“If you are waiting for anything in order to live and love without holding back, then you suffer.”
The word ‘fulfilment’ is embedded into our everyday language.
It crops up as we imagine what a better future could look like – we speak of wanting a fulfilling relationship, or fulfilling work. Perhaps we take the macro view, pining for maximum fulfilment across our life as a whole.
As with any abstract concept, however, it’s easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees. We neglect to ask ourselves a pertinent question: what does fulfilment really mean – to me?
Until recently, my own answers proved elusive, in part because I easily lapse into impatience and perfectionism. But I now recognise that I was missing an even bigger point – the importance of nailing down an accurate picture of what fulfilment is in the first place.
To understand what it takes to live in a fulfilling way, therefore, I sought to go deeper. Or else, I risked staying in the dark when making decisions that align with my authentic desires.
My hope is for this article to help you do the same, reflecting on fulfilment at this deeper level. We’ll explore fulfilment through the lens of three widely circulated myths, along with their respective truths.
Myth 1: Fulfilment is somewhere ‘out there’
For much of my life, the focus was on staying busy, achieving, and living in ‘doing mode’. Given my training as a doctor, this isn’t surprising – almost every passing moment in the hospital brought some new task for my lengthy job list.
But outside work, I brought this same mentality along for the ride. I would monopolise my own downtime in the name of personal growth and self-improvement, using every spare moment to plan my future, or to become ‘well-read’, or to strive for greater accomplishment in my hobbies.
There’s nothing wrong with these activities, but the way we approach them is crucial. Are they a means to an end, or an end in themselves? Are we learning and creating and thinking for their own reward, or labouring under the weight of our obsessions and expectations?
I now see I was falling for the first myth – and I still frequently do. Such is the power of the following illusion: that fulfilment is somewhere ‘out there’ in my future, tied to what I do in order to get it.
But the reality is quite freeing – obvious, even. It’s that fulfilment is an internal state.
When you’re feeling fulfilled, it’s because your body is basking in the glow of positive emotions. Granted, something in the outside world may have triggered those feelings, but the source is still your body. It always will be.
This is liberating for the following reason: in a sense, your body is a compass. And if you choose to read it carefully, you can make fulfilment available in your life every day. This leads onto the second myth.
Myth 2: We must ‘grind’ our way to fulfilment
We hear time and time again of stories that expose the falsehood of this myth: clichés of the wealthy CEO who feels empty inside, or the renowned neurosurgeon with a miserable personal life. Perhaps they endured decades of toil, sacrificing their relationships, their health and sometimes their integrity. Yet it doesn’t occur to this tragic archetype that fulfilment is much broader than what we achieve in a single sphere of life.
On a smaller scale, I experienced something similar. I often put studying above my personal life at medical school – not chiefly out of love for the subject, but out of ‘duty’. After years of hustle and grind, I qualified as a doctor. But it didn’t take long for my dissatisfaction to sink in, and this left me feeling confused… wasn’t I supposed to be in my element? Hadn’t I worked hard for this?
But is it really surprising that I couldn’t enjoy the destination, when it was traded for years of joyless work? I had given up my day-to-day fulfilment, holding out for a future emotional payoff that never arrived.
Long before, I’d been seduced by a dangerous idea, one which is reinforced by school systems and well-meaning parents alike: that work is suffering. If a path doesn’t involve some hefty sacrifice, it can’t right – so many of us go the route of martyrdom, for which we’re subtly validated. In parallel, we might be actively dissuaded from making decisions based on authentic joy.
When I decided to leave medicine years later, I came to realise something which was revolutionary to me at the time: I have the power to create fulfilment every day. I appreciated this to be an issue of basic self-worth… did I believe I deserved to be happy on most days? And if not, what could reasonably be a higher priority? I often advise my clients to intentionally reflect on these questions.
As I see it, here’s the antidote to the ‘hustle and grind’ myth: each person can bake fulfilment into their day by selecting the things they do – or don’t do – very mindfully.
Staying with this simple idea can be profound, taking people in unexpected directions. While for me it meant reorienting my career, it also led to small – yet incredibly impactful – changes to how I structure my free time.
Being conscious of fulfilment as an internal state of being, I started reading my body more carefully. I’ve since made a habit of setting up mini-experiments, in order to study how energised or depleted my body feels after various activities.
It’s a case of asking myself: “If I include x activity in my morning/afternoon/evening, will I feel fulfilled at the end of the day?”
I’ve learnt a lot from this over time… I now have solid evidence that if I spend time with loved ones, get in nature, flex my creativity, and work on serving people in a meaningful way, there’s a good chance I’ll go to bed feeling peacefully restored.
At this point I invite you to follow suit: identify your own ‘fulfilment formula’. Which activities are likeliest to engender happiness on a daily basis? Which ones rob you of joy?
As a reminder, this isn’t about letting go of future-oriented striving. We still need to do things we don’t feel like doing, for the sake of bettering our lives and our relationships. But ultimately, we create fulfilment based on present-moment decisions. The only ingredient necessary is your own permission.
Another reminder: this isn’t about trying to feel fulfilled 100% of the time. I don’t believe this is either possible or desirable. And that leads me onto the third myth.
Myth 3: Fulfilment as the gateway to a ‘trouble-free’ existence
We can trace the word fulfilment back to the Old English term fullfyllan, literally meaning ‘fill up, make full’.
This in itself creates a further misunderstanding – that fulfilment is a case of ‘filling ourselves up’ with the good vibes, then saying goodbye to our problems (and negative emotions). Understandably, this is an alluring prospect.
Not remembering that fulfilment is essentially a constellation of feelings, we forget that it’s like all other states – temporary. It waxes and wanes, sometimes in a short space of time, just like we can feel anger one moment and sorrow the next. Ironically, however, it’s the lack of acceptance about this which creates the most ‘trouble’.
Even in your most blissful moments of purposeful work, family bonding, career victory, or artistic triumph, notice what happens. At some point, you’ll probably detect an underlying sense of grasping, because it’s natural to want to hold onto good feelings. On some level we know they’ll fade, and we don’t want that to happen – but clinging onto transient fulfilment only amplifies the pain.
I’m learning to swallow this medicine, bitter as it may be. I’m finding that the more I do so, the more it sets me free. It’s starting to hit home that nobody has a perfect day, every day. It just isn’t in the realm of reality.
Even more importantly though, my nature as a human being is far more expansive than what I feel in each passing moment. Whether I feel elated, deflated, fulfilled or empty, I know there is an eternal reservoir of deep stillness within. From this intelligent place, I can recognise that passing stories, feelings and sensations cannot take away the wellbeing that resides in my core.
So when I fall prey to the illusion that fulfilment will set me up for an eternally peaceful, ‘trouble-free’ existence, I remember that eternal peace is already my essential nature… and I’d invite you look within and entertain this possibility for yourself.
That concludes my exploration of fulfilment. I hope these three myths have prompted you to consider fulfilment from new angles, while reflecting on what you’d love to create in your own life.
As mentioned, I recognise just how subjective this all is, so don’t let my views become another conceptual prison.
That said, what does fulfilment mean… to you?