Finding Fulfillment

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By Mark Lundegren

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.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!  

‘4×4’ For New Personal Traction

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By Mark Lundegren

Usually, when someone recommends that we go four-by-four, they mean we should drive or ride in a four-wheel drive or sport utility vehicle. 

Going four-by-four in this way can be safer and more flexible, if more resource-intensive, than traveling in a traditional two-wheel drive vehicle, especially when we need or want the option of extra traction along our way.

When I introduce the idea of “four-by-four” in my health advocacy work, I mean something very different than this, though my suggestion still involves increasing traction.  I use the metaphor of four-by-four movement to suggest an important change, not in our choice of vehicles, but in our approach to life – a subtle adjustment in the way we live in and move through the day, every day, and even each moment of our days.

In the next few minutes, I will explain this alternative approach and encourage you to go four-by-four yourself, exploring your own life in a new, distinct, and even liberating way.  As I suggested, this change involves centering yourself in two important aspects of your lived, or moment-to-moment, experience.  This centering of ourselves does take a little practice, but can lead to an extraordinary new outlook, and new insights and opportunities in our lives, and is well worth the effort.

If you have tried meditation, or practice it now, this mention of centering ourselves may seem familiar.  But going four-by-four in the way I will describe is missed in many approaches to meditation, even as it is perhaps the most important thing one can do when meditating.

This idea of four-by-four is thus similar to some but not all forms of meditation. It is a way of cultivating ourselves and our awareness, but a way that does not require us to sit cross-legged.  Going four-by-four, in fact, encourages us to open our eyes and stretch our legs, to move about our lives and engage in the world, though in an important and quite specific new way.

In the four-by-four approach, you can and should go about your life as you normally would – bringing the technique to your life and not your life to the technique.

Two Critical Dimensions of Experience

I mentioned already that the technique of going four-by-four involves focusing on two aspects or dimensions of our daily experience. When I use the word, experience, I mean the moment-by-moment flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and events in and around us each day. 

The two dimensions of experience focused on are:  1) our Activation Level, and 2) our Time Orientation. In both cases, our goal is to become more optimally positioned, or four-by-four, in these two critical and interactive dimensions of experience. In doing this, we are often able to achieve greater quality of life, through the new perspective and control that can come from this re-positioning of ourselves in our daily experience.

The term, Activation Level, simply refers to our mix or relative degree of activity and passivity in any moment.  The term, Time Orientation, refers to our mix or degree of retrospective (past), circumspective (present), and prospective (future) elements in our minds or experience at any moment. 

Together, new attention to these important aspects of our personal experience can help us to do two things. First is to better sense and understand the different states of awareness that can and do occur in our moment-to-moment experience. From there, we then can work at a second task: to find and maintain optimal positioning within experience, immediately enhancing our awareness and increasing our longer-term potential for superior choices and actions, or new traction, in our lives. 

At this point, you may be wondering how the “four-by-four” part fits in to our discussion.  Compared with the perhaps unfamiliar idea of examining your experience, it is really very simple. While simple, though, the idea of four-by four is a very powerful way of thinking about experience, one that can help us to make our experience more tangible and accessible to us, and more subject to our conscious control. 

The simple idea of four-by-four is that, for each of the two dimensions of experience I have introduced – Activation Level and Time Orientation – we can place our range of possible personal states onto two 1-7 scales.  On these scales, the numbers one and seven represent extreme conditions or positions, while the number four implies a midpoint, or centering or balancing, between these extremes states of mind. 

So, when we are personally centered on imagined 1-7 scales for Activation Level and Time Orientation, we become “four-by-four,” at or near the midpoint of these critical dimensions of our experience. In achieving this state, we gain an ability to see other experiential states and personal patterns of consciousness more plainly. We also very often are placed in our most optimal experiential position, relative to the world and our lives, as we plan, choose, and act amidst our momentary and ever-changing experience.

Our Potential for “Four” States

With this introduction to the four-by-four approach, let’s now talk in more depth about the 1-7 scales for Activation Level, and then our Time Orientation.

