What is it that we need to do with our lives – to be fulfilled?
Many of us struggle with this question, and can become mired in conventional and often mistaken wisdom on this most essential of topics.
In studies, a majority of us report reasonable success at achieving general happiness, but are more reserved when asked questions that are indicative of deeper life fulfillment and personal flourishing.
This article will summarize new ideas regarding human fulfillment, taken from both modern philosophy and the new science of human fulfillment (often called positive psychology). Both turn much of conventional thinking about the process of our fulfillment on its head, and point the way to far simpler, more natural, and often quite counterintuitive ways to reliably create fulfilling conditions in our lives.
As we begin this important and perhaps life-changing discussion, let me add that the science of human fulfillment is still a developing field. But we know already from early findings that mistaken beliefs about the process of our fulfillment are widespread and deeply rooted in society, as is misunderstanding of our fulfillment’s natural foundations and requirements, and that both are principal causes of unfulfilled life when we encounter it today.
How We Misunderstand Fulfillment
An instructive example of our potential for misunderstanding the nature of our fulfillment, even among the world’s most intelligent people, involves the famous nineteenth-century philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche.
A brilliant writer, Nietzsche sensed an unfulfilling quality in early modern life and notoriously recommended that we prepare ourselves for the crossing of abysses, and for the pursuit of superhuman status, if we were to find true fulfillment as people. Nietzsche captured the attention of millions with his bold and eloquent ideas and proposals, even as they are likely almost entirely wrong.
Though Nietzsche meant his recommendations to encourage a break from earlier conceptions of the correct bounds of life, his underlying view of human fulfillment was not especially new. Many before him had similarly and paradoxically proposed that our fulfillment entails special adversity, tribulation, and elevation or estrangement from the world and others around us. As we will discuss, such proposals are in stark contrast to what increasingly is shown empirically to be the true and more natural character of our fulfillment – an endeavor involving far simpler, more modest, and more accessible life paths, ones which characteristically embody joyful and engaging human life in their travel.
In his own inimitable way, Nietzsche unintentionally joined a long tradition of historical figures, who together still dominate much of our collective thinking, sharing a similar basic notion about the task of our fulfillment. This tradition is one that Nietzsche correctly perceived as flawed and emphatically sought to reject, but in rebelling against it too strongly and losing himself in abstract ideas, fell folly to an old error in philosophy – letting the lure of personal heroics, our natural desire for differentiated status, and the ether of lofty proposals obscure a clearer and plainer view of the true and more earthly nature of fulfilling human life.
In a theme we will return to, a long and varied tradition of guidance regarding our fulfillment still exerts an enormous and unfortunate influence on people today, even as it appears today increasingly in error and at odds with our best science. This tradition extends back to the beginnings of recorded civilization and spans all our major cultures. In it, we can see a remarkably similar nexus of ideas regarding our fulfillment in works as diverse as Plato and other ancient philosophers, the writings of mystics of many cultures and periods, in our principal world religions emphasizing sin and suffering, in philosophies old and new rationalizing self-seeking and acquisitive life, and even in influential modern schools of thought and therapy.
As I will explain next, each of these seemingly diverse methods for promoting fulfilling life shares a common and what is likely be proved entirely flawed basic conception of the nature of our fulfillment. If these varied schools of thought prove beneficial to the task of fulfillment, we have good reason to believe that this is principally due either to their neglect by practitioners – meaning the adaption or subordination of their tenets to the requirements of satisfying human life in the world – or because of their efficacy at bringing practitioners together into intimate and reciprocating human community – which has been shown to form a clear component of fulfilling life.
But what is it at bottom that these many diverse systems share? In essence, it is that they propose a process for our fulfillment that focuses on the self, and that places the self in a tension with itself, or with other selves – with society or the world more generally – in one way or another. Through whatever specific course each system of fulfillment is elaborated, all of these schools of thought end by emphasizing a focus on thought. By this, I mean a focus on or preoccupation with the reflective, inward-looking, or self-conscious aspect of our subjectivity, as opposed to the world beyond the self (which turns to be a far more natural and productive approach to our fulfillment).
As part of this general tradition, I should add that these systems often include dramatic or emphatic narrative elements that elevate and frame the reflective self in a special struggle of some sort, thereby creating a strong emotional and moral appeal for their system, engaging the thinking self more deeply and encouraging practitioners to regard their reflective capacity as the correct object for their attention.
The result of this combined approach, as we can see in Nietzsche and other systematic and native philosophies, is to make our natural human capacity for intermittent reflection far more pronounced and sustained than it is in natural life, and than is needed to foster our well-being and fulfillment. In fact, the ultimate result of this general approach is to make the reflective self a barrier, rather than the natural aid it should be, to our personal and collective fulfillment.
For these reasons, the wide-ranging philosophies and approaches to life I have highlighted promote ideas about the task of human fulfillment that prove intuitively-appealing but that are essentially mistaken. Importantly, they do this in ways that are analogous to the manner in which they contain mistaken assumptions about our human history and original human nature. While this seemingly separate topic might appear ancillary to our discussion, underlying conceptions of our human origins and natural character prove central to correcting traditional prescriptions and the work of building a true science of fulfilling human life.
