What do you want from life? Once our survival needs are met we just want to be happy right? That’s what we focus our efforts and our sights on.
But what if your beliefs–your unconscious assumptions–about where happiness comes from are incorrect? What if they’re the very things that are keeping you from it? And what if these false beliefs about where happiness comes from are the very thing that’s keeping you, and probably everyone you know, locked into constant cycles of stress, struggle, dissatisfaction, and suffering?
And consider this. It’s a very, very busy world we live in these days… and isn’t this what we’re all so busy doing all the doing for? Trying to get to happiness? Isn’t this what we’re running around, exhausting ourselves, over consuming and burning ourselves out trying to achieve?
It’s a strange thing to ponder–that we’re stressing ourselves out chasing happiness… and all the while the research shows we are getting sadder, sicker and also acting, as a species, in ways that are causing quite serious harm to the planet we live on–threatening our very existence.
There is something very wrong with this picture!
I have spent the last two decades of my life studying the art of fulfilment. I am going to share with you possibly the most important distinction I have ever made in my years of study. This understanding about happiness got me unstuck from constant cycles of seeking, searching, striving and suffering and gave me a deeper sense of meaning and purpose than I would have ever thought possible in the past.
Chasing Happiness and the Global Mental Health Crisis
Much of the world is now experiencing a higher standard of living than the kings and pharaohs of days gone by. We have access to an incredible array of food, services, and conveniences at the drop of a hat (in some places you can order something like a TV on Amazon and have it to your door within a couple of hours!). We have better health care, better housing (full of machines that do much of the work for us), more freedom of choice and abundant lifestyles.
Consider the fact that you can go to the cinema and see a film that a huge team of people spent millions of dollars making and creating for an entire year. You can spend $20 to see it in 90 minutes! (Ok more like two and a half hours these days).
But are we getting what we really want?
Are we happier?
According to the research we are not. We are getting sadder, lonelier and more stressed.
Depression, in fact, according to the World Health Organisation is now the leading cause of disability worldwide (1). Over the past decade, it has grown from being a global epidemic to now being a pandemic. In any given week, one-tenth of the American adult population is suffering from depression, with one in four of us globally now expected to experience depression at some stage during our lives. Over 800,000 of those people each year will commit suicide (1).
Now, with the birth of the information age, it seems that even though we’re not getting happier we are certainly getting busier. The world has sped up its pace more and more with each passing year. We are more stressed, overwhelmed and busy than ever before–getting all the ‘stuff’ done…running at breakneck speed without stopping to catch our breath and ask the exceedingly important question –‘What are we doing all the doing for?’ Is it happiness we’re chasing? If so, are we pausing long enough to notice whether we’re getting what we want?
Arianna Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post speaks often in public about how she got busier and busier and busier until she finally collapsed on the floor one day after working long hours several days in a row. She speaks about how she woke up in a pool of her own blood, with a broken jaw, exhausted and depleted–and finally realised the insanity of the life she was living (2).
This may be an extreme example but many of us are still collapsing under the weight of our own doing, striving and business. Our health, relationships, and wellbeing suffer and our quality of life suffers. We as a species seem to have lost touch with ourselves–lost touch with our ability to listen to our bodies, minds, and hearts even when they are screaming at us to slow down and stop.
A study by the American Psychological Association found that 75% people reported feeling moderate to high levels of stress consistently throughout their last month (3).
Rates of obesity, alcoholism and other addictions (especially to technology) have also risen as many of us try to find a way to ‘take the edge off’ and fill in all the spaces of our lives. Think about the people you know. Virtually everybody in this modern world knows somebody who takes tranquilisers to get through the night and/or alcohol, medication or drugs to get through the day.
The Misunderstanding that Keeps us Stuck
It is my observation that the way we use the word happiness in our culture is not nuanced enough. In fact, we often use the word happiness to describe two different things and this causes confusion about how to get what it is that we’re truly aiming for.
I believe that one of the reasons why so many of us become lost in stress, struggle, drudgery, and dissatisfaction is because we haven’t identified clearly what it is that we most want and we don’t understand the causes and conditions that bring it about. Because of that, we often create suffering as we strive harder and harder for ‘happiness.’
Two Kinds of Happiness
1. Pleasure: Sometimes we use the word ‘happiness’ to describe what I would say could more accurately be called pleasure. Pleasure is when we feel a pleasant sensation or emotion, or perhaps we get a feeling of gratification or satisfaction when we get something we wanted.
Everyone enjoys pleasure so it’s no surprise that we spend a lot of our time seeking it, chasing it and trying to hold onto it. No matter how hard we chase pleasure though and no matter what strategies we try to keep it in place, it will slip away and change every time. Pleasure, like all feelings, is fleeting. It’s of the nature to change and then slip away no matter how hard you try to hold on. Pleasure will naturally come and go in the journey of a life… but is that what you most long for?
2. Fulfilment: The other way we use the word happiness is to point to what I would call fulfilment. Fulfilment refers to feeling whole, deeply satisfied and profoundly alive.
This is not just a just a fleeting feeling. It’s a background sense of ease and aliveness that sinks into your bones and takes up residence inside you like warm sunshine. Fulfilment stays with you through the natural ups and downs of a human life. In essence, it is a feeling of being full, enough, whole and deeply connected with life.
