Wait…so fulfillment and happiness aren’t the same thing?
Maybe it sounds like a no-brainer to you, but this revelation has shaken my ideologies to the core and prompted me to view life completely differently. Growing up, with regard to career prospects, I always heard do what you love. Make a living off your passion. If you love your job, you’ll never truly work a day in your life. Now, of course, there’s more to life than work, but I was under the impression that most people navigate other aspects of life (besides career) with more control over their options.
You can pick where you live, who you date, the people you hang out with, the activities you do. Theoretically you can pick your job, although it is predicated on numerous other factors over which you may not have had as much control (wealth, education, prior-experience, etc.). Work was always what folks complained about. I don’t want to go to work today. I want a higher paying job. I’m not even using my degree. So, I figured if I could somehow find a job that I loved, that I was passionate about, then I would have a better shot at being happy in life. It seemed like the toughest variable to isolate and manipulate. Well, I did it. And I’m still not happy. And that’s when I realized I had been chasing the wind.
Let’s go ahead and tackle this concept of happiness, because I know that it can be generally problematic for some people. I used to be one of those folks. I took an Intro Psychology class my sophomore year in college and on the first day, the professor said, “Happiness is not real. It does not exist.” I dropped the class. No way I was going to let David-downer ruin my grade because he didn’t have any joy in his heart.
I’d first like to state that for the purpose of this story, the word “contentment” is a close enough synonym for happiness. I’m not talking about achieving the ever-elusive, unlimited serotonin and oxytocin “happy,” or the listless, no-care-in-the-world, made-for-TV-movie “happy.” I just mean a sense of peace and contentment with life, despite any lingering aspirations or significant complications, and the feeling that your life is mostly complete, and not lacking any crucial components which you cannot take measured steps to obtain.
The World Happiness Report contains an entire section on work. Most people spend most of their time working, so naturally, it has significant bearing on the outcome of studies like this. Other factors include a healthy life expectancy, having somebody to count on, freedom and trust. Denmark has topped the study three out of the five times its been conducted, but Norway won this most recent time. Based on the report, and many other psychology-based studies (I’d start with Carl Jung, personally), happiness is achieved through a cocktail of factors, and although conditions and situations shift in life, there are people who generally reach a level of contentment with their existence if their cocktails are diverse enough.
I’ve been crafting my cocktail for years, to no avail.
Before I learned that I had mood/personality disorders that might inhibit me beyond my control from being “happy,” I really had faith in the cocktail I was creating. I believed in friendship, companionship, work I was passionate about, and service that was purposeful and altruistic. In addition, I wanted to live without the financial pressures most people middle class and lower in America face. I understood that with regard to friendship and companionship, relationships would change, and there would be happy times and sad times with people, but as long as I still maintained a support system of a few close people with unwavering loyalty, my cocktail wouldn’t suffer.
Eventually, I even fell in love. I was the happiest I had ever been. I felt constantly cared for and motivated, I had someone to share things and experiences with, and I’m pretty sure regular sex did wonders for my endorphin count. I counted this as a “cherry-on-top” to my already good life. I was working a job that wasn’t fulfilling at the time, and it was really the only thing that ever caused me any stress. I figured if only I could replace that job with something more meaningful, my life would be perfect. What happened next is what changed my entire viewpoint. But before we get there, let’s talk about my milkshake philosophy.
The Milkshake Theory
When I was younger, I started using the analogy that life is like a milkshake. There are all different flavors, and although the base ingredients are nearly always the same, the defining ingredients vary widely. For a milkshake to be good, or tasty, it has to have the right flavors, consistency, temperature. Most milkshakes have some garnish as well, usually a dollop of whipped cream and a cherry placed atop the mix.
Through the ins and outs of relationships that my friends and I experienced, I was able to identify two groups of people. Those that believed that love, or romantic companionship, was an ingredient in the milkshake of their life. That is, having a partner is an indispensable component to the happiness, or success, of their lived experience. Life just won’t be as sweet as it should without love for some people, and that’s okay.
I considered myself in the alternate class of folks, who believed that love was simply a cherry on top of the milkshake. A garnishment. Something extra to enhance the experience, that had no way of detracting from the makeup of the milkshake itself. If I found love, great. That would be awesome. If not, there is plenty of friendship, service, mentorship, spirituality — you name it — in the world to keep me content. And that’s what I believed.
Living Purposefully Pt. II
I lost my love. Not only did I lose her, but the world lost her, and it was and remains tragic for so many of us that know her. Right before her passing, I scored a new job closer to my hometown, doing something I love. My literary career began to grow, I was writing often, and conducting workshops for students very often. I believed the work I did was fulfilling, and for the greater good. I felt alive in the moments that I was in front of leagues of young people, trying to inspire them. I felt purposeful.
But I didn’t feel happy.
After much reflection, I had to realize that my happiness was indeed dependent what had once been the cherry on top. I had to make the distinction between living purposefully, feeling “fulfilled,” and being happy with my life. Giving back to the world makes me feel purposeful and fulfilled, but my happiness comes from within. It comes from how I process and perceive the emotions I have about how things and people affect me, not really how I affect them. For so long I thought fulfillment and happiness were the same thing. But looking at them separately has allowed me to be very clear and deliberate about what I need in my life.
The contingency of my happiness was initially hard to identify for me, because it wasn’t purely having somebody to love, a significant other, and losing them, that had caused me so much disdain. It wasn’t about the role someone had played in my life. It was about the actual person in that role. There were things I didn’t know I needed to be happy in life until I didn’t have them anymore. Some of them are:
— Having a best friend to talk to every day
— Being thoroughly and compassionately understood by another person
— Being the reason that somebody you love to see smile, smiles every day
— Having someone to share new experiences with
There are many more. There are elements of love and companionship and friendship within the things that I’m missing. Without your soulmate, it is logical to infer that a portion of your soul is missing. Life feels incomplete. The future looks blurry. I’m still working through all of it. I love my job. I love my art. I love how I spend my free time. But my happiness is somewhere above the clouds. I feel like a jerk for having so much positvity in my life, but not feeling positively about how I’m living. But even though I feel like a jerk, I feel how I feel. And I know the feeling isn’t trivial or unfounded.
Find out what makes you happy. It may be something that’s missing, or something you already have. It may be disguised as something it’s not. Be reflective. Be critical. Be inspired and aspirational. Don’t ascribe to the stereotypical formula for happy life. Your fairy-tale is real, but you have to define it on your own terms and then create it. And once you create it, treasure it, nurture it, and don’t take it for granted. Family of four, two dogs, and a white picket fence might not be you, but that’s cool. Know that and embrace it. Figure out what’s in your milkshake, whether its apple pie or strawberries and cream. And enjoy how sweet life can be.