We have sufficient science now, and the ability to explore alternative approaches to our fulfillment through natural experiments in the world today, to suggest that human fulfillment involves a very different process than a focus on the reflective or thinking self, or on ideas that encourage sustained thought and self-reflection. Through the full and still emerging scope of modern science, we now have strong cause to believe that our fulfillment is arrived at even by an opposite process – by living, not in exaggerated reflection, but in a way that is more whole and encompassing, and that progressively integrates us, others, and the world.
If I might foreshadow my eventual recommendations, let me say now that the approach I will summarize is quite simple, in concept and even in practice, requiring mainly persistence, realism, and attentiveness, rather than heroics or leaps or tribulations. In practice, this alternative approach to fulfilling life involves a sustained and progressive enlargement of the self through the opportunity of our life, rather than the magnification of the self through self-focus or the opportunity of one or more conceptual lenses.
But because our cultural traditions in essence often emphasize magnification over enlargement, this alternative process for our fulfillment turns out to be counterintuitive for many people, even as it is remarkably simple, completely natural, supported by a growing body of science, and profoundly liberating – once the approach is understood, explored, and experienced in our lives.
A Needed Copernican Shift
If you are skeptical that human fulfillment is widely and simply misunderstood, and widely and simply available to us too, let me return to my original question – what is it that we need to do with our life to be fulfilled?
As I said before, there is substantial research to suggest that most people cannot answer this question satisfactorily today, and a growing body of work suggesting that our pre-scientific modes of responding to or framing this question are a principal cause. There is also reason to believe that the outlines of a new and reliable science of human fulfillment and flourishing are emerging in our time.
In fairness to brilliant and multi-faceted Nietzsche, who was a watershed for me when I first read him, at other points in his writings he does speak of our fulfillment lying in everyday matters, rather than in super-humanity and the traversing of chasms – writings before and even amidst his descent into egoism and its regular comrade, grandiosity. Far less famously, Nietzsche used the analogy of an ant, and asked us to consider what the natural requirements were for it to be a “good ant.”
Though humans are more complex than ants, we are less complex than galaxies and other natural phenomena, and the intuition to consider the analogy of fulfillment in other species turns out to be a quite fruitful and far-reaching one. This line of inquiry leads us back from a focus on abstract ideas and reflective thought to an outward exploration of nature and more objective considerations, and to the very different conception of our fulfillment I have introduced. I should add that his more natural view of our fulfillment does have a long if smaller and less influential tradition, including writings in the Taoist and Zen traditions, and in the work of a number of modern philosophers, beginning notably with Kant and Spinoza.
Within modern philosophy, a strong counterpoint to Nietzsche and an important and decidedly naturally-oriented practitioner is the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, a prolific and greatly-admired genius who lived a generation after Nietzsche and took issue with nearly all of Nietzsche’s most widely-regarded proposals. In particular, Russell was a strong and quite eloquent advocate of the alternative and ultimately more humanistic approach to our fulfillment I will recommend to you.
Though less passionate than Nietzsche, among professional philosophers Russell is at least as famous and generally better regarded, and his ideas regarding the human condition point the way toward what is emerging today as a true natural science of human fulfillment – at minimum providing an important alternative hypothesis for the scientific study of fulfilling human life. As importantly, Russell’s ideas prove remarkably easy to explore and assess for ourselves in our lives, proving both unexpectedly simple and insightful, even as they are gently radical and liberating in practice.
Russell summarized his ideas regarding human fulfillment in a small but substantial book, published in the 1920s and intended for general audiences, entitled The Conquest of Happiness. I have read Conquest more than once and likely will read it more than once again. Like much of Russell’s other work, it has a measured and patient tone, and proposes a lucid, reasoned, and remarkably contrarian approach to the task of achieving fulfilling life. I will admit freely that Russell has influenced me and led me to the belief I began with – that most world’s traditional philosophies and systems of thought have gotten the task human fulfillment wrong.
I will explain Russell’s specific proposals for fulfillment in a moment, and also bring in supporting ideas about our fulfillment from other sources. Together, they will help to build what I think is a strong case for us each to move to a quite specific, more naturalized, and far more informed approach in our quest for fulfilling life (and in helping others in this task).
As I have suggested already, the alternative I will propose takes our fulfillment as a natural process and a condition rooted and widely available in natural human life. With this idea in mind, I will also propose that our fulfillment is an ongoing and lifelong process, requiring input to achieve output at all times. And I will propose that our fulfillment is achieved primarily through action in the world, rather than through the navigation of ideas and contemplation within oneself.
This alternative model for our fulfillment does involve ideas and thinking, of course, but more fundamentally it asks us to make a basic shift in our thinking – one that is akin to the essential shift in our worldview brought about by the observations of Copernicus. You will recall that it was Copernicus who showed us that the Earth was not the center of the world, but one of at least several planets revolving around one of many stars in a vast universe.
And so it is with the natural process of finding fulfillment in our lives. Simply put, we must adjust ourselves to a universe and species history that is much larger than us and our thoughts, and then find fulfilling actions and relationships in this larger reality of nature. We must enlarge ourselves through compelling outward action, rather than magnify ourselves though inward contemplation, if we are to be fulfilled
Before I can credibly argue for this new approach, however, I first need to define fulfillment for you, and in particular separate it from the more generalized and simpler threshold state that we call human happiness.
Happiness And Fulfillment
When the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his team began sampling human experience in the 1970s – via a pager system that had people randomly record their immediate activity and feelings whenever their device sounded – he found something unexpected and initially counterintuitive about the effects of activity on human happiness, something that forced him to re-think and then modify his approach.
