you consciously adopt a new coping strategy, you are putting yourself in the driver's seat, so to speak. For example, doing six hours of homework could seem like an onerous task. But you can turn that around by taking a few minutes to learn a new study technique. You then apply that technique to the homework with the view that you are managing the situation. Tasks are easier when you put yourself in charge. In fact, you can apply this thinking to all aspects of your life and you will begin to feel more sense of control.

Going Deeper

Beyond the basics described above, there is deeper work you can do in pursuit of your most fulfilling and happy life.

Let’s start with how you treat yourself. We are not designed to loathe ourselves. Why would we be? Author and professor of educational psychology Kristin Neff calls being kind to yourself “self-compassion.” She defines three key elements:

Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.

Common humanity vs. Isolation. Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective.

In short, be kind to yourself. Recognize you are not alone and that we are all suffering. And that your pain can give you drive for change and compassion for others.

Note: Some authors make a distinction between empathy and compassion: empathy means “feeling for someone” but compassion means “feeling for someone” plus “having the desire to help.”

Next, consider meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor, addresses “meaning,” perhaps better than anyone, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Again, just as with self-compassion and suffering, man needs to focus beyond the inner workings of his own mind. Frankl says,

I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence." It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

And with regard to purpose, we find the same is true again.

UCLA researchers, in collaboration with University of North Carolina scientists, have found that happiness derived from a purpose in life has a healthier genetic effect than pleasure-seeking. Their research revolved around two forms of a feeling of well-being: eudaimonic, which comes from having a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life and doing good for others, and hedonic, which grows out of self-gratification and pleasure-seeking. Buying a new car for the thrill of it, spending money on luxurious things, indulging in luxuries just because they feel good -- these define a hedonic sense of happiness. The UCLA researchers found that individuals with a strong sense of hedonic well-being showed high inflammatory gene expression and low expression of antiviral and antibody genes—meaning that their reaction to adversity would be similar to that of people under stress and anxiety. In stark contrast, individuals with a strong level of eudaimonic well-being had the exact opposite traits. They were happy and, genetically, they were healthy.

I believe this tells us that living with an outward sense of meaning and purpose, again, aligns with your brain chemistry. And this leads to improved health and an optimal sense of well-being.

More on meaning and purpose can be found here: The Circle of Fulfillment.

Does this mean you should stop your personal development and spend all of your time helping others? No. College students, for example, may not be ready to find depth of meaning in loving relationships or by volunteering. But by pursuing a degree or a career, they may very well be working toward a meaningful career with an outward focus. By dating, they may be learning how to navigate social relationships and then, later on, finding a lasting committed relationship.

But what people of all ages can do right away is to start being a little kinder to others. Perhaps a little more helpful. Try just 10 percent more and see if you notice a difference. More on this subject here: Adopting Your Way of Being.

Going Deeper Still

In our culture, most of us reach adulthood with self-esteem at a net negative. We become men, but lack what author Robert Bly calls the “male mode of feeling.” And similarly for women. This results in much, if not most, of our population cut off from their deep inner strengths and powers. So what can be done? It is possible to build your male or female “mode of feeling” at any age. It is also possible to connect with your deep inner feelings of joy and love, while processing any painful experiences that have lead to undesirable behaviors. I address those topics here: Becoming a Man. Because I coach (almost exclusively) males, I do not at this time have an equivalent page for females.