What constitutes a fulfilled life?
People view a fulfilled life as associated with having lived a full life, attained meaningful goals, developed oneself, contributed to other people’s lives, and left a positive legacy.
Researchers Doris Baumann and Willibald Ruch, at the University of Zurich, investigated lay conceptions of a fulfilled life among German-speaking participants at different life stages. To do so, they selected a qualitative approach using an open-ended questionnaire asking participants to describe a fulfilled life. Second, for a more comprehensive understanding, quantitative data was collected about the relevance of sources in providing fulfillment and ratings on a fulfilling life in the present and a fulfilled life in retrospect.
Doris and Willibald define fulfillment in life as “a cognitive-affective experience referring to a sense of wholeness, fit, and value toward the self, one’s life, and one’s impact”. Two of the objectives of this study were to (1) investigate the content of lay perspectives of a fulfilled life across the lifespan, and (2) examine age group and gender differences.
A total of 747 German-speaking were included in this study. The participants were randomly selected to ideally include 20 people per age decade and to have a balance of gender.
One main source of life fulfillment is meaningful relationships and a community in which people share and go through life together. Having a profession is another vital source of fulfillment, especially if the occupation is enjoyable, allows one to use one’s skills to contribute to others, and matches one’s calling. Other fulfilling pursuits included self-improvement, savoring, leisure time, volunteer work, and spirituality. Overall, fulfillment stems from rewarding relationships, meaningful roles, and personally significant activities that allow for self-development and self-expression, but also from contributing to a cause beyond oneself.
Interestingly enough, participants rated nature as the most fulfilling category. As the authors suggest, there are several possible explanations for this result. Since people today are less likely to belong to a religious institution, the experience of connectedness to a larger whole could be found in nature. In addition, nature could be a place where people feel hopeful and experience a sense of beauty and excellence. Their findings also revealed that social and generative roles, including parenting, grandparenting, and volunteering, were found to be very fulfilling. Learning and personal development were among the top five chosen categories, suggesting the importance of expanding the self for experiencing fulfillment. “Spirituality and religion” was another category related to transcendence, but it was rated as less fulfilling than the other categories. Nonetheless, for people who live their spirituality and religion in everyday life, this category had great relevance for their fulfillment.
Overall, the level of fulfillment provided by participants varied across age groups. In general, the two older age groups rated various sources as more fulfilling than the youngest age group. For example, older adults valued the sources of nature and spirituality more highly.
Adults (people over 50 years old) also rated learning and personal development as more fulfilling than their younger counterparts. Contrary to age stereotypes that are still prevalent, people enjoy learning even at advanced ages.
Having a life task and a profession were other sources that older participants valued more than younger participants. Even the oldest age group rated a profession as more fulfilling than middle-aged people. Although the need to matter and to have a meaningful engagement applies to individuals of different ages, it may be particularly essential for the well-being of older adults.
As the study continues to discuss, the findings suggest that as people age, they gain more self-knowledge about what is appropriate and meaningful to them, and therefore learn to draw fulfillment from a variety of sources. It is also possible that older adults are better able to pursue intrinsically motivated goals and have their psychological needs met.
With regard to gender differences, women valued friendships and social relationships as more fulfilling than men. Previous research has demonstrated that women have more close relationships than men and are also personally more involved.
According to the participants, positive attitudes and personal qualities are essential for a life well lived. The personal qualities mentioned included positive character traits, personal agency, acceptance, and a positive attitude. These qualities can influence the extent to which one values life and what one makes of it. Participants mentioned curiosity above all, but also bravery and humility.
A fulfilled life also depends on resources and favorable conditions, some of which are beyond the individual’s control. In this context, participants referred to quality-of-life attributes, including health, financial well-being, individual freedom, and a life in balance. The is no denying that fulfillment in life is closely related to factors such as education, financial status, and health.