What Csikszentmihalyi discovered was that his survey questions about happiness produced a limited correlation to variations in activity. Almost regardless of what people were doing, their responses to his happiness questions had an eerie sameness or consistency about them. This unexpected finding did not imply that the people in his survey population were all equally happy of course. Some reported being decidedly and consistently unhappy, while others indicated that they were often only somewhat happy, in both cases without a strong link to activity. At the same time, a great many people reported that they were generally happy each time their pagers sounded, again without a strong correlation to their behavior.
Put another way, Csikszentmihalyi’s findings suggested that the overall patterns of happiness or average level of happiness in his survey population did not vary very much, when compared with changes in activity. This insight has since been studied and is now often explained as our naturally having a “set point” or baseline amount of life happiness that we naturally gravitate to, absent active intervention to change our lives or environment. And while our personal set points are each unique, scientists have found, as Csikszentmihalyi and his team did, that a great many of us are reasonably happy much of the time.
Does this finding surprise you? It might, since we are all barraged with proposals to promote or improve our happiness – whether through bigger houses, faster cars, trendier products and styles, becoming or begetting more attractive companions, or beginning new pastimes. Though such appeals are hardly new, they help us to develop an intuition or belief that these things really do produce added happiness, even as a great many of the proposals test our credulity.
Csikszentmihalyi’s result speaks out against this conventional wisdom that our happiness is variable in this way. It certainly surprised many researchers at the time, since they too intuitively assumed that our happiness varies significantly with activity and circumstance. But a great deal of research since then, from a variety of sources and using a variety of methods, has essentially confirmed this earlier and unexpected result. The fact is that people are about equally happy on average, in all but the most extreme external conditions and as long as certain very basic contributors to our happiness are present (freedom from pain, isolation, pointless hardship, etc).
As a now well-publicized example of this unexpected feature of our nature, billionaires have been found to be only modestly happier than people of average financial means, disqualifying wealth and possessions as a principal contributor to happiness (even as they have been and remain coveted by many today and distract us from the essentials of fulfilling life). Poor people turn out to be as nearly as happy as middle-class people, and can even be as happy as billionaires when they have strong and supportive social networks (which have been shown to increase happiness – and fulfillment). Perhaps less well-know is that paraplegics are about as happy as average people, and even as happy as lottery winners, after a period of adjustment or habituation to their injury (and for the lottery winners’ habituation to their new wealth and social standing).
These often surprising but quite consistent research results have led scientists to hypothesize that our human brains are naturally evolved to make us happy, even if they do not naturally lead us to be fulfilled amidst the new human setting that is modern life. This natural happiness hypothesis states that happier people (and presumably happier individuals from other species), living in and facing the many perils and hardships of wild nature, were more likely to have and successfully rear children, gradually shaping our genes to produce happiness-engendering brains. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert summarizes this important and wide-ranging research in his popular book, Stumbling on Happiness.
Across society today, as perhaps in all earlier epochs of civilization, we encounter some genuinely unhappy people and some not quite happy ones too, and can allow this data to skew our perceptions. We can fail to make the connection, now suggested by a good amount of research, that most of us are reasonably happy most of the time – and that we achieve this basic state of happiness essentially without regard to what we do. It is true that average happiness has been shown to vary by nation and culture, but the reasons for this variation are now fairly well understood, offering insights into the nature of our fulfillment. Importantly, many traditional ideas about happiness – especially that it involves special resources, status or conduct – have proved objectively untrue in research. And, as we will see, similar traditional ideas about the higher state we call fulfillment are in the process of suffering much the same fate under the scrutiny of scientific research.
When faced with the “problem” of ubiquitous average happiness in his sample population, Csikszentmihalyi and his researchers modified their initial questions. Instead of sampling for happiness, they instead asked about positive aspects of human experience. These included level engagement, satisfaction, and contentment, all powerful states of subjective experience that prove to be key supporting elements of human fulfillment. With this revised survey questioning regarding subjective experience during varying activities, researchers got back very different results from their pager and survey form-carrying respondents. Reporting on these questions, survey responses differed widely with activity and overall lifestyle. The problem of excessive human happiness was solved!
What Csikszentmihalyi and later researchers have found is that the higher experiential state we call human fulfillment is significantly correlated with a set of specific personal attitudes and behaviors – importantly for our discussion, attitudes and behaviors that we can extrapolate would have occurred and proved useful for human survival in wild nature.
We’ll return to this idea before the end of our discussion, but suffice it to say here that our natural human penchant for 1) exploring the world, 2) progressively developing and exercising technical skills, and 3) engaging in reciprocal and dynamic social interactions figure high on the list of “once useful and today fulfilling” human behaviors. As an important counterpoint to this idea, protracted reflection and ego-focus, the content or practical result of many traditional philosophies and religious systems, but not of our long life in wild nature, prove not to have these effects and instead are apt to produce the exact opposite state as our fulfillment – which we often describe with the words boredom, lethargy, estrangement, ennui, etc.
When I discuss this research with others, and the idea of that naturally-useful attitudes and behaviors lead to our fulfillment today in modern times, people’s reaction is often one of surprise but it really shouldn’t be, especially when we examine our own life experience and consider the evolved life of our natural ancestors. After all, pre-civilized humans lived for millions of years as skilled hunter-gatherers in small and closely-knit bands on the rugged savannahs of southern and central Africa. This form of social organization was essential for our survival, as physically vulnerable apes lacking claws and fangs, and this long mode of human life required specific skilled and social behaviors from us – behaviors increasingly shown to be the foundation of our health, and our fulfillment, today. In contrast, civilized behavioral norms are often no more than 10,000 years old, and many modern ideals for our conduct are less than 100 years.
