What do you desire?

When I ask my friends this question, almost everyone responds with a variant of, “I just want to be happy.” When I inquire further as to what happiness looks like for them, the responses are all over the map. It’s clear there’s not one definition of happiness.

When I reflect on this question for myself, happiness seems like a part of the picture, but the real answer for me is fulfillment. Compared to fulfillment happiness is a pale imposter.

Below is the opening passage from Stephen Cope’s brilliant book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide For The Journey to Your True Calling:

What do you fear most in this life?

What is your biggest fear right now?

When I pose that question to myself, the answer is this: I’m afraid that I’ll die without having lived fully. OK, I’m also afraid of pain—and of dying a difficult death. But that’s for later. Mostly right now, I’m afraid that I may be missing some magnificent possibility. That perhaps I have not risked enough to find it. That maybe I’ve lived too safe a life.

Thomas Merton says, “What you fear is an indication of what you seek.”

Those opening words stopped me in my tracks.

I could have written that. Could have written that today, yesterday, or a decade ago. This fear (motivation) is a constant driver for much of what I do and how I live. It’s reasonable to say that I have a bit of an obsession with death and how meditating on such can lead to a life well-lived.

The Western world’s obsession with the blind pursuit of happiness and #nobaddays discount the full range of human experience and emotions. Seeking happiness doesn’t get to the point of what makes life worth living, which I believe is fulfillment. A fulfilling life is not necessarily a happy one, at least not 24/7 like books and podcasts on the subject suggest, but it’s one that fosters a deep and complex inner terrain and self-knowledge (as opposed to self-centeredness).

A life of fulfillment acknowledges, even embraces, the ups and downs, and I posit that a fulfilling life is because of the dark and light one experiences and allows. It’s a life where happiness as an experience is more likely to show up. Of course, a fulfilling life suggests more than just vast emotional range. A fulfilling life is one with purpose, where the goal is not only happiness but also usefulness.

A life lived fully is one of connection and service to a cause greater than ego—and it’s one that’s lived true to one’s self—even if it’s out of accord with society’s dictates.

So where does this pursuit of living “life full up to the brim” as my etched silver ring from the Rodin Museum implores (in French, of course)? Well, that remains to be determined, but I feel that something new is on the horizon.

Are you living a fulfilling life? If not, what’s standing in your way from doing so?