When I launched this blog two months ago, I mentioned that it would pretty much pick up where my previous blog, Recovering Shopaholic, left off. The tagline for that blog was “Trade Your Full Closet for a Full Life,” but the majority of my focus during its four year tenure was on the full closet part of the equation: responsible and mindful shopping, wardrobe management, and personal style. I’m proud of the progress I made in all three of those areas, but I feel that I still have a long way to go in terms of cultivating a fuller and more fulfilling life, which was in large part why I started this new blog.
Many of us have the goal of leading a full life, but what does that really mean? I pondered that question first back in June 2013, but I’d like to delve a bit deeper today. I’ll revisit my original answer to the “What is a Full Life?” question and share new insights I gained from one of the articles I saved when paring down my overloaded “articles to read” folder a few weeks ago.
My 2013 Thoughts on a Full Life
I recently re-read my initial post on the full life question for the first time and I still wholeheartedly agree with what I wrote almost five years ago. That essay included the following quote from Rita Mae Brown:
“Happiness is pretty simple: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.”
When I initially pondered that quote, it became abundantly clear why I fell short in terms of life fulfillment, as I lacked sufficient solid connections, a clear life purpose, and a compelling future vision. In many respects, that’s still the case, which is why I’m here now continuing to explore what a full life means to me and how to get there. In that 2013 post, I also highlighted the importance of uncovering and honoring our key values in order to attain happiness and fulfillment in life. My top five values are represented in this collage that I made at a women’s workshop back in 2011:
If I were to create such a collage today, I would have to include “Health” as a foremost value, as it is the foundation for all other things in life, but the other values I mentioned remain at the top of my list as well. Five years on from my first full life definition, I still believe that having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to are critical aspects of happiness. I also maintain that defining and living true to our most cherished values cannot be underestimated, yet there are other factors that merit our consideration, as I will summarize below.
The Four Types of Happy Lives
The recent article I found so impactful was called “How to Life a Happy Life, According to Science” from The Week magazine. This article summarizes some of the philosophies of happiness researcher Martin Seligman, who wrote the book Authentic Happiness. Seligman postulated that there are four types of happy lives, each of which has its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. I will recap these four happiness types below and share my thoughts on how this framework applies to my personal journey.
The Pleasant Life
This type of life is all about having as many positive thoughts and pleasurable experiences as possible. In this existence, life is like one big long vacation filled with good food and drink, laughter, smiles, and the absence of worries and regrets. To experience this type of life, you need to identify the activities that bring you pleasure and include plenty of them in your days and weeks. To make sure this actually happens, it’s helpful to schedule your fun events on your calendar just like you plot out your medical and business appointments.
While the idea of a constant vacation may sound like nirvana to some, Seligman says that it’s actually the least happy type of life. Many people who hold the pleasant life as their ultimate goal end up feeling unfulfilled living in a purely hedonistic manner and begin to desire something more compelling.
The Good Life
Enter The Good Life, which consists of actively doing the things we’re good at and getting lost in those pursuits. In this type of life, the focus is on improving skills, accomplishing goals, and doing rather than just feeling. To springboard into The Good Life, it’s important to determine the things you’re uniquely good at – your “signature strengths” (take this free online test to learn what they are) – and to achieve a “flow state” as often as possible while engaging in them.
The skill development and goal achievement involved in The Good Life leads to a more lasting level of happiness than the fleeting pleasure of The Pleasant Life. As with The Pleasant Life, it’s also important to schedule ample time for exercising your signature strengths and getting into flow. But don’t take it too far, though, as pleasurable experiences and downtime are important for all of us.
The Meaningful Life
Although The Good Life usually leads to a higher level of happiness than The Pleasant Life, both of these lives lack real meaning. A person may truly excel at something like video games (or shopping, as was long a foremost strength and pastime of mine), but such activities are typically meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The Meaningful Life is a step above The Good Life in that one’s signature strengths are used in the service of something larger than themselves, something that helps others. This type of life is also associated with increased work satisfaction and a longer lifespan.
There is a “gotcha,” however. The Meaningful Life takes longer to achieve and can often be more painful. It requires all of the effort involved in The Good Life, plus you also need to care in order to find meaning in your life. This type of attachment to causes and outcomes increases stress, worry, and anxiety, all of which may reduce happiness in the short term.
The Full Life
Happiness can be found in all three of the life types outlined above, but the happiest people in the world are those who are living what Seligman termed The Full Life. This life path involves taking the three previous types in moderation. The Full Life includes pleasure, building signature strengths, and finding meaning through applying those strengths in the service of the greater good.