But what is fulfillment? As I have suggested, considerable research and our own experience tells us that it is more than generalized human happiness. Based on studies of people who report high and sustained levels of fulfillment, it can be described as an active state of life, one involving engagement in the world and with others in specific ways, ways that creates a special and natural human contentment, a sense of worth or esteem, high levels of personal meaning, new creativity and feelings freedom, and sustained joy. As an active state of human life, fulfillment is increasingly viewed as a condition that gradually and perhaps proportionately increases or decreases when our natural engagement in life is increased, or diminished or prevented.
A useful way of thinking about the state we describe with the word fulfillment is to define this state by this word’s components, as a state or feeling of being “filled full.” As I said, this feeling of personal fullness or enlargement can be shown to be rooted in our actions and attitudes, and since we are gradually emptied by the passage of time (via the force of habituation), maintaining or increasing our sense of being fulfilled requires ongoing and even progressive action of certain types. With this requirement of ongoing action, however, the fulfilling life offers back a special pleasure in its attainment, setting the stage for a compounding cycle self-reinforcing and progressing growth and life engagement. We will come back to this important idea in a moment.
As we will discuss, fulfillment and fulfilling life are a process of actively and adaptively leading a healthy, vital, and natural human life, of embracing our unique individual life and place and experience in the world, and especially of enlarging ourselves though increasing harmony or alignment with the larger world beyond the self. As with our happiness, research on our fulfillment suggests that our external conditions are far less important than our daily relationship to our environment and others, as long as our surroundings do not actively impede naturally-fulfilling human behaviors and attitudes.
With this consideration of happiness and fulfillment, and the role that earlier natural life inevitably plays in each, you can perhaps begin to better see why I have suggested that schools or systems of thought that emphasize or cause self-magnifying (and even hypnotic) contemplation, reflection, and absorption in patterned thought actively work against our natural need for what we might describe as an active, skilled, improvising, and outward-facing life of people and things. All such approaches juxtapose the reflective self against the self other capacities and the external world more broadly, and impede our natural imperative of integrating ourselves with the larger environment – an imperative that proves essential to the filling of ourselves full.
All forms of highly reflective, abstracted, and self-focused life are correctly hypothesized as at odds with our natural human life and the core requirements for our natural fulfillment as humans, today and in all times. Whenever we encounter fulfilled human life, Csikszentmihalyi’s research in particular suggests that we will find a principal focus on skilled endeavor, relationships, and inquiry into the external world. His and other research suggests we will equally find the thinking self and conceptual preoccupations moved into supporting roles and make only intermittent appearances in the lives and experience of fulfilled people.
Csikszentmihalyi, in fact, found that as we enter and sustain highly fulfilling and engaging states, we live outwardly and compellingly in the “flow” of relationships, meaningful endeavors, and intimate experiences in the larger world, losing our sense the reflective self and living beyond and without it for extended times. He found that we become consumed, enlivened, and enlarged in this outward and improvising natural life in the external world – a world that inevitably lies beyond and is far larger than the very real limits of ourselves, our personal reflections, and our human concepts.
The Conquest of Fulfillment
Bertrand Russell wrote Conquest of Happiness without the benefit of newer research into human happiness and fulfillment, including contemporary investigations of our evolved human psyche and its innate structures.
But Russell did come to his work with the aid of his attentive and insightful mind, a good general knowledge of evolutionary theory and the archeological findings of his time, and a long-developed sense that people (including philosophers and theologians) often miss or pass up simple opportunities for naturally happy life in favor of seemingly more elevated personal paths – paths that may have more dramatic appeal but dependably produce conditions of lower life quality. In Conquest and elsewhere, Russell wrote about this trumping of naturally happy life as a product of convention, conception, carelessness, grandiosity, and self-deception.
In his Conquest, Russell begins with an extended discussion of the key elements of modern life that frequently and predictably leads to unhappiness. He felt these included war, exploitation, delusion, estrangement, competition, cycles of boredom and excitement, fatigue, envy, guilt, mania, and unexamined fear. He then introduces what he believed were the essential causes of lasting human happiness in modern life – engagement, affection, family and community, work and skilled endeavor, external interests, a healthy balance of effort and acceptance, and a proportionate sense of oneself overall.
It is in Russell’s extended discussion of the causes or foundations of human happiness that he explores the higher states of happiness available to us – and it is here that he includes the topic of our fulfillment. He does this, however, without using the word fulfillment or setting it apart from happiness as psychologists are more apt to today, instead treating happiness as a general human state with different degrees, depths, or expressions.
As I have suggested already, there is much to recommend in Russell’s small and seemingly diminutive book. It is wonderfully written and an opportunity for an intimate interaction with a man who will likely prove to be one of history’s great modern philosophers. Importantly and true to Russell’s overall approach to philosophy, his Conquest never rises above a gentle conversation in tone, and yet manages to challenge almost all our traditional ideas and conventions about happiness and the correct conduct of our lives. Russell even leaves the attentive reader with a new, more naturally-grounded, and deeply liberating sense of the world and one’s life within it.