You Can’t Pleasure Your Way to Fulfilment
This distinction between pleasure and fulfilment is the most important distinction I ever made in my life. For many years I was looking for this deeper form of happiness–fulfilment–in all the wrong places. It’s an easy trap to get caught up in. When you don’t understand the difference between pleasure and fulfilment we often find ourselves caught up in a powerful psychological trap of trying to pleasure our way to fulfilment.
Now, we all love to experience pleasure and there is nothing wrong at all with enjoying, savouring and celebrating the pleasures of this world… but it’s vital to know that you can’t pleasure your way to fulfilment. That’s the mistake many of us make that gets us caught up, stressed, constantly struggling and striving for more and all the while still feeling empty inside.
The Buddha had a name for this trap. He called it Samsara which translates into English as ‘endless wandering.’ When we live in Samsara, we constantly search outside ourselves for love, validation, belonging, wholeness–for fulfilment. We are constantly seeking and searching and trying to re-arrange the circumstances of our lives trying to ‘get there.’
Getting what You Really Want: The Art of Fulfilment
I believe that what we all long for most deeply is not pleasure, but fulfilment. We long to feel whole, complete and fully alive.
Over the past two decades I have discovered that the majority of the world’s wisdom traditions and spiritual teachings carry the same core message, the same two-part blueprint for a profoundly fulfilling human life. A life where we carry fulfilment with us wherever we go at the very centre of our being. A life where we are in touch with, and are an expression of, what is deepest and truest in us. This kind of wholeness is not extracted from, or dependent on, external circumstances and is not touched by the fires and storms of life.
Firstly, to be fulfilled we need to cultivate our capacity to ‘wake up’ to the present moment, which also means waking up more fully to who we are. Although we tend to go looking for fulfilment outside ourselves and in ‘things,’ it is actually only ever found right here in this present moment. It’s right under our noses, here and now. Mindfulness is the practice that allows us to wake up.
The latest research from Harvard University (on what makes a human being most happy) also concurs with what wise men and women have long been telling us. Matt Killingsworth’s research shows that human beings are at their most ‘happy’ when they’re fully in the present moment. When they’re mindful.
The second part of the blueprint for a fulfilling life is to live in integrity to your own deepest nature. A more simple way to say this is to live your values.
We all have values–they are as much a part of us as our blood types or our genetic makeup. They are as unique to us as our individual thumbprints. Our core values determine what’s really important and meaningful to us.
Values are who you are in your own deepest nature, not who you think you should be in order to fit in. They’re like a compass that points us to our ‘true north.’
When the way you think, speak and behave match your values, life feels very good, your actions feel right to you–you feel in your power. But when these don’t align with your values, then things feel… just wrong. Life feels uneasy. You feel out of touch, discontented, restless, out of integrity (with yourself).
So here is the takeaway message I’d like to leave you with today…
You do not find fulfilment by rearranging the circumstances of your life. You find it by being in touch with who you are at the deepest level and being an expression of that in the world.
You can take these two steps towards cultivating fulfilment today:
1) Start to practice mindfulness. You can start with just a few minutes per day. By doing so you will learn to slow down, tune into yourself and touch the deeper dimensions of who you are. You develop greater self-awareness and tap into the wellspring of wholeness and peace at the very centre of yourself. The more you practice, the more that sense of fulfilment will gradually flow into your life.
2) Move closer towards following your own true north. It’s living your values and being your truest self that brings you much more joy than ‘getting stuff and doing stuff.’
Hi, this is a great article, and I have read similar readings in search for fulfillment and agree with every bit of it. I made a career switch when I was 33 in 1993 to a massage and myofascial release/emotional release therapist. This was very fulfilling for me, I was very good at it and made a difference in the world. It involved a lot of self-healing, which was and is still very emotionally painful. The last 6.5 years during the time as an MT involved consistent emotional trauma, causing anxiety, and I had to retire from it in 2013, age 53, due to burnout and my own chronic physical pain. I’m an introvert and have become highly sensitive to everything–sound, smell, touch. And I feel lost, wondering why am I even alive? Going back to office work after 20 years as an MT has been challenging, so I’m doing 3 different jobs 6 days a week to support myself with basic needs at the lowest cost possible, nothing extra, not even television or a car payment — 2 of the 3 jobs are unfulfilling, boring, mindless, and exhausting. Just keeping track of where I’m going, what day it is, and remembering my duties at each job, when payday is, submitting paperwork to get paid, is frantic and I’m starting to mess up. I cannot work any less due to cost of living (mostly rent). I volunteer 2 days a week in a cat adoption center because this is joyful and meaningful for me. What would fulfill me and bring me the most pleasure and joy? Volunteering 4 days a week, hiking, going to the zoo and being at the ocean. I want to retire from working so bad. I want inner peace. I used to be able to be mindful, practice breathwork, etc. But have “lost it” and just want to go to bed and sleep for a year. I cannot even focus when doing yoga. My mind races non-stop, even while “sleeping,” and even while engaging in the activities I love so much. There is no rest from it, making me crazy. Just writing this about myself is depressing. I sometimes think it would be so much easier to not be alive (I know people who think this way too), but have my 3 cats to care for. I will look at your other articles and continue working to get back to some peacefulness, self-love and self-acceptance. Thank you so much for this website and dedication to helping us.
Great article. Thank you for all this insight!