Those who are living The Full Life savor life’s pleasures and live in the present moment, yet they are also deeply committed to life goals and ambitions. These individuals dedicate a lot of time toward nurturing relationships with family and friends and are willing to offer a helping hand to both personal contacts and strangers when needed.
This all sounds great, but it can also be a lot to handle. The Full Life requires consistency, balance, and some sacrifices along the way, but it’s worth it. It can take a lot of practice and juggling to achieve the high level of happiness found within The Full Life, but the article’s author offers some simple and helpful tips to get you started. On a daily basis, it’s recommended that you endeavor to do the following three things:
- Do something that makes you smile.
- Do something you’re good at.
- Do something that helps another person or makes them smile.
A wonderful sideline benefit of striving to living The Full Life is that it will help you to become a better person as well as a happier one.
Although four types of happy lives are set out in the article, there is a strong bias toward the fourth type, The Full Life. This is understandable, as I think that aiming only for pleasure or mastery can become hollow after a while, and focusing only on helping others can lead to martyrdom and exhaustion. Degrees of pleasure-seeking, ambition, and selflessness are admirable and beneficial, but there can always be too much of a good thing.
The Full Life is balanced but can also be elusive, yet the tips above make it feel more approachable and attainable. After all, it’s not that difficult or time-consuming to do one thing that makes you smile each day, another thing that exercises your signature strengths, and one more thing that is in service of someone else. Put in those terms, living The Full Life seems so much more doable to me than it did previously.
Thinking of my life in recent months, however, I realize that what’s simple isn’t always easy to execute. Many of my days don’t include one or more of the happiness components outlined above. I sometimes become so focused on tasks and to-do lists that I fail to take time for things that will make me smile. Additionally, many of the mundane activities that tend to occupy my days are not things I’m particularly great at. They are either tasks that simply need to get done or time-wasting pursuits that should probably be abandoned. I’ve gotten a lot better at minimizing procrastination and mindless actions, but I still struggle to identify and execute on priorities, especially those that aren’t urgent in nature. Some of the things that I’m good at and enjoy don’t have deadlines attached to them, so they are continually left undone. I think that’s true for so many of us…
I enjoy helping people and making others smile, yet I tend to isolate myself so much that I experience many days in which the only person with whom I interact is my husband. My health issues are partially to blame for this isolation, as is my associated depression, but I know I can do better at reaching out to others and making a difference. I think one way in which I err is thinking I have to do something big and significant, when sending a card or a quick message is often more than enough to brighten someone’s day. It really doesn’t take a lot to make a difference in another person’s life.
On Blogging, Signature Strengths, and Next Steps
I’m glad I started blogging again, as publishing a blog post ticks all three of the “happiness boxes.” It always brings me satisfaction to hit the publish button, I feel that writing is something I’m good at, and I believe that my posts are often helpful to readers. I definitely feel happier and more fulfilled since I launched Full Life Reflections – and I don’t even publish new essays all that often. This is sound proof that it doesn’t take grandiose actions to up level our happiness quotient. Even so, I need more, especially since blogging is not something I do daily and it’s also mostly a solitary activity, although I enjoy interacting with readers through comments.
I have taken the Character Strengths Survey mentioned above three times: in 2003, 2013, and 2018 (just yesterday). My top strengths varied slightly on each test, but these ten strengths consistently showed up at the top of the list:
- Love of Learning – Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.
- Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence – Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
- Curiosity – Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.
- Love – Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.
- Humor – Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes.
- Forgiveness – Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.
- Creativity – Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.
- Judgment – Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.
- Honesty – Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way and acting in a sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions.
- Prudence – Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.
I think it would be helpful for me to determine new ways to exercise these strengths that will make me smile and also benefit others. This post is getting quite lengthy, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but one activity that jumped out at me right away is photography, as it incorporates many of the above strengths and is something I can share with others as well. I haven’t been taking photos as much recently because I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my existing photos. I didn’t want to take more and add to my already substantial digital clutter. Fortunately, I’ve been working on paring down my photo collection to just the best for each location, so I think I’ll be excited to take and share more pictures again soon.
I will continue to think of how I can better attain The Full Life as specified by Martin Seligman. Ultimately, that’s what I want for myself, as I know I won’t be truly satisfied with one of the other three types of happy lives. I want the whole enchilada, so to speak… What’s great, though, is that Seligman’s framework makes a full life so much more tangible. It now feels less like a murky vision and more like a clear picture. I love the idea of taking just three small actions each day, as I am a big believer in the power of small steps. They can add up to a lot over time!
I will close with a few quotes from the great Mother Teresa, someone who made a profound difference in the world through a series of small but powerful actions.
“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”
“Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.”
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
I welcome any thoughts you have on this post and the topic of living a full life in general. I look forward to reading your insights and I wish you a wonderful weekend!