In considering our potential for the conquest of both happiness and fulfillment, Russell asks us to reflect on and explore many ideas, even as his ultimate recommendation is to move beyond ideas, and all forms of overly reflective and conceptualized life, to a life that is predominantly active and engaged in the world beyond the reflective self.
In addition to this outward focus, Russell proposes that lasting happiness and fulfillment are achieved by well-directed effort and a generally patient approach to our life in the world. This patient effort includes embracing and being fortified by quiet and unstructured time as they naturally arise in the course of any life. Similarly, it includes our learning to differentiate between excitement and the more essential state of happiness (and for our discussion, fulfillment).
Another critical finding of Conquest is that happiness and fulfillment lie, not just in externally-oriented and attentively directed life, but equally between two pathological, inwardly-focused, and ultimately unsatisfying human extremes:
- Magnification of the self – via self-focus, egoism, and inwardly directed energies, leading to withdrawal from or objectification of the larger world
- Assault of the self – via intoxication, excess, or self-denial, leading to reduction in our natural life engagement and vitality in the world
This last idea of Russell’s may seem intuitively obvious once stated, but in practice has proven one that is difficult for a great many people to formulate and act on for themselves. We can see this amidst life in modern times and in civilized life before our time, where both extremes prove common and undesirable facts of individual and collective life.
In addition to offering these central proposals regarding our human condition, Russell prepares us for a conquest of happiness and fulfilling life by suggesting that the principal sources of unhappiness ultimately do not involve external hardship (a regular feature of natural human life), but instead either: 1) mistaken views of the world, 2) mistaken habits, and 3) mistaken ethics or conceptions. Each of these things, he suggests, work to reduce or destroy our natural appetite for life, which he proposes is externally oriented and upon which all forms and heights of happiness depend.
The world and others may bring us pains, he writes, but can never destroy what he believed, and research now suggests, is “the essential happy quality of a life actively and naturally lived.” How different this conception and spirit from to traditional philosophies focusing on the vulnerability or corruptibility of the self from its existence in the external world, and encouraging withdrawal from or buttressing against hardship, suffering, and the vagaries of life.
While external hardships may be unlikely to prevent our natural happiness, Russell suggests that either self-absorption or self-disgust – specifically, the inward hardships of shame, narcissism, and megalomania – can readily remove our natural outlook and happiness, and even actively lead us to extended states of unhappiness. He points out that all three conditions lead us to treat the world instrumentally and unfeelingly, and prevent our grasping the inherently affectionate and happy nature of healthy human life in the world. For this reason, Russell’s first imperative is that we work to diminish our preoccupation with oneself and increase our engagement in the world, especially as we mature into adulthood.
In his philosophy, Russell puts the task of creating happy life on us and the way we approach our life, rather than attributing it to conditions in the external world, pointing out that simple happiness is a natural state of life and quite directly and simply created for ourselves. With this naturalistic perspective, he recommends reducing unnatural self-focus and increasing engagement and enjoyment with “people and things” around us. As I have discussed already, this proposal of progressive and improvised engagement in the physical and social world is the opposite of many schools of thought, past and present, which often advocate a dramatic withdrawal of the self, or special hygiene or care when interacting with our environment.
Russell supports his proposals by reasoning that the human animal, as an animal, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle in the world. This nature-based orientation recommends effort as a foundation of happy life in all times and, for Russell, importantly explains why the idle rich are almost universally unhappy and unfulfilled, as counterintuitive as this notion may seem to those who seek this condition today. On this point, modern well-being research clearly confirms both that wealth does not lead to significantly greater happiness and that idleness reliably causes unhappiness and disaffection at all income levels – in today’s idle wealthy and upper-middle classes, the condition is frequently and pointedly referred to as modern “affluenza.”
After his extended discussion of the natural foundations of happiness and in keeping with his naturalistic orientation, Russell concludes Conquest by suggesting that we must work to satisfy our organic needs – both individual and cooperative ones – if we are to be happy and sane, achieve “union with the life of Earth,” and create life that is “satisfying to instinct” (which he believed, correctly or not, had become rare in the English-speaking world of his time). On similar grounds and foreshadowing the findings of modern time-perspective theory, Russell also cautions against seeing the present as a means to the future or some other end, observing that we cannot escape unhappiness through success or achievement in life, but only through its enjoyment.
Recounting at the specific sources of unhappiness and happiness I mentioned before, Russell reasons that modern humans must now work to enlarge our hearts as we have enlarged our minds, if we are to transcend strong and longstanding cultural limitations emphasizing self-focus, and find new freedom and happiness in the world. In summarizing this new modern enlargement, Russell again stresses the importance of outward-facing life – allowing us to escape modern encasement in the reflective self, to move past traditional morality and what he believed was its excessive and life-diminishing focus on introversion, and to fulfill our natural need for the “fullest exercise of our faculties.”