For the dimension of experience I have called our Activation Level, a value of one on our 1-7 scale is used to represent times when we are passive and inactive.  When we are in a one-state on this scale, this is a time of disengagement and inattention to the world and even to ourselves, a time when we are not focusing on anything in particular and are perhaps beginning to sleep.  This ability of ours to be inactive or inattentive can be quite important – for example, when we need to get some rest at the end of the day.

As we begin to pay attention to our circumstances or experience more definitively, our level of activation of course increases.  We might move from a sleepy or distant one-state on our Activation scale to a three or four, or even higher, as we more actively engage in experience and attend to things in our consciousness or to events in our surroundings.

At the other end of our 1-7 Activation Level scale, representing a value of seven, are times when we are exceptionally active and engaged in the world.  Such seven-states on our scale might include responding to a crisis or threat, working on an impending deadline or commitment, reacting to a surprise (good or bad), or otherwise becoming highly engaged in something and hyperactive. 

While the personal states that correspond to a seven can be times of high activity and task engagement, they are almost always also times of greatly narrowed perspective. Seven-states are frequently times when we fail to attend sufficiently to our surroundings and to the people and facts in them.  Activation Levels at or near a seven on our scale usually involve periods when we lack optimal awareness of context, times when we are caught up in impulsive,instinctive, or reactive action – acts that are often unconscious and that we may later regret (and see in hindsight as insufficiently thoughtful, deliberative, or considerate). 

An Activation Level of four lies between our potential for these two extreme states of activation.  These are generally times when we are acting purposefully and attentively, moments when we are both engaged in and reflective about our actions and our surroundings. Four-state moments are times when we act, and actively consider the context of our actions as we act. When we are activated in this way, we are usually, and even unusually, deliberative and attentive. We are neither on the verge of sleep nor in the throes of all-consuming action.

As you might guess, such four-states of activation are often a far more desirable way to be in our experience, more ideal states of mind with which to move through and act in the world.  A way to describe an Activation Level of four is that we are “acting in our life and not living in action.”  When we are at or near an activation of four, we are usually in a special state of self-control. We achieve a special integration and appreciation of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And we are less apt to let natural personal biases toward either excessive or inadequate situational activation take unconscious or automatic control of us.

In a similar way, our Time Orientation can move toward extreme states, or become (or be consciously made) more centered and optimal. 

On our 1-7 scale, a Time Orientation of one means that we are primarily backward-looking and retrospective in that moment. A one-state means we are oriented to the past, or to what is familiar, known, and (actually or seemingly) certain to us.  In this orientation, we are focused on what once was, perhaps, or on what once might have been. Because of this position, we are often also invoking quite strong positive or negative thoughts and feelings, and thus perhaps unconsciously increasing or potentiating our Activation Level. 

Familiar ideas and positive personal narratives, and the facility of memory itself, are of course very useful tools in our lives, but they also can constrain us too, especially when left unconscious, unexamined, or unchecked. An overly strong one-state focus on the past can keep us from our lives as they are, and from new experiences contained in the present. A retrospective bias can suppress or keep us from mastering the many important but unfamiliar thoughts, feelings, and occurrences we have constantly in our real-time experience (and that are often quite pregnant with possibilities for new awareness and greater quality of life).

At the other end of our Time Orientation scale, with a value of seven, is our potential to become highly future-oriented.  A seven-statesignifies those times when we are primarily prospective in our Time Orientation and principally focused on possibilities and goals, on eventual or possible outcomes, or on the content of our imagination – just as with memory and retrospection, with things not immediately before us in the present. 

When we are in a Time Orientation of seven, we are oriented toward what will be, or what might be, rather than what is.  While our natural faculties of prospection and imagination are equally valuable to the mastery of our lives as memory and narrative, they also share the same tendency to pull us from the moments of our lives and the world as it actually is. By this, I mean the immediate present, where our lives are lived, and where all our past learnings and future plans are accessed and considered.

Like a strong retrospective outlook, an extreme future focus can cause us to neglect the present or allow our imagination to keep us from the full reality of what is occurring in and around us.  When this happens, we can become less aware of and effective in the moments of our lives. As with a strong retrospective orientation, a marked future orientation distorts or removes us from present experience. This can cause us to miss important opportunities to work more optimally or directly toward what we want in the future.

