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I was walking with a friend recently and our conversation turned to my recent writing on the topic of human fulfillment.
After I sketched two new articles about naturally fulfilling life, she commented that people were too focused on “having it all” to find fulfillment, since this was nearly an impossible goal and seemed to cause a lot of unhappiness along the way. I commented – as I often do and sometimes find new insight through – that it depended on what we meant with these words.
While we continued our walk, I pointed out that “having it all” can mean different things to different people, and often varies in content with time and place. My friend explained that what she had in mind was the typical suburban dream these days: a big house, a great career, an attractive and devoted spouse, imported cars, perfect kids, exotic vacations, supportive family, fun friends, and still more property.
I agreed this was a familiar list, but added that not everyone would say this was their list and maybe many more might not if they looked at the idea carefully. Still, I conceded that many people seek exactly these things today in many parts of the world, and often mistakenly assume having them will provide a lasting sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
My conversation was a reminder that our ideas about “having it all” or being fulfilled either can be given to us or defined by us. When given to us, many conceptions of fulfillment can be shown to limit our freedom and engender behaviors that take us away from our natural happiness and vitality, rather than toward it. But when our ideas about fulfilling life are examined and defined by us, as I will explain, we have the potential today to find powerful new freedom in our lives and lead ourselves in far more vital and fulfilling directions.
In the next few minutes, I’d like to explore with you three different ways we might define “having it all” and discuss the likely context and consequences of each definition. My purpose with these examples is to give you new perspective on the goals and assumptions you bring to your life each day, and to help you more directly chart a course to life that is rich, vital, and satisfying. After reviewing the examples, we’ll turn to a specific approach you can use to put new ideas about “having it all” into practice.
Our discussion will build on the two articles I spoke with my friend about on our afternoon walk – Finding Fulfillment and Scarcity or Abundance – which you may want to review as well. The first article provides a fairly in-depth discussion of the long misunderstood and often counterintuitive nature of human fulfillment. The second reviews changing historical ideas about a full life and the important lessons this offers us about the generally unchanging nature of our fulfillment.
Both articles underscore a simple but scientifically-grounded idea of a triad of fulfilling life that I want to introduce to you as we begin our discussion. The three legs of this triad are: 1) engagement, 2) endeavor, and 3) relationships. I’ll come back to these important themes toward the end of our discussion, and suggest how they can help us envision, move toward, and even talk about fulfilling life more effectively.
Three Ways of Defining “All”
As I suggested to my friend, there are many ways we might think about and pursue the goal of “having it all” or finding fulfillment in our lives, especially if we consider the many possible variations on the dominant ways people do this in actual life.
Ideas about the proper ends or optimal goals for our lives include moral and cultural aims, meeting social and family commitments, approaches based on principles and self-discipline, dedicating ourselves to particular occupations or pursuits, pursuing pleasure and excitement, and engaging in creative or expressive life. In considering this informal and no-doubt familiar list, you are likely to conclude that most of us steer our lives in one or more of these ways and that our lives are often eclectic combinations of them, distinct and even unique to each person.
To simplify our discussion and highlight a critical insight about all personal definitions of a full life, while keeping in mind this diversity, I’d like to talk about three generalized ways we frequently define “having it all.” These examples are suggestive of dominant patterns of thought in our time and make more tangible the important distinction I have introduced – between definitions of fulfilling life that are given to us and those that are examined and defined by us.
> Conservative-traditional orientation – let’s begin our discussion of these three common ways we might define “having it all” with a general portrait of how civilized people frequently characterized a full life before modern times. In many seemingly diverse pre-modern societies, I’d like to propose that the proper aim of life was in fact actually defined in a remarkably similar overall way. This widespread pre-modern perspective is rooted in our nearly universal earlier condition of agricultural life and the constraints this life imposed on us. Its view of “having it all” almost always included a recurring compromise between religious or cultural duties encouraging collectivism and the fact and lure of unequal power and privilege in agricultural civilization. As a result, this general view of idealized life first involved a commitment to others and temperance in one’s personal conduct within the traditional social spheres of extended family, kin, village, and kingdom. In most cases, religious codes and enabling institutions evolved to support these ideals, and many relied on threats of worldly or otherworldly hardship for transgression.
