Happiness and Fulfillment
Two patients lie in their death beds in a hospital. Maybe they're both surrounded by their family and friends. Maybe they're in the Northwest as the weather gets colder and they both realize independently, at slightly different times, that they'll never see the sun again. Maybe they each have regrets.
One thing I can say for certain, as the author of this little story, is that one patient's life was spent in the pursuit of happiness, while the other's was spent in the pursuit of fulfillment. Whether they each found it is unbeknownst to me. I also can only speculate what they thought as they quietly slipped away, as the steady beep of the EKG disappeared into a deafening solid note, which the nurses quickly cut out partly because we got the message and partly because the sound itself is so obnoxious.
In that instant, I suppose it doesn't matter whether the one found happiness or the other found fulfillment, or even which they chose to pursue—whether they spent their lives frolicking in the grass or anti-frolicking in a metaphorical windowless office. I suppose it doesn't matter to the two patients, at that very moment and every one thereafter, whether or not they figured it all out.
But for the rest of us, it does.
Every day, I wake up and struggle with whether I want to be myself and happy or whether I want to be better and fulfilled.
I've spent most of my life in the pursuit of happiness1, but the times I've actually felt happy are when I stopped trying. Happiness is an ephemeral moment when I'm not self-conscious, when I'm not worried about what I'm doing with my body or what I look like, when I'm completely present. It's taken me a long time to understand what that feels like and I think it's why people like dancing, and why I like music festivals2.
When I'm present, I forget the past, I forget the future, I forget my aspirations. I forget who I am in my mind's eye, because I'm focused on being who I am3.
I get lost in the present. In a kind of twisted way, that presence also implies an absence. I'm here but I'm also not really there, because there's no context for me being there.
In that blissful moment4, however, I don't notice an absence. I simply accept the beauty that everything is the way it is.
It isn't enough
And then, something creeps into my psyche. I start to feel complacent. Stagnated.
How do I reconcile this complacency with my desire to be better, to do better, to not simply accept my experience and my fate as it is?
Some would say you can't. When you feel that complacency, it's because life is about fulfillment, not happiness, and you aren't fulfilling yourself. And that's true—I feel guilty5 for not trying to better myself, because I know I can be more. I know I can be part of something greater. When I strive to better myself, when I build something, when I'm uncomfortable, I'm satisfied. I'm contributing. I've felt this way a lot while working on [Clef](https://getclef.com).
It isn't enough either
You can say that you're happy when you're bettering yourself, but that's an issue of semantics, and I'd call that fulfillment.
When I strive to better myself, it's out of discontent with who I am now. That's pretty opposed to my happiness. Sometimes that discontent is totally concrete and I know exactly what I need to do, but most of the time, it's an itch more than anything else. A reminder in the back of my head that what I'm doing isn't enough.
I don't have a satisfying answer
If you're looking for someone to tell you that happiness isn't important, it isn't me. But I cannot tell you that fulfillment is the answer either, sorry.
The pursuit of fulfillment is torture. Perhaps if I were driven by some purely-good, higher purpose, it wouldn't be. But I'm driven by a feeling of incompleteness and my insecurities.
You can't have only happiness or only fulfillment. You need to have a balance.
"Balance" is a pretty wholly disappointing answer, but I'm not surprised it isn't some grand revelation (seeing how people have been thinking about this sort of thing for a very long time).
It raises the next question: How do I know what the right balance is?
That isn't something I can answer for you. Hell, it's something I can barely answer for myself. But I try to approach it from a place of self-love, where I can begin to accept who I am, even when I'm not happy with who I am.
When I feel right with the world, that is how I am. When I feel discontent and I strive to better myself, that is also how I am. I can't fight against the way I feel in a given moment, because in that moment, I'm being me.
So when I want to float in the waves, I revel in that fact. And when I'm no longer content just floating, when I want to swim my ass off and ride one into the shore, I revel in that fact too.
Trusting myself to do both is hard. I worry that when I'm floating or when I'm swimming, I'll never have the desire for the other again. It isn't that I want to be one way or another—it's the self-doubt in either state that drives me crazy. So I have to trust that what I'm doing at any given moment is right for me, and listen to myself when it isn't.
When I am one of those patients, wondering whether I'll ever see the sun again, I probably still won't know whether I've "achieved" fulfillment or happiness. And it probably won't matter6.
What will be true is when I wanted to be better, I tried, and when I wanted to be me, I was.
And hopefully, the nurse will turn that obnoxious sound off sooner rather than later.
- Well, I spent high school in the wholehearted pursuit of being cool, which I guess I did because I thought it would make me happy.↩
- The first music festival I ever attended was Sasquatch 2013. I'll have to write another post about how to approach festivals, but in a nutshell: festivals can be an incredibly safe space for exploring presence and being yourself. Some call it letting loose.↩
- Maybe a better way to say this is that there is no I to be focused on anything.↩
- That "moment" could last weeks or months.↩
- I wonder how much of that is a result of my own drive and how much is a result of constantly comparing myself to others.↩
- Or maybe it will! The living will never know.↩