Just as important as reducing our effectiveness over time, an excessive future focus can prevent us from simply enjoying the moment – taking in the natural unfolding of our lives and the world around us as they are, and the many intrinsic rewards and pleasures of life present in our lives and surroundings as they are each moment. We miss experiencing the world apart from our goals and prospects, and unalloyed with unchecked and often unconscious wanting.

Combining Fours to Transform Experience

In a Time Orientation of four, we find ourselves between the past and future in our experience, in present-time and oriented toward the internal and external world immediate before us.

As with the other time orientations we discussed, there are practical advantages and disadvantages to being present-oriented. The prime advantages include being able to enjoy life more fully and spontaneously, without the filter of retrospection or prospection. The disadvantages include being less able to tap useful memories and to organize present activities toward future aims that can improve our quality of life. This can be especially true when our Activation Level is either very high or low (when we are in the present, but either overly caught up in or inattentive to it).

Exploring the present can be very useful in developing our awareness of the relative ease or difficulty with which we can be oriented toward our immediate experience, and in cultivating new perspective on our overall patterns of past, present and future orientation during our days. Importantly, exploring the present is also important in that it can allow us to examine how conscious attention to the present works to subtly alter and provide us with new control over our Activation Level.

It is, in fact, here – in the present and with a Time Orientation at or near four on our 1-7 scale – that an important interaction with our Activation Level can occur, leading both to deeper insights into the different ways that our Time orientation and Activation Level vary to create different states of personal experience, and how they can combine when both are in “four” states to form a new and heightened state of personal awareness. This special four-by-four state of experience allows us to attend to the present consciously and make the most of the advantages of a present orientation, while minimizing the disadvantages of forgetting past lessons and future goals, or of being insufficiently or inadequately activated in our personal experience.

As the title of our discussion suggests, a critical insight is waiting in the four-by-four state: when we are oriented to the present with either a high or low level of activation, we lack either sufficient engagement in or adequate control of our momentary experience.  When we overlay an Activation Level of four (attentive action) over a Time Orientation of four (present focus), however, these two aspects of experience are brought together and a transformative new perspective is created in this combination. 

Underlying and enabling this combined “four-by-four” state of awareness is the fact that the act of attending to our Activation Level, in itself, often begins a shift to a present Time Orientation, just as the conscious attention to our Time Orientation naturally moves our Activation level toward a four-state. As mentioned before, these two important dimensions of experience are related and influence one another (which should not be surprising, since they are aspects of the single phenomenon that is our experience). Importantly, each dimension of experience can potentiate one another, not just to provide added perspective on our lives, but to create a wholly new and transformed state of consciousness as well.

When we are genuinely four-by-four” on each of our two dimensions of experience – Activation Level and Time Orientation – we move from being “present oriented” to being “present situated.” Four-by-four awareness involves a special attentiveness to the moment, a state that is neither excessively nor inadequately active, where we immerse ourselves in the moment, but remain aware that we are in the moment and do not hand over control of our attention to it.

If this seems esoteric, I can assure you this is not the case. The heightened personal experience of four-by-four states can be consciously, systematically, and reliably achieved with just a bit of practice (and it can be arrived at accidently too – for example, through athletics and other skilled activities requiring attention and immersion). Going four-by-four is a practical matter of patiently and consciously adjusting our Activation Level and Time Orientation until we are near a four in each dimension, and then letting the combined effect naturally happen.

When the four-by-four state does happen, the quality of our experience suddenly shifts and lifts into a special and highly attentive state. It is a change that is distinct and unmistakable in practice, and readily arrived at with practice. The shift is analogous to the way that gradual temperature and pressure adjustments can suddenly a pull a dissolved substance out of a chemical solution, or the way that two optical lens can be brought together to create a new view that is sharper and more penetrating than is possible alone.

Combined four-states in our Activation Level and Time Orientation are a highly attentive and consciously time-situated form of experience, allowing us to think and act in more balanced, adroit, and creative ways, and to bring the past, present, and future to our moment-to-moment experience. When we are four-by-four, we are aware of our immediate experience, but balanced and fluid in it – able to both participate in and attend to lived experience as it unfolds.