At the end of his Conquest, Russell offers specific strategies and rationales for promoting happiness and, in its highest reaches, our fulfillment. I have touched on most of these already and want to finish this summary by highlighting what I believe are his most important conclusions, before continuing our discussion:
- Effort – we must engage ourselves in tasks and challenges in the external world to be happy, developing the pleasure of skilled and productive effort
- People – companionship and cooperation should be viewed as essential to most people’s happiness
- Affection – we should cultivate a critical foundation of our happiness by seeking a “friendly interest in persons and things,” avoiding attachment and emphasizing an affectionate rather than possessive outlook
- Engagement – we must cultivate our perspective, engage in the world, and escape convention until we again see the world as it naturally is for us – wondrous and intriguing – thereby moving from viewing ourselves as isolated individuals to feeling and being “part of the stream of life”
- Proportion – the final and perhaps most important of Russell’s recommendations, especially for achieving the higher happiness of fulfillment, has to do with ensuring proportion in our lives – first by avoiding magnifying ourselves and our preoccupations by excessive focus on them, then by embracing our objective insignificance in the larger universe, and finally by recognizing our potential for greatness within our individual lives, however small they may be in objective fact
This last part of Conquest proves especially moving and stimulating, and is part of the reason Russell’s work has garnered so much attention over the years. In it, Russell challenges us to use science to see the reality of our human situation more clearly than ever before and to achieve new harmony with a deep and perennial truth of human life – pointing out that we are both factually small against the backdrop of our vast universe and the sweep of time, but also capable of great acts of kindness, discovery, or creation amidst our smallness. By this, he means acts of our humanity, and acts that even the tenacious ant cannot achieve in its more limited form of smallness and mortality.
Within Russell’s philosophy of happy life, the highest and most enduring reaches of our happiness – our fulfillment – occur when we enlarge ourselves amidst our acknowledged smallness, especially through participating in collective endeavors and movements that are greater than ourselves, taking our self-transcending place in “the great army” of people who have worked to make our world better over the centuries.
In this way, and in this way only, Russell proposes are we able to move beyond our potential for a narrow life of selfish preoccupation, and engage more fully and naturally in the flow of life, achieve “greatness of soul” (since greatness of scale is never our fate), and realize a “deep happiness” that is unaffected by our personal fate or events in the larger world. In such a life lived outwardly, actively, genuinely, and for endeavors and principles beyond ourselves, Russell believes we find heartfelt and lasting happiness and fulfillment, and even transcendent and transfigured human life.
In its full scope, Russell’s Conquest is a remarkable, uplifting, and science-informed look at human life from a time slightly earlier in our modern age, and is made even more powerful by its supremely patient and measured tone. As I said, despite his gentle manner, Russell proposes an approach to life that upends much of human belief on the topic of our happiness and fulfillment since the Bronze Age, presages the current trajectory of modern well-being science, and encourages a new, very different, and more natural course to the task of our fulfillment amidst modern life.
Re-grounding Fulfillment In Natural Life
Today, as the science and empirical study of human happiness and fulfillment increase, we have good reason to suspect that Russell was right in many of his conclusions, even as they were speculative in his time and not true science themselves. At the same time, this body of science provides us with new grounds to suggest that many traditional philosophies and cultural creeds are deeply mistaken in their prescriptions for self-focused or conceptually-based conquests of our fulfillment, and equally in the case of newer schools of thought sharing a similar essential approach.
I have discussed the pioneering work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues in support of this idea, and would encourage you to explore his remarkably accessible and personally-testable proposals for yourself. Other notable and generally supportive research includes work by the psychologists Allison, Bryant, Conde, Duncan, Langer, McQuillan, Sternberg, Valliant, and Veroff. Their wide-ranging analysis of adaptive development is part of a rapidly growing body of research recommending outward engagement and questioning our prevalent encouragement or acceptance of sustained introspection and self-focus.
This formal inquiry into the science and effective promotion of human flourishing and fulfillment is now called “positive psychology” and is capably summarized in a recent introduction to the field by William Compton. Though still an advancing and far from settled area of science in our time, it is a rapidly-maturing domain as well, with clear and important trends in its various research findings related to human fulfillment. These findings generally underscore the importance of the natural life-based attitudes and behaviors I have introduces: 1) world exploration and engagement, 2) developing and exercising technical skills, and 3) pursuing reciprocal and dynamic social interactions.
Based on this trend and Russell’s earlier and prescient guidance regarding our happiness, I would like to propose that anywhere there are ideas about our fulfillment that focus principally on ideas rather than on action, and especially ideas that magnify the self-concern that Russell warned against, we should suspect basic error. We have enough science already to suspect that a future science and final theory and of human fulfillment will aim primarily, not at the thinking or reflective self and its capacity to heighten self-reflection and conception, but rather at the world, our relationship with it, and the facts and needs of attaining natural human life.
For this reason, we each can with some confidence begin the work of overturning our shared and imprecise inheritance regarding the nature of human fulfillment – especially the often critically-needed work of correctly proportioning the reflecting self within our minds, lives, and the world around us – by actively pursuing fulfillment in the specific new way that Russell, Csikszentmihalyi, and other scientists increasingly suggest. In this way, and perhaps only in this way, can we hope to enlarge rather than simply magnify ourselves, and simultaneously both embrace and transcend our personal smallness – merging with and becoming a more integral part of the greater world, and finding natural and enduring fulfillment in the general pattern of life.
In my own exploration of fulfilling life, I have found this path to be the correct one in many respects, and one that has both confirmed and instructed me about the nature of our human fulfillment and flourishing more generally. As I suggested earlier, the approach has made me smaller and freer in the world, able to redirected energies that once went to maintaining or feeding the identity of a large reflective self, and more in touch with the true sources of fulfilling life, for me at least – the triad of engagement, endeavor, and relationships I have discussed.
