About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

What is fulfillment?

I wrote this a while ago and left it sitting around on my desktop. I think I was going to polish it up a bit before posting, but I can't think of anything else to say and I quite enjoyed re-reading it, so I'm sharing it as is:

As I started out on this new life, a friend expressed concern that I wouldn't find it fulfilling. Over the last year or so, that question has been lurking in the back of my mind. Not just, Is this fulfilling? but, What does that even mean?

Recently it struck me that Fulfillment is the same thing as Self actualization in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. That might not sound like much of an step forward in explanatory terms, but having spent much of my career in Psychology departments, this sort of thing has seeped into my thinking.

The point is that if someone's written a theory about it, there'll be stuff written down that I can look up and see if it adds anything to my own thoughts on the subject. Good ol' Wikipedia told me that the theory is much disputed (do we really need to meet all our basic biological needs, including sexual, before we can care about things like whether people like us or not?) but included the following simple statement about self actualization:

The desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

That made a lot of sense to me. Start by thinking about what one could be; fulfillment is when all those could bes become real. At the same time, it's problematic; to become everything one is capable of becoming.

Let's see...

  • I could be a teacher
  • I could be scientist
  • I could be a mother
  • I could be a gardener
  • I could be a seamstress
  • I could be a cook
  • I could go on...
but what I could not be is all of these things.

Life is full of choices and, to use a well-worn metaphor, the journey through life involves taking one path and turning away from another, many times over. Sometimes it's possible to go back and try a path that was turned away from the first time round (though it wouldn't be quite the same path on second approach... The metaphor may be breaking down a bit here), but it's not possible to explore all of the paths thoroughly. One life just isn't long enough to do everything.

I think the concept of fulfillment is flawed. We can survey a range of possibilities and deceive ourselves that we could have/do/be everything. What the glittering possibilities show us is that we could be anything not everything.

So by stopping the intellectual work I was doing before, am I, in any meaningful sense, unfulfilled? The meaning of this negative state is perhaps a little easier to grasp than the corresponding positive, Fulfillment. To feel unfulfilled is to feel that one could be doing more, doing better, doing something more satisfying. This is a dissatisfaction with life that could be entirely valid, and a prompt to try and change things, to fill life with more satisfying activities.

The important thing to remember is that one can't do everything. If you choose to do more fulfilling things, you will almost certainly have to stop doing some of the things you do at the moment. There are only so many hours in the day.

As for me, I'm very happy with the choice I've made. Today I received a request to review a paper for a scientific journal. I might do it because the editor who asked me is a very nice man, but I have no sense that I'm missing out by not doing this kind of work.


  1. I LOVE this post! I have personally never understood the idea that running oneself ragged is somehow the key to happiness and fulfillment. Back when I was still trying to be "successful" it seemed like each thing I achieved only made my mental state worse. It was like, "OK - I reached my goal, why don't I feel better now?" In fact, with each accomplishment, I felt like the pressure only ratcheted up a notch.

    I finally concluded that the key to happiness and contentment wasn't "out there" somewhere, it was "in here." That's not to say that people living a more conventional life can't be happy, I just think it's very hard to maintain perspective and balance when you live in a world that is obsessed with the idea of success, achievement, and external recognition. Great post!

    1. Aw, thanks Cat :-)

      It's funny how I didn't equate fulfillment with happiness until I read your comment, but if fulfillment isn't (a major part of) happiness, why should we care about it anyway?


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