This special value of four for Time Orientation need not mean losing ourselves in our experience, unable to bring memory and imagination to our choices and actions, as long as we consciously and simultaneously manage and attend to our Activation Level.  As you can discover for yourself, it is very much possible to be present in our lives, while keeping ready and creative access to and perspective on our memories, values, and hopes.

It is possible to be present situated, rather than simply present oriented, in other words, creating important new awareness and possibilities in our lives. 

Examining Our Activation & Orientation

I have summarized our discussion so far below, and would encourage you to consider and become comfortable with the two 1-7 scales I have introduced, exploring and relating them to your recent, current, and approaching experience, before we turn to using the four-by-four technique in your life:

Activation Level

1 = passive & disengaged

4 = improvising & attentive

7 = hyperactive & narrowed

Time Orientation

1 = past focused

4 = present oriented…or present situated

7 = future focused

Seven Ways of Being in the World

At this point, you may simply want to begin to explore the four-by-four state yourself. If so, you can skip ahead and pick up our discussion in the section. If you would like to become more familiar with the two dimensions of experience I have introduced, and better understand the ways they can interact and the range of experience they can produce, you can continue with our discussion here.

To explore our natural range or patterns of experience as people, we can consider the various combinations of 1-7 states along the two dimensions we have discussed. Doing a bit of math based on our discussion, however, we quickly find there are many possible states of personal experience that can be described or mapped using our two scales. 

Assuming whole numeric values only, for example, there would be 49 states of experience possible in our framework (seven Activation Levels x seven Time Orientations = 49). These states of experience range from a quite passive, backward-looking state of 1-1 to a fairly frantic,future-oriented state of 7-7.  

All of us naturally move through many of these experiential states throughout our lives, and even throughout many of our days, and it is worth spending time personally on the lookout for your own movements into and through these states of experience. In doing this, as you might have guessed already, we soon find that we generally return to ourselves to the four-by-four state whenever we begin examining experience – especially when we examine the quite tangible dimensions of experience that are our Activation Level and Time Orientation.

Given the goals of our discussion, let’sgeneralize a bit and cluster this high number and wide range of potential experiential states into a few general groupings.  Perhaps one or more of the following sevengroupings will aptly describe your general personal orientation, or the overall behavior patterns of someone you know:

Romantic (passive & retrospective) – an overall personal state where we are focused on the past or the familiar, and are not acting in a deliberate way toward new outcomes.

  • Historian (highly active & retrospective) – personal states where we are focused on the past or the familiar, and are acting forcefully, but often in narrow, exacting, or unexamined ways.
  • Fatalist (passive & present-oriented) – an overall personal state where we are focused on the present, but in indifferent or inattentive ways.
  • Playmate (highly active & present-oriented) – personal states where we are highly focused on the present or the familiar, but often in reactive rather than reflective ways,
  • Dreamer (passive and prospective) – personal states where we are focused on the future or our goals, but are not acting in a deliberate way toward new outcomes.
  • Futurist (highly active & prospective) – personal states where we are focused on the future or our goals, and are acting forcefully, but often in narrow, exacting, or unexamined ways.
  • Four-By-Four (acting and present) – personal states where we are attentive and actively time situated, drawing on memory and imagination to inform our present, and especially states where we are conscious of both our activity and time frames.

If you want, you can draw out these seven generalized groupings to create a simple visual model of our experience potential. 

To do this, draw a square about half the size of a page or screen, put a small “1” just outside the lower-left corner of the square, and then put a small “7” just outside both the upper-left and lower-right corners of the square.  Next, label the left side of the square “Activation Level” and the bottom side “Time Orientation.”  Finally, put the above seven category names in the appropriate sections of the square, leaving room in the middle for the “Four-By-Four” category.

If this categorization exercise is interesting to you, let me encourage you to spend time considering these seven Activation-Orientation groupings in more depth.  To develop fluency with them, it is helpful to find examples of each of these states, first in yourself and then perhaps in the people around you (while always keeping such insights to yourself or sharing them caringly and with openness, since our assessments may be unwelcomed or incorrect). 