At the same time, the physical reality of pre-modern life was nearly always one of unnatural inequity and profound hardship for many people, with markedly dissimilar states of life in different social classes. This important fact of traditional life across much of the world normally worked to create a specific exception to core cultural and religious ideals. While the vast majority of people worked the land and lived at subsistence levels, a small governing elite and a slightly larger enabling middle class (of priests, soldiers, instructors, and merchants) enjoyed a modestly to an entirely higher standard of living, and thus became objects of natural envy and aspiration for others. It is true that some religious codes sought to attach negative qualities to the possession of rank and power, but most pre-modern cultural systems accommodated the fact of unequal wealth and some suggested it even reflected gradations in innate individual quality. Our portrait of the ideals of traditional life must therefore include the almost universal tension that exists within these systems – between temperance and communality, and the quest for material enrichment and noble status. Given this brief portrayal of agricultural society, a generalized conservative-traditional definition of “having it all” might be said to include many or all of the following features:
- Physical safety and self-sufficiency
- Committed kin and strong clan network
- Dutiful spouse and children
- Fulfillment of religious and cultural norms
- Royal prosperity and power
Together, this set of partly concordant and partly conflicting ideals can be expected to engender an odd and ironic sense of life, rather than the integrated and fulfilling one I will suggest is possible. In the end, pre-modern life failed to resolve its central tension between communal obligation and service of elites, and its incentives to replace elites and escape its obligations. This failure is instructive for us today. It likely is the root of the recurring instability, and the open-ended ideals and conflicted sense of life, which marked this period in our history and is our pre-modern inheritance.
> Liberal-modern orientation – in our new human condition of modernity and industrial prosperity, and reflecting the liberal ideals that accompanied and may have led to industrialization, we can see a distinct new set of concepts that many use to define the proper goals for life in our time. The newness of these concepts is made quite striking when they are contrasted with the general facts and thinking of traditional life we just discussed. It is true that newer notions of “having it all” frequently are alloyed with conservative-traditional ideals, but increasingly, they operate with substantial independence from them. As my friend’s comment suggested, the prototypical liberal-modern person in our age aspires, and expects others to aspire, for material comfort, convenience, pleasure, novelty, and status. The total effect of this normalized general striving forms an entirely new form of life that was not possible, and whose essential character was not well-appreciated by its proponents, before industrialization. The goal of life for many of us today is as thus aptly summarized as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to use the words of one especially famous circle of liberal advocates writing at the dawn of the modern age.
The full result of this new and I’ll suggest generally naive general orientation, as we can see around us today, is a decidedly open-ended, generally resource-dependent, and frequently extravagant conception of the necessary elements of fulfilling life. As suggested, the list of desired items a liberal-modern might want today include an interesting and lucrative career or freedom from work, frequent and extended vacations, impressive homes and possessions, varied and interesting friends, physical fitness and a long life, an attractive and adoring spouse or series of lovers, fame and acclaim, and few responsibilities or obligations to people outside our immediate social sphere. Though we often take such goals and ambitions for granted in our time, and devote much of our time to them, we should recognize that these ideals represent an entirely new and remarkable change from earlier conceptions of a full life, and are perhaps tenable only in the new material and technological state that is our modern world.
But as with traditional conceptions of ideal life, liberal-modern notions of the elements of a full life and “having it all” contain within them their own unique contradiction, even or especially amidst the industrial abundance of our times. After all, an acceptance of the inevitability and naturalness of open-ended wanting and competitive striving amidst conditions of widespread affluence leads to the near certain prospect that even wealthiest, smartest, and most beautiful of us will face inequities and shortcomings relative to others on at least some point. For the more average of us, this unexamined contradiction proves even less auspicious, creating unnecessary conditions of frantic, chaotic, and unsettling life, rather than an alternative modern life that is more informed, chosen, and heartfelt. In our most liberal and unregulated modern nations especially, we can see this new central contradiction play itself out at many levels and in many forms.