I am indebted to Russell, in particular, for helping me to escape conventional logic on this topic and achieve a much higher quality of life for myself. But in seeking to understand and create this transformation for yourself, it is essential not to mistakenly attribute Russell’s insights simply to the fact that he was an especially brilliant student of life, and even one humbled early in his academic career by excessive conception and abstraction. In far greater part, Russell’s insights owe to the more basic fact that Russell belongs to a new and growing tradition of philosophers and scientists working on questions and problems of human life with a new appreciation of natural human life – specifically, one re-grounded in our life’s original foundations in wild nature and the extended evolutionary shaping that occurred there, long before the rise of civilization and its many ideas about our fulfillment.
I mentioned this earlier life already, but so that we share a common sense of our natural past, as we near the end of our discussion, let me spend a moment highlighting key ideas from the science of natural human life. In this summary, you will perhaps see its relationship to my proposals and why I believe this past forms the essential foundation of the emerging science of human fulfillment today.
As you may know, although early human species had left their African origins and settled much of Eurasia before a half-million years ago, the distinct ancestral line of all people alive today – fully modern humans called Homo sapiens – lived exclusively on the plains and coasts of sub-Saharan Africa until very recently in archeological time. In fact, we did not begin our own exodus from Africa until perhaps only slightly more than 50,000 years ago.
For at least the last five million years, and as many as the last ten million, our human lineage was a succession of more than 250,000 generations of foraging or hunter-gatherer peoples living in small bands in the wilds of Africa. Of necessity, we relied on and evolved our inherited primate sociality and intelligence in this often hostile setting, previously developed over roughly forty million of years of earlier forest-bound life. On the plains of Africa, we lived and worked cooperatively and skillfully, without the option of an individualized or isolated life, moving incessantly and attentively on the land. Also of necessity, we engaged in and were deeply curious about the world, and derived not just survival advantages from this natural inquisitiveness, but were evolved to obtain great joy from it as well.
In studying modern-day aboriginal people, who are believed to resemble our earlier ancestors in general psychology and important patterns of life, scientists are struck by their vast native knowledge of the land, including familiarity with hundreds of plants and animals. This consistent finding is suggestive of the profound intimacy and general outward focus that our ancestors had, and that was required by the conditions of their life and the external world. Other research of aboriginal people paints a similar portrait of engagement and intimacy in the interpersonal relationships within clan and band as well. Skill in foraging, engagement in the environment, and intimacy and closeness within our social groups were essential to our survival and naturally encouraged (through genetic and cultural selection) and rewarded (through evolved innate pleasure in these activities).
With these few but new and quite important ideas about our long human life in nature, which Russell had sufficient access to in the 1920s, it becomes clear why his recommendations regarding happiness and fulfillment have proven so fresh and insightful, and to so closely track with later well-being science in our time – and why both are often in such strong contrast to earlier ideas regarding human fulfillment, with their very different companion conceptions of our origins and human place in the cosmos.
From this new, scientifically-based conception of our natural origins and re-grounding of questions of our modern general requirements for happiness and fulfillment in our earlier species life and survival strategies, Russell’s ideas for fulfillment – especially effort, people, affection, engagement, and proportion – naturally and credibly follow. In a similar way, ideas I have written about for promoting healthy natural life – autonomy, harmony, community, rhythm, intimacy, growth, movement, security, simplicity, and nature – flow from this new perspective on our natural origins.
Both sets of themes suggest a need for at least progressive and perhaps revolutionary new approaches to life today. Both suggest that our fulfillment today lies in greater improvisation, engagement, and creativity amidst modern life – guided by a new appreciation of our human past and long-evolved nature, and equally, the evolved, cobbled, and imprecise nature of the human systems we must navigate and improve today, in our quest for human flourishing.
Two Cycles of Human Life
We all face many possible life options and choices in the comparative freedom of modern times. But in an important way, this complexity can be reduced productively to two essential personal strategies.
I have hinted at these strategies already. They are discussed expressly in Russell’s Conquest and one or the other is at least implicitly advocated in every traditional and modern work on human fulfillment I have encountered. All of these works of philosophers, mystics, and religious founders, and even various modern schools of thought, recommend one of two basic paths to our fulfillment:
- Magnification – one strategy we each have is to magnify ourselves in one way or another – heroically as Nietzsche recommended, or perhaps banally as we often see in popular life, or in some mixture of the two. This approach involves our focusing inwardly and cultivating the reflective or thinking self. Magnification can include prolonged reflection on the content of our lives and immediate preoccupations, or a similar focus on conceptual material that stimulates reflective and introspective life. As I have suggested, there is good reason to believe that this approach to life generally leaves us feeling empty and isolated, perhaps excited at times and thus prone to seek excitement (and perhaps to be deceived for the sake of excitement), but not fulfilled. And, in making ourselves disproportionately and unnaturally magnified, we can create heightened and unnatural feelings of emptiness and abstraction, unsettling us and making us apt to retreat still further into ourselves and our lives in search of solace, fueling a vicious cycle of increasingly individuated life and of diminishing world engagement and personal vitality.
