What Makes People Feel Fulfilled In Their Lives?
New research shows that the path to a fulfilling life is often hidden in plain view.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 9, 2022
A new article published in Frontiers in Psychology attempts to quantify the factors that lead to a fulfilling life, such as the ability to pursue one's own goals, taking advantage of opportunities, and having the courage to do what one feels is most important in life. According to the researchers, people derive fulfillment from many things, but three factors rise to the top. They call these factors: "unfolded self and life," "worthwhile life," and "positive impact and legacy."
"Unfolded self and life, worthwhile life, and positive impact and legacy are unique features of fulfillment and distinguish it from other concepts such as happiness," say Doris Baumann and Willibald Ruch, psychologists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and lead authors of the research. "It is not achievement per se, but that which feels worthy and remains that way later in life that fulfills a human."
Here's how the researchers define the components of life fulfillment:
- Unfolded self and life refers to the extent one can pursue projects that personally matter, be their unique self, and lead a true life.
- Worthwhile life relates to the perception that one can invest one's own capacities well and can live a meaningful and worthwhile life.
- Positive impact and legacy refers to making a positive difference, leaving something of value, and doing something with one's life that matters to others.
To better understand the composition of life fulfillment, the researchers studied perceptions of life fulfillment in two samples — first among 282 adults, ages 50-93, and second in a sample of 406 adults, ages 40-85. They asked participants how concepts such as making a positive difference, pursuing authentic pursuits, being true to oneself, making a contribution, being honest, and having a calling influenced the degree to which people felt fulfilled in their lives.
The authors found that the three-pronged criteria was the most accurate way to summarize the patterns they observed in the data.
They also found that people who considered the topic of a fulfilled life as important and who spent more time thinking about it assessed their lives as more fulfilled.
Beyond their criteria, the authors also point out that certain character strengths are related to life fulfillment.
"The character strengths of hope, making efforts to attain goals, and zest (e.g., doing things wholeheartedly) are important for a fulfilled life," they say. "Other strengths such as social intelligence, leadership, perspective, and bravery are also relevant."
The authors reported no association between life fulfillment and gender, but they did find life fulfillment to increase slightly with age. Married people and parents also reported higher levels of life fulfillment in their sample, especially on the "worthwhile life" dimension.
Other factors that promoted a fulfilling life were:
- Financial stability
- Positive childhood experiences
The researchers note that leading a fulfilling life is a long-term process and not one that can be achieved in a short amount of time. It also requires a giving spirit.
"The good life is not a self-centered life," they say. "Helping others, passing on one's experiences, or making a difference in one's environment — which can happen on a small scale — provides people the feeling that their lives matter. The beauty of this concept is that one can make a positive difference in another person's life regardless of age or resources."
A full interview with Doris Baumann and Willibald Ruch discussing their research on life fulfillment can be found here: Inspiring wisdom on how to live a fulfilling life