Whether we are wealthy, middle class, or of more modest means, liberal life today has few limits and many imprecise prescriptions. “Having it all” can be as large as one’s imagination, and while only a few of us have the means to pursue this largeness, most try. And we increasingly discover that those who can and do amass large portfolios of sought-after possessions and attributes are often found with a remaining (and often only partially-unexpected) sense of further wanting. These case studies confirm for us newer ideas and increasingly well-established scientific findings that suggest our fulfillment lies elsewhere and in an entirely different conception. This science includes at least three essential conclusions about human life and our requirements for fulfilling life that are not a typical part of the liberal-modern outlook: a) an inevitability of declining positive emotions from new possessions and achievements via habituation, b) the likelihood that chronic competition is unnatural for humans, reliably unsettling people and upsetting communities, and c) many items within the liberal-modern conception of fulfilling life do not reliably lead to lasting positive emotions or a satisfying and meaningful sense of life. Given this critical but perhaps persuasive portrayal of liberal-modern definitions of “having it all,” let me propose that this new general orientation includes many or all of the following features:
- Extraordinary wealth and good fortune
- Freedom to act eclectically and impulsively
- Physical beauty and hyper-sexuality
- Intelligence and manipulative skill
- Adoration and esteem by others
- Civic involvement to safeguard these pursuits
As was the case with conservative-traditional views of “having it all,” I will suggest again that these liberal-modern ideals for fulfilling life are just as contradictory and poorly-conceived. Many are plainly inherited or given notions from a pre-modern world that imagined but had no direct knowledge of modern prosperity and freedom. And few of these ideals can be shown empirically to form a dependable path to personal fulfillment, even in conditions of nearly limitless material wealth and life opportunity.
> Scientific-natural orientation – if there are shortcomings contained in these two previous orientations toward fulfilling life, the traditional and the modern, one option is to blend them into a third set of ideals, taking the best of each and constructing a philosophy of life that seeks to offset their specific flaws and contradictions. As indicated before, I believe that many of us take this approach today and most of us in the industrialized world would be hard-pressed to find people who are unabashedly and entirely traditional or modern in overall orientation. One frequent direction of this eclecticism is the tendency in life today toward strident conservativeness on social matters, effectively dampening or regulating the display of good fortune and status, combined with liberalism on economic matters, affording the potential for special personal advantage amidst this outwardly leveled playing field. There is also a common reverse tendency too, one which promotes liberality on social matters and encourages new personal expression, while advancing conservativeness on economic matters. The intended result of this approach is a leveling of wealth and its use to promote greater diversity in available forms of liberal life.
As a general rule, both hybrid approaches suffer from their own ideology-rich and evidence-weak constructions, though social conservatives do seem to be happier overall based on various research findings. At best, however, these approaches engender an ill-informed individualism and often lead to simplistic and self-defeating conquests of happiness. Importantly, these typified modern approaches also now stand in startling contrast to emerging scientific findings regarding the underlying nature and requirements of human fulfillment. These newer findings suggest that the achievement of fulfilling life is a realistic and achievable aim for most people – that a new and more desirable form of “having it all” is now possible – through the progressive use new ideals rooted in scientific research, within and making use of the conditions of industrial affluence that science has brought us. As I have written about elsewhere, an increasing body of evidence suggests that fulfilling life is engendered by a relatively small and specific set of factors or life attributes, and that many of these attributes are rooted in the earlier human conditions of natural life that preceded fixed civilization. If you are interested in exploring this research, William Compton’s recent textbook on Positive Psychology offers a good introduction and provides many sources for additional study.
Given our state of modern affairs, and the dominating life orientations I have described, this emerging scientific-natural conception of “having it all” or finding fulfillment is often counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, and it has important and even life-altering implications for individuals and communities around the world. Importantly, while the emerging set of evidence-based factors of fulfilling life is small in number, they are not small in impact or formulaic in application. In fact, applying the new science of human fulfillment to our lives is real work, and creative and lifelong work at that. And we should expect this to be the case – we should expect our fulfillment always to involve a quality of creative struggle, even in a more enlightened future of better managed lives and communities. Why? Because science increasingly portrays fulfilling human life or “having it all” as a process, rather than an outcome or the end state it is frequently conceived of in traditional and modern orientations. Our fulfillment naturally involves continuing tasks and challenges, and requires ongoing personal engagement and improvisation in our lives, throughout our lives. The reason for this essential requirement of fulfilling life – for attentive engagement, skilled endeavor, and reciprocating relationships – becomes clearer when we consider that fulfilling life today is rooted in and informed by our long-evolved earlier life in wild nature. This earlier life was one where people achieved survival in essence through these three central attributes, throughout our lifespan and across our long life as a species in wild nature.
