Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

After all, when does this retrospective “meaning-attribution” occur? How do we know when we’re in the thick of it? Are there moments (or circumstances) in which personal, momentary-but-still-critically-important happiness is really what’s best or most possible for a person to pursue? Sometimes it seems to me that the language of “a meaningful life” as a goal to strive for runs into the danger of prompting a self-complacent, privileged approach to one’s position and opportunities in the world.

I value the concept (and the actuality) of fulfilling work. I recognize the distinction to be made between fleeting happiness and the satisfaction that comes with complex, challenging work that makes a difference in the world. However, I want to push back, a bit, on the valorization of “meaningful work” as something one can choose in advance, knowing with certainty that meaning will attach to the choice, feeling confident that ‘meaningfulness’ is readily available. Let me trace the path of my thinking.

“Why You Should Strive for a Meaningful Life” from “The Academy of Ideas”

There’s been a lively and nuanced debate over this past decade about definitions of happiness – see, for example, “Happiness vs. Living a Life with Meaning,” “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” “Is a Happy Life Different From a Meaningful One?” and “The Differences Between Happiness and Meaning in Life.” One argument is that “the pursuit of happiness” is a distinctively American pursuit focused largely upon the consumption of goods and experiences. “Happiness” is, in this argument, ephemeral, elusive, selfish, attached in a consumerist society to the acquisition of desirable things, susceptible to marketing pitches, and – in sum – shallow. Happiness in this frame precludes systemic analysis of society. It focuses on the individual. [See Rachel Mivka’s recent piece that explores the difference between “happiness vs. joy.” – ed].

The rhetoric that privileges “meaningful work” and that positions the pursuit of happiness as a less critically-minded, more self-oriented activity contains assumptions about access to employment opportunities, about education, about what is morally best in terms of a worldview (i.e., social engagement, critical analysis, a generally outward turning sense of what provides meaning, a vaguely progressive take on what counts as meaningful).

And so what organization of society, what access to opportunity, is best designed to provide for the greatest number of people the opportunities for employment and service that offer challenge, satisfaction, a sense that one is contributing to a better society in some way? Do we really mean to include everyone when we use vocation-speak to promote and celebrate meaningful work and fulfilling lives?

In the face of intransigent difficulties, or even simply in the face of limited opportunities for employment that feels “meaningful,” seeking happiness may be the best road from one’s door. Seeking, identifying, and celebrating moments of joy and pleasure may be a life-saving refuge from a disappointing or unavailable career. The celebration of happiness is also important in the arena of vocational discernment.

From “Ten Simple Ways to Happiness from Calvin and Hobbes

Sadly, I am not at all sure that satisfying engagement in meaningful pursuits is open to everyone, given the inequalities and workplace insecurities of even the relatively affluent and stable U.S. economy. In this fractious, profoundly pluralistic world can we even agree on what counts as meaningful? When did “meaningful work” become the only (morally valorized) response to one’s desire to seek a liveable accommodation with the intractability of one’s experience in the world?

It seems to me quite tricky to think that we can accurately identify what “meaningful work” will be in future for young people on the verge of departure from college. When we advise students, do we know how to recognize what meaningful work looks like for them – and at what point they will stop and, looking back, see as meaningful the careers they have pursued, the choices they have made?

How do we help our students prepare for the disappointments and frustrated desires they are likely to experience? How do we help them handle the feeling that if they don’t find meaningful work they are just not good enough to deserve it? How do we talk with students about the fact that “meaningful work” and the privileges of experience and access provided by elite institutions of higher education are often in close correspondence (think Fulbright… think Peace Corps…think graduate study at an ivy league school…)? (And how do we talk both with students at those elite institutions and with students who are not – because relatively few of us actually teach in the US News top 50?)

I mean in this essay to ask what we mean by “meaningful,” and suggest that (sometimes, at least) prompting our students to seek meaningful lives is yet another way to burden them with unrealizable expectations in advance of the complexities and disappointments of the winding roads they will actually walk.


Bren Tooley is the Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and the Peace Corps Prep Program at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria in 2010 and again in 2018, a faculty instructor in the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Bulgaria in 2012 and 2014, and a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar participant in Brazil in 2001. She has been faculty member and academic administrator at Colorado College, Cornell College, and Monmouth College and has been deeply involved in international and interdisciplinary program development and administration, faculty development and mentoring, and international student outreach and support for many years.

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