This pause in our lives can lead to reflection and greater fulfillment

Most of us don’t think much about fulfillment. We simply don’t spend time considering its benefits, or whether we could achieve more of it. These essential questions tend to be pushed aside in favor of a race to produce, manage collegial relationships and what it will take to get to the next level, and then leaving on time to pick up our kids from school or head to the gym. 

Now we are facing the grim reality that we don’t have any idea when our economy will come back, how we will return to work if our kids remain out of school, and worrying about being one of the hundreds of thousands who get sick. The control over our lives and the way we spend our time is suddenly shockingly limited and out of our control. 

With all of this, personal reflection begs for attention. For many, this “pause” is an opportunity to gain perspective on the lives we live, the things that matter. For some, it may be more a shift than a pause — more of a crunch from working remotely, feeding the kids, and maintaining the house with little time to come up for air. Others are wrought with anxiety because their jobs are on hold or could be gone forever. And for essential workers such as those in health care or first responders, the COVID-19 pandemic means suddenly balancing what always brought fulfillment with new, scarier health risks. 

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Still, if we do take the time to reflect on how we’re living our lives and on what matters most, then perhaps when life moves beyond this crisis moment into a “new normal” we will have a deeper understanding of what brings us fulfillment at work and at home.  

Most of us spend many of our waking hours working, so why wouldn’t we regularly evaluate if it provides us with what we need? We could think about the pay, the benefits, and the life it enables us to live outside of the workday. But we can also consider, will the work itself be fulfilling?

Work may provide benefits beyond economic ones — such as a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. And when people feel fulfilled in their work, they tend to engage more deeply in their work, build meaningful relationships with coworkers, and be more productive. What’s more, the benefits of experiencing fulfillment at work spill over into life outside of work, for higher overall well-being. 

Since the 1990s, Americans have ranked the importance of fulfilling work above salary, time spent on the job, promotions and job security. We hear from young adults in the workforce that they want more than “just a job.” They seek personal fulfillment in their work.  

How people come to feel fulfilled has been the subject of recent research. The Pew Research Center released a study last year that explored the sources of fulfillment in American lives. Respondents were asked what provides their lives with meaning and fulfillment. Second only to “family,” the most common response was “careers” or “jobs” — a source of fulfillment for 34 percent of people. 

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In another recent study, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conducted a survey of nearly 15,000 employees working in various industries across the nation. We asked them to name three words to describe how they felt at work, and why. Most people mentioned feeling happy, stressed, frustrated or tired, but a small group — 3.6 percent, or 515 of the total respondents — said they feel “fulfilled.” And we wondered why that is. Might there be a secret recipe that leads to fulfillment at work, a recipe we all can try?

When people answered why they felt fulfilled, two categories emerged: altruism (i.e., service, comfort, or contributing to greater good) and intrinsic motivation (i.e., enjoyment, a challenge, learning opportunity). Responses ranged from “I’m doing something I love” to “I feel fulfilled after a long and stressful task” to “I get to use and develop skills that I value.” Several respondents mentioned both altruism and intrinsic motivation. 

What our research found may be what remains unsaid in today’s culture of success: helping others and simply enjoying or being challenged by our work are factors that lead to fulfillment — that is, feeling like we’re making a difference and being motivated by the joy and even the struggle that work provides. 

To be sure, even with the most fulfilling job, some days may feel routine to the point of boredom. People may question why they’re doing the work at all. It seems the key to fulfillment on those days is to keep perspective and understand that the small tasks are part of a larger picture — another lesson that could apply to our situations during stay-at-home orders.

The answer to finding fulfillment may be some combination of altruism and intrinsic motivation. We can ask ourselves, who am I serving? Who benefits from my work? How does my work contribute to the greater good? Is there something more or different I could be doing that would make a bigger difference in the world or in the lives of others?  

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During the pandemic, we can focus our attention on these questions and what we can take control of — and give gratitude for the opportunity. We can make plans to take steps toward achieving greater fulfillment, and take stock of the resources we have to support this intention and any obstacles in the way. Staying optimistic about what we can do will build our resilience and keep us moving in the direction of greater fulfillment — and that is something.  

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of two books: “The Gaslight Effect” and “Project Rebirth.”

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab.

Nicole Elbertson is the director of content and communications at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Follow her on Twitter @nikki_elbertson.