As specific examples of the seven groupings accumulate for you, and as you become more familiar with our natural variations in Activation Level and Time Orientation, you next can formally assess your own general range of experience (your most frequent states of momentary life). You can do this fairly easily by using a mechanical or electronic timer to randomly “catch” yourself in your experience at different times.  As you will likely soon find, most of us are naturally biased toward one general area of the experiential map we introduced, even as the quality of our experience can range to many other areas of the map as well. 

Through the force of both nature and nurture, we are each generally more or less activated as people, and more or less oriented to the past, present, and future.  As you might have guessed, few, if any, of us naturally spend our lives in the four-by-four state. Indeed, the point of our discussion is to highlight both our potential to achieve this more optimal state of experience and our need to consciously explore and create this state for ourselves. 

Going Four-By-Four Yourself

As suggested already, you can explore and reliably achieve four-by-four states for yourself. In doing this you will cultivate new perspective in at least three areas: 1) your regular range of personal activations and orientations, 2) how these various states combined to shape and color your experience and quality of life, and 3) your ability to increase the time you spend in and act from the heightened four-by-four state itself.

The work (and, in time, play) of going four-by-four begins quite simply, by becoming more conscious of your varying experiential states or stances. Included in this effort is seeking to see our general personal experiential bias (the combinations of Activation Level and Time Orientation that we principally operate from), and how our states of experience naturally varies over time and in different circumstances. 

As our knowledge and comfort examining our experience increases, we then can begin to actively and practically work to be more conscious and in control of our Activation Level and Time Orientation each day, or rather, each moment. As we have discussed, this process in itself naturally moves us toward the four-by-four state, taking advantage of the tendency of our conscious control of one dimension of experience to increase our control of the other. 

By raising attention to and control of our experience, we soon achieve moments and then extended periods of four-by-four experience. We gradually build enough practice to understand when we are out of the four-by-four state, and how to quickly return to it. And we increasingly appreciate that we are often far more optimally situated in and aware of our lives and the workings of our selves, whenever we create or enter into the four-by-four state. With this important knowledge, our motivation and ability to go into the four-by-four state in turn increases – and we realize many practical benefits from this over time.

In seeking this progression, it is important to keep in mind that there is really no secret to the conscious centering or intentional balancing of our Activation Level and Time Orientation.  Simply by being more aware of our natural experiential biases, we immediately gain new control over them. With sustained practice, both our confidence and awareness increase, improving our control of our experience and reducing personal biases that limit the richness of our experience and the quality of our life. We move to the four-by-four state mostly by being aware of it, and by willing or seeking ourselves into it.

With new awareness and control of experience, and with more time experiencing life with our personal Activation Level and Time Orientation centered in four-states, the moments of our lives soon become more consciously lived and more optimally directed.  At the same time, by catching ourselves out of the four-by-four state, we gain intimate self-awareness that our Activation Level and Time Orientation are variable and often personally biased in a particular direction.

In this pursuit of four-by-four life, we can begin to overcome unconscious and often far from optimal tendencies all of us have, tendencies that may greatly reduce our self-mastery and limit both our richness and progressivity in our lives.  In doing this, we build a new personal pattern of redirecting ourselves back to the heightened self-awareness and greater personal control of the four-by-four state.

Meet Karen & Jeff

Two true but disguised examples will make clearer this process of exploring our personal Activation Level and Time Orientation.