Science now shows us that for ten million years and as late as 60,000 years ago, all human life took place within small nomadic bands ranging exclusively on the plains of Africa. In this ancient human life of mobile foraging, one that took place alongside formidable animals and included extreme environmental conditions, our human survival depended upon intimacy, reciprocity, skill, and learning within our natural bands. While our later circumstances, security, and technology have all changed greatly since this natural life of equality and communality, our genes and resulting innate nature have not. Our developing natural-scientific orientation therefore proposes that we are still today subject to long-evolved and regular requirements for healthy and vital life, as are all other animals on Earth, and predicts that we will reliably descend from our natural state of fulfillment and vitality when these conditions are not present or are prevented. These generally unchanging contributors to abundant human life are being uncovered and explored in our time through modern scientific inquiry, but already have begun to frame a new general theory of human life, with enormous implications for the way we make personal choices and design our communities. This likely less familiar but increasingly evidenced natural-scientific conception of “having it all” includes:
- Physical safety
- Shelter from harsh weather
- Environment and food quality
- Exercise and time outdoors
- World and social engagement
- Skilled work and pursuits
- Supportive relationships
- Learning and teaching
- Helping others and society
- Intrinsic enjoyment of life
Since these new ideals are somewhat unassuming and quietly radical, I would encourage you to spend a few minutes reviewing and reflecting on this new set of ideas about human fulfillment, ones which have remarkable implications for our lives and goals. But let me add that if this natural-scientific orientation toward “having it all” seems modest and potentially fulfilled in many ways, and even at very low levels of resources and personal wealth, you are grasping one of its central implications, and an important and even profound lesson this new orientation offers us all.
Redefining “Having It All”
I hope this discussion of varying views about human fulfillment and differing ideals for “having it all” has given you new perspective and motivation to consider your own orientation and personal aims. I also hope it has provided you an added ability and confidence to define and not simply receive conceptions of what it means to lead a rich and vital life.
If this is the case, the immediate work before you, and the recurring challenge throughout your life, is to use modern fulfillment research to make your list of personal goals and aspirations more explicit, better considered, and more to the point of achieving the things you most need. In this work, your aim is to envision and create lasting happiness and quality of life for yourself and those around you, as directly as you can, using the emerging new science of fulfilling life.
When you are ready, you can begin this important work by making or updating your list of what you most want in and for your life. This personal “having it all” list can be long or short to start, as long you are honest with yourself and include all of your current wishes, and are open to learning and insight along the way and remain flexible about adding to or subtracting from your initial list.
Once you have a working list of goals and aspirations, the next steps are to compare the items on your list with the components of fulfilling life I introduced at the end of the last section, and then to refine your list based on your comparison. This process usually takes the form of an exploration and a gradually improving set of personal goals over several weeks.
Perhaps your initial list and comparison will look something like this:
Example Initial “Having It All” List
|Goals & objectives||Alignment with natural-scientific factors||Number of Yes’s|
|Physical safety||Shelter from harsh weather||Environment and food quality||Exercise and time outdoors||World and social engagement||Skilled work and pursuits||Supportive relationships||Learning and teaching||Helping Others||Intrinsic enjoyment of life|
|Great health and physical fitness||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4|
|Bulging muscles and abs of steel||0|
|Circle of close friends and family members||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||5|
|A-listed with the party people||Yes||1|
|The most admired person in town||0|
|Degree and career advancement||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4|
|Reliable and stylish automobile||Yes||Yes||Yes||4|
|Two-seat luxury roadster||0|
|Get married and have kids||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||5|
|First home near family and work||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4|
|Large house on hill above town||0|
|Access to recreation area near home||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4|
|Lifelong involvement in favorite sport||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||6|
As you can see from this example list of wants and desires – in which I have intentionally but perhaps not unrealistically included items with high contrast – we are apt to find that our initial “having it all” items align and do not align with the natural-scientific factors for fulfilling life I have introduced.
For simplicity, I have used a “yes or no” approach to the factors, but some items in the example list do partially align with one or more of the factors. If you would like greater precision in analyzing your early lists, you can use a “0, 1, 2” approach (where 0=no alignment with a factor, 1=partial alignment, and 2=strong alignment).
The critical point at this stage in the process of redefining “having it all” is that you are likely to find your initial lists include a mix of traditional, modern, and natural ideas about your fulfillment. As we have discussed, the first two of these orientations still can influence us considerably, but both are readily identified once we know to look for them. Each has an open-ended quality in terms of the place of wanting for material comfort and status – implicitly and antagonistically in the case of conservative-traditional thinking, and in a more express and unashamed way in the liberal-modern view.
The fact that these intuitively-based world views have this quality should not be a surprise, since as humans we likely naturally craved and on balance benefited from both higher status and novel experiences in our long life in the wild. But in the wholly new human contexts of agrarian and now industrial affluence and inequality, these native impulses can become a liability if they are not actively informed and managed. If we are not aware of and careful with these natural drives and their great potential strength, they easily can get the better of us in the unnatural context of civilized life, leading us away from our fulfillment in mistaken quests for “having it all.”