- Enlargement – a second strategy – advocated by Russell, other natural philosophers, and now by a growing number of researchers in our time – reverses this recurring traditional pattern of belief about our fulfillment and instead recommends that we enlarge ourselves through a principal outward focus on and more natural behavioral patterns in the external world. This naturalized path suggests that we engage in life and the world, seek learning and inquisitiveness, pursue affectionate and cooperative relations with others, and emphasize physical health and emotional richness, In its higher reaches, it also asks us to embrace the essential human duality Russell highlights – first, of our physical smallness and insignificance, and then our spiritual and practical potential for personal greatness amidst our mortality. This new and old approach to human fulfillment can be firmly grounded in the science of natural human life as we have discussed, and can thus give us confidence and guidance in our exploration of it. This alternative strategy views our reflective or thinking self as an important aspect of our evolved mind and human nature, but also as a faculty that is far less than our total self and only one of many faculties in us that must be activated, if we are to be happy and alive in our fullest natural capacities. This strategy also offers us a compounding cycle if we are persistent with it – but in this case, for a natural and ascending path of greater action, engagement, and learning in the external world, and for increasingly vital and fulfilling life in it.
As Russell describes in his Conquest, this second path of outward life, and what he calls “affection toward people and things,” lies in sharp contrast to the potential for more extreme states of internal life that we are all susceptible. Russell’s path invites a middle course for us away the egoistic extremes of quiet introversion and grandiose grasping. It takes our natural human life and vitality as neither an egoistic nor nihilistic state, but one rather that is probing, curious, outwardly engaging, enlivening, and naturally and continually renewing. In this way, he encourages healthy relationships with others and fosters fulfilling authenticity, congeniality, and reciprocity in our lives, rather than those ideals that are the frequent prerogatives of more traditional modes of life – inward-facing absorption or inward-pulling possessiveness.
With a new and more natural outlook on human life today, we can see how traditional perspectives, growing out of the frequently pugnacious conditions of life in early civilization and estranged from knowledge of our original life in nature, might have intuitively fostered ideas that we are naturally alone and isolated as individuals, and thus encourage cycles of belief and action that reinforce this approach to life and general state in the world. At the same time, we can see that these older ideas are often false and lacking, resulting from and promoting individual life cut off from our long natural life.
In this light, our older sensibilities often prove far from “happy and expansive attitude toward the world” that Russell recommends and fail to nurture essential feelings of belonging to “the stream of life” of encouraged both in his Conquest and the findings of present-day research into fulfilling life. These newer idea emerge from and encourage a new appreciation of healthy human life, a new and more scientifically-based sense of our objective proportion and place in the natural order, and a very different approach to our personal and collective life and fulfillment.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of this dichotomy of ideas about our fulfillment is an experiential truth we each can explore – that we can live with the world and larger interests as our preoccupation, or with our thinking and reflecting self as our central focus, but not both simultaneously. As we have discussed, one outlook is based on a sense of our smallness in space and time – a sensibility which proves factually true and strangely liberating. The other requires a re-scaling of the self until it is quite large, even larger than the world around us – an empirically unsupportable idea and near-certain route to unhappy life.
Between these perspectives is a mixture of these states and the more typical state of our lives of course, but perhaps also an incessant and unsettling pulling – either to be naturally small and impermanent and part of the larger world, or to be large and formidable and world-like ourselves. For me, one approach makes life play, the other endless work.
The Task of Filling Ourselves Full
I hope these ideas about the task of our fulfillment prove useful to you and motivate you to consider the ways you approach life today. I have of course intentionally created a stark (conceptual) contrast between two basic approaches to life – an outward life and an inward life – to encourage new thought, and especially action.
While I have created this contrast for special emphasis, this reduction is not wholly misplaced and can be an enormously productive model for considering the process of our fulfillment, for your own life and as you help others in their life. After all, most of us live amidst still-dominating traditions and subsequent modern ideas that that emphasize thought and self-focus, and thereby encourage an unnatural focus on and isolation of the self, instead of the alternative of progressive and self-transcending action in the larger world.
Ultimately, you will need to move beyond this simple concept too, to explore your experience firsthand and to see if you can validate in your life experience that an externally-oriented and more natural life is a more fulfilling life as well. This both new and old form of life is not devoid of reflection and thinking of course, but it does use the reflective self in a supporting role, as we creatively and more fully seek new and deeper interactions and relationships in and with the world.
In this spirit of personal exploration, and in keeping with this recommended task, I have intentionally avoided suggesting specific items that might form the content of your own external exploration of fulfilling life, other than highlighting some of Russell’s recommendations for happiness – including engagement, affection, family, work and skilled endeavor, external interests, and the special importance he places on self-proportion and causes larger than ourselves – and my proposing a triad of engagement, endeavor, and relationships as the general route to fulfilling life.
As Russell takes pains to point out, and as newer scientific research has begun to confirm and elaborate, the specific content of a fulfilling life can vary greatly. In fact, fulfilling life is nearly certain to progress and evolve over time, as we mature and successively find new content and ways to live in flowing and flourishing states of fulfillment.
Rather than offering you specific direction, I will encourage you to improvise and to reach out in your life, and to explore new ways integrate work and play. I will encourage you to explore new opportunities in your life, unseen ones perhaps. And I will prod you to seek new learning and new relationships, and to follow what most interests you, what most naturally and strongly calls you, and what most seems vital to you in the world, now and over time.
In this exploration, you may soon find that finding fulfillment mostly involved relating to and living in the world in the fulfilling ways we have discussed, a result of an ongoing, natural, and personalized human life that is engaged, aware, authentic, and seeking. You may find equally that our fulfillment asks only that we be men and women, living vitally and healthfully on our Earth, and never that we become super-humans, staring down abysses or marveling at ourselves from spires of stone.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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