  • Karen – is a young woman I worked with several years ago and still keep in touch with.  A caring and sensitive person, Karen was a classic “romantic” in many senses of this word.  Karen spent a great deal of time and energy focused on her childhood, which had been turbulent and painful at times, and perhaps ironically, often lamented the fact that she no longer lived in the area where she grew up.  At the same time, Karen had a pattern of moving between jobs, never committing to one avocation and performing each successive job passively and without dedication – in a few words, she really was not committed to her new location and even her adult life.  As Karen better saw her own bias toward illogical nostalgia and unconscious passivity or resistance to the course of life, and the possibilities of very different Time Orientations and Activation Levels for her life, she was able to mobilize and move her personal stance toward a more active and present-situated state, and gain new and unexpected perspective on her past and future.  Once Karen was able to begin to go “four-by-four,” she awakened in an important new way within her life.  In Karen’s case, she soon committed to a profession that is very compelling to her personally and began to establish new and much needed friendships in her new locale.  Karen went from being stuck in her past to being present in her life. In addition to uncovering her biases, Karen was also able to use the four-by-four perspective itself to be more reflective and insightful throughout the day, making better choices and improving her quality of life through approaches though brought new friends and estranged family members into her life.
  • Jeff – is a middle-aged man I worked with recently, whose situation was very different. Jeff is a dynamic “futurist” who kept a very busy schedule, including extensive work-related socializing and partying, and juggling enormous and really quite grandiose life plans.  Unfortunately, Jeff struggled to practically connect his present life and activities to his future visions, or to carefully examine his vision and its enormous scope, working at times on various aspects of his vision but rarely with sufficient realism or pragmatism.  In truth, Jeff did not have a specific pathway or clear plan in mind to achieve his many and quite varied personal goals, and this lead to stress and then the frequent allocation of his present time impulsively and episodically, in stress-reducing ways to counter his pervasive but generally unexamined frustrations.  In our discussions, Jeff quickly saw and understood his natural bias toward high activity and the future, and went through a period of several months of evaluating his future vision and present state, and working toward more pragmatic and focused goals and uses of his time. One change that Jeff made was to limit socializing and to make his relationships more health-oriented and supportive of his re-cast future plans.  As Jeff’s perspective or stance became more four-by-four, he was able to uncover the essential or core elements of his goals and then craft more concrete steps toward achieving them.  Jeff’s future vision has become clearer and a bit smaller and more focused, more aligned to what he most values and what is motivating to him, and is now taking shape in his life today. Once quite impulsive, Jeff is viewed today by his new friends as a trusted source of advice and perspective. He is able to move to the four-by-four state as needed, for example when he or others are under stress or facing uncertainty, and bring clearer thinking and situational analysis to his work and personal relationships. 

Balanced Life Beginning Today

I hope these quite personal examples inform and inspire you to begin to consider your own life and experience, and unconscious patterns of activation and orientation, as they are right now and as they will vary in your life each day.  I also hope they motivate you to seek and practice entering the four-by-four state of experience for yourself.

In exploring and creating the four-by-four state, you might start by looking for what unconscious natural biases and personal tendencies are at work within you – unintentionally pulling you from a more optimal four-by-four approach to life – with the knowledge that this is a personal fact of life for almost all of us. 

In practice, as we gain new perspective on the biases and movements of our Activation Level and Time Orientation, our needed steps to move to a more four-by-four life approach become quite clear and even can happen effortlessly with a bit of practice and through the work of controlling our experience.  As we spend more time in the four-by-four sate, we gradually increase our understanding of (and sometimes even startle ourselves with) the power that more a focused and attentive state of mind can create for us – as we unexpectedly enter and increasingly live from the four-by-four state.

Perhaps you have found already that you are an unintentional romantic, or a futurist, or an historian or dreamer, or that you regularly move through some combination of these general categories each day, or in response to different circumstances.  Perhaps though, you will remain unsure for a time of your natural experiential posture and personal variations, and might want to seek the advice of others or new ways of looking at your experience. 

As mentioned before, a great technique to build new awareness of our momentary experience and general experiential biases is to “catch ourselves” in our experience. This can be done with a timer as I suggested, or with a trusted friend, or simply by committing yourself to become more attentive to your experience. Whatever approach you use, be prepared for and receptive to unexpected insights into your experience and the unconscious ways you approach the many moments of your life – especially as you live with the idea that there is a unique and elevated midpoint of higher awareness and greater effectiveness waiting within us all.

However you decide to begin to explore the four-by-four state, I hope you will begin. It is a path to understand the subtle power of balancing activity and passivity, and of stretching our natural attentiveness to span the past, present, and future in a more integrated way.  Very likely, you will soon see remarkable opportunities for more thoughtful choices and actions, and for more compelling and satisfying life, within and amidst your life as it is already. This can occur simply by more consciously situating yourself in your life and experience, and by watching for the things that pull you from this more conscious and controlled form of personal awareness.

The result can be a rich new appreciation of your present and new personal traction, taking you from your past into your future, moving you more confidently and consciously along the journey that is your life, and allowing you to enjoy life’s many remarkable vistas along the way.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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