While the natural-scientific orientation points to our need to mitigate these specific failings of earlier orientations, it would be wrong to think of this emerging view as an intended response or reaction to earlier conceptions of fulfilling life. Instead, the new scientific view has its roots in the evidence-based method that marks all scientific inquiry. It is fair to say that contemporary researchers have had suspicions that earlier ideas about vital and fulfilling life where suspect, but perhaps no more so than the way that renaissance astronomers were once distrustful of the geocentric worldview that dominated in their time. In both cases, researchers sought empirical evidence and theories that fit the facts of the observable world. And in each case, the results have proven astounding, beginning new conceptions of life that overturn centuries of human intuition, belief, and error.
Though it will require adaptation to your circumstances, I trust that my example list seems realistic to our times and perhaps to your life specifically, and that the factor scores of its illustrative items suggest just how different the natural-scientific orientation is in theory and practice. In my experience, this new orientation produces a more focused, flexible, and reliable approach to our lives and the task of our fulfillment. As we have discussed, this evidence-based orientation encourages creativity, promotes engagement in the world and intrinsic enjoyment of life, and emphasizes skilled and meaningful action and the importance of relationships, while suggesting the need for only modest resources and time spent accruing personal wealth.
It may take time, but I would encourage you to work on your list of aspirations, removing and adding items as needed until your ideas about “having it all” better fit the findings of the new natural-scientific orientation. Like others, you may soon discover that your revised list proves a source of personal insight and offers a new sense of natural freedom, allowing you to focus yourself and your time in new, more flexible, and more satisfying ways.
Fulfilling Life Over Time
As your “having it all” list or life-plan reaches a point where it is reasonably satisfying and aligned with the science of fulfillment, the next steps are to re-frame the items as intended actions and then to put these actions into an overall timeframe.
There are a number of ways to organize your intended goals and actions. One way is to group items into things you want in 1-3 months, 3-12 months, and 12+ months. This approach allows you to see immediately how balanced your aspirations are between the short and long-term. And, by pursuing an item or two in the 1-3 month column, the approach can provide early feedback and learning about your developing list and use of the ideas I have introduced.
I would encourage you to begin the process of personal change with smaller items first, since these actions are often easier to accomplish, provide learning and insight into the nature of change, and may impact and inform your larger and longer-term plans. Expect your list of aspirations to change and evolve, at first and over time. After all, fulfilling life is a creative and ongoing endeavor, not a resting place or destination. Because of the inevitability of change, I recommend that you review and reconsider your goals and timeline at least monthly for several months and then at least twice yearly after that.
Our revised life-lists and the new personal orientation they reflect can prove quite powerful. They have the potential to engender change in the way we live our lives today, to alter the long course of our lives, and to affect the people we touch with our lives. A natural-scientific orientation can allow us to better appreciate the new abundance and freedom that mark our special time in history, the nearness of fulfilling life for many of us, and the importance of science and inquiry to uncovering our nature and potential in this science-led technological age.
Since you are likely to be asked about the changes underway in your life, perhaps almost immediately by family and close friends, let me end with a couple of talking points to help you discuss these far-reaching ideas in a few words. One approach is to explain the changes as moving past traditional ideas about how we should spend our time. Statements of this sort usually prove clear and intriguing to people, and may invite mutually-beneficial discussions. But they may also prove unsettling to people who are especially traditionally-minded, so do use care with whom and how exactly you make this general point.
As a follow-on to the concept of reconsidering how you spend your time, you might introduce the idea that contemporary science suggests improvements and alternatives to traditional and even many contemporary prescriptions for a happy life. This suggestion often can lead to all or part of the discussion we have had today, including the ten factors I summarized and the general outline they form of a new natural-scientific orientation toward personal fulfillment.
Since discussions of this sort can take time and often need to occur in stages, I will encourage you to initially characterize the natural-scientific orientation as one suggesting that our lives and quests for fulfillment be based on the triad of fulfilling life I introduced before: 1) engagement in the world, 2) skilled and socially beneficial endeavor, and 3) mutually supportive relationships. From these simple but important and often counter-intuitive ideas, conversations can become more detailed and specific, and perhaps be conducted over the course of long walks in nature as I do frequently.
I hope this discussion of new possibilities for “having it all” proves helpful and even life-changing for you, and wish you early and continued success in your own renewed pursuit of progressively more vital and fulfilling life.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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