Inspiring Wisdom On How To Live A Fulfilling Life

Psychologist Doris Baumann discusses her new research on life fulfillment.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 7, 2022

A new article published in Frontiers in Psychology attempts to quantify the factors that promote life fulfillment, 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.

I recently spoke with Doris Baumann and Willibald Ruch, psychologists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and lead authors of the research, to discuss the idea of life fulfillment in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of life fulfillment, how did you start the study, and what did you find?

Two decades ago, fulfillment was declared as the key criterion of a positive life when introducing the science of positive psychology. Since then, researchers have brought forward various concepts and measures relating to the good life – except fulfillment.

It is not that the term hasn't played a prominent role in scientific literature, but a systematized study had been lacking. Our mission was born.

The first question we wanted to answer was whether a fulfilled life is relevant to laypeople. Indeed, 75% of the participants aged 20 to 93 did confirm that this topic is important or even very important. More than half of the sample regularly deals with this topic. Hence, initiating this new research line and gaining knowledge on the factors contributing to a fulfilled life could advance the science of happiness and provide real value for people in their everyday life.

We then have conducted a comprehensive review of philosophical and psychological literature and found various indications on the required characteristics for an experience to qualify as fulfilling. Three criteria — wholeness, fit, and value — emerged as crucial.

  • Wholeness refers to the extent one could evolve and realize one's uniqueness, live life fully, and contribute to the welfare of others.

  • Fit designates a sense of congruence, the perception that one could be the person one is and find self-expression, and make an impact that reflects what one holds dear.

  • Value relates to a sense that one has used one's capacities meaningfully, that one's life journey was worthwhile, and that one did something with one's life that mattered to others.

Why are these criteria fundamental? The criteria reflect the profoundness of this experience. They are unique features of fulfillment and distinguish it from other concepts, such as happiness.

Let's illustrate the role of the criteria as requirements for fulfillment. A person can accomplish a successful career from an objective standard, yet, the attainment confers no meaning or value. Instead of inner contentment, that person might sense emptiness, alienation, or pointlessness. Hence, it is not the achievement per se, but that which feels worthy and remains that way later in life fulfills a human. A professional activity is fulfilling when one experiences congruence between oneself and the actions, feels that one can develop and expand as a person, and perceives the work as having significance.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to improve their sense of life fulfillment?

The gratifying results are that people can derive fulfillment from many different sources — for instance, nature, learning and personal development, parenting, friendships, or volunteering. Persons for whom a profession and having a life task are essential sources reported particularly high levels regarding their fulfillment at their present life stage and in retrospect.

One might ask oneself: Which activities and roles does one experience particularly fulfilling and what are the pursuits in life that one appraises as deeply worthwhile?

Pursuing one's own goals, taking advantage of opportunities, and mastering courage to do what one deems significant in life, present further routes for experiencing a sense of wholeness, coherence, and worthwhileness. Another key strategy is gratitude. Gratitude helps to notice and appreciate the positive aspects of life and enhances meaningfulness.

The good life is not a self-centered life. Making a positive impact and leaving a legacy are considered core elements not only in our scientific conceptualization but also by laypersons. Hence, a path to more fulfillment consists of providing value for others. 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.

Yet, one can also take a long-term perspective — viewing one's life from the end. What would be the aspects in life that will give you the feeling that your life has been well-lived? What will hold value from a life review? Asking yourself such questions can help clarify your values and priorities and bring them into consciousness.

Is it possible to become over-focused on living a fulfilling life, or is this something everyone would benefit from dedicating more effort to?

Rather than chasing a fulfilling life directly, it appears more practical to cultivate a certain lifestyle.

Here, our fulfillment in life model and our questionnaire come into play and provide ideas for reflection. Reconsidering your life periodically, tacking stock, and setting the course right can help you arrive at a life well-lived. Indeed, our findings indicate that people who consider the topic of a fulfilled life as important and deal with it assessed their lives as more fulfilled.

Furthermore, leading a fulfilling life cannot be compared to a sprint. Its profound and long-lasting nature points to the necessity of taking a long-term perspective in one's life approach. What holds true value in one's existence is not achieved in one day. Fulfillment from a profession, a partnership, or pursuing a life goal requires commitment, dedication, and overcoming challenges and adversities. Therefore, to live consciously in the present, create a life that is perceived as fitting and worthwhile, and keeping a long-term perspective in mind can present a healthy balance.

You mention that life fulfillment is tightly related to other important concepts in positive psychology or for aging well. Can you expand on that?

In our study, we could show that persons sensing a calling reported greater fulfillment. A calling is an orientation to a particular work or activity performed out of a strong inner drive and a desire to contribute to the common good. Persons with a calling can express themselves in their work and experience deep meaning, purpose, and passion.

It is encouraging that our results indicate that a calling is not restricted to employment status or age. Retired persons also had high means in a calling. Furthermore, fulfillment was predictive for mental well-being and related to self-rated health. Therefore, we can assume that enabling people to lead fulfilling lives also benefits their psychological and physical health. Another substantial finding is that fulfillment was associated with more positive self-views of aging. Particularly considering today's demographic development, how one thinks about one's aging process is more essential than ever. Positive self-perceptions of aging are a crucial factor for healthy aging. They are associated with many positive outcomes, including quality of life, longevity, or realizing own potential.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

We found no gender differences but several small relationships with demographic and contextual characteristics. Fulfillment seems to slightly increase with age. There may be various reasons for this, such as having had more time to accomplish personally relevant projects, better self-knowledge, selecting what is meaningful in life, or contentment from having mastered life well. Married persons and parents reported somewhat higher levels of fulfillment. Through a sense of belonging and emotional support, marriage can enhance the perception that life is meaningful. Raising children and helping them flourish equally promotes a sense of meaningfulness and enables them to leave a positive legacy.

Another form of making a positive impact is volunteering, which fosters the feeling of mattering. Persons involved in civic engagement reported greater levels of fulfillment than non-volunteers. A further relevant factor for fulfillment was spirituality in daily life. Finally, a good start in life pays dividends later and is related to life fulfillment.

What personality traits are related to life fulfillment?

Character strengths, which are morally valued traits, are related to life fulfillment. Those strengths describe a person's core and his/her best capacities. Especially, the strengths of hope, expecting the best and making efforts to attain goals, and zest (doing things wholeheartedly) were important for a fulfilled life.

Nothing makes a person more alive than discovering what they burn for and living for it. Other strengths, such as social intelligence, leadership, perspective, or bravery, were also relevant. For instance, perspective, entailing a mature view of life, and keeping the bigger picture in mind can help focus on what is essential in life. One's attitude counts as well. Approaching life with a sense that the world is a good place or that life is a gift and has purpose is related to fulfillment. Such a positive and hopeful attitude can impact one's drive to proactively shape one's own life, but also the willingness to invest in the community and future generations.