October 6

Search for Meaning and Fulfillment: Simple Clues to Life’s Big Questions

Many of us find the words meaning and fulfillment esoteric and highfalutin and decide to worry about it when we retire from life’s obligations —work, raising and overseeing our kids, pets, and plants—and have little else to do.

Apparently, that’s not what we’re supposed to do.

In 1946, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl chronicled his experiences in four Nazi concentration camps in his book "Man's Search for Meaning," widely considered one of the most important books ever written. Frankl’s contribution to humankind wasn’t just his literary masterpiece. He created the science of logotherapy, which posits that, as a species, our primary motivation is not just to chase rewards and recognition but to find meaning and fulfillment in life.

In other words, finding meaning and fulfillment aren’t just peripheral side projects for us to ignore; they are the whole point of existence.

Finding Technology

At 77, Lourdes del Castillo de Rumié of Cartagena, Colombia had discovered the secret to her happiness. She did not win the lottery, acquire a large inheritance, or attain enlightenment at a meditation retreat. She had learned to use PowerPoint—yes, that software application office workers world over love to hate.

As the NY Times writer Anand Giridharadas reported, after decades of spending life baking and teaching informal art history classes, Rumie reluctantly learned to use technology. Soon, she could garner the internet's power to compile powerful presentations on art history, which she used to teach others.

Rumie’s stumble into technology renewed her zest for life and led her to find meaning and fulfillment in unexpected quarters. She was thrilled at the direction her life was taking her.  She expressed a desire to meet the creator of PowerPoint, saying, “I would kiss him from his head to his toes because he has given me so much happiness,” adding, “Oh my goodness, I do not want to die.”

Meaning and fulfillment: Misunderstood concepts

In the relentless pursuit of our goals and ambitions—climbing the corporate ladder, amassing wealth, or achieving recognition—we often find ourselves on a constant quest for success, assuming that with success will come fulfillment. But that’s far from the truth.

Unlike success, fulfillment is a more profound, more personal concept. It represents a sense of contentment, purpose, and happiness that comes from within.

Fulfillment extends beyond external accomplishments and dives into the realm of personal growth, meaningful relationships, and emotional well-being. It's about finding joy and purpose in the journey, not just the destination.

The search for meaning and fulfillment

Contrary to popular perception, fulfillment isn’t the esoteric holy grail we think it is. Thankfully. It’s certainly within reach for most of us. While we may not find meaning just by learning to use PowerPoint (unlike Rumie’), there are dependable approaches to discovering fulfillment. Here are a few.

Leave a mark in everything you do

Be so good they can’t ignore you. Cal Newport.

Every HR survey on the planet on employee satisfaction ultimately boils down to this one truth: people report job fulfillment when they feel like they make a difference to the job and are respected for what they do.

This desire—to be significant—is universal and not just limited to the workplace or an age group. The best way to turn a brooding child into a happy one? Ask them to be your helper and appreciate their contribution. You’ll suddenly find yourself with the world’s most generous aide. It’s easy to see why.

Regardless of age, when we consider our contributions (at work or in life) to be significant, it increases our engagement in our tasks and, consequently, improves our focus and commitment, which, in turn, improves the quality of our outputs and evokes feelings of meaning and fulfillment.

Here’s the takeaway: instead of simply trying to get something done, go the extra mile, engage with your work, and leave your unmistakable signature in whatever you do.

Whatever you do, always give 100%. Unless you're donating blood. Bill Murray

Understand your motivations

Our motives vary. Who we are at 22 is usually not who we are at 52. Thank goodness!

Professor of Philosophy Mike Martin defined three motives for what constitutes meaningfulness: craft motives (Interest, expertise), compensation motives (wealth, power, recognition), and moral motives (service). While skill-building and wealth may motivate us early in life, as we get older, we search for a higher purpose. The trick to discovering meaning and fulfillment is to stay true to what motivates you at every stage of the journey.

In his book Dark Horse, author Todd Rose explains that the most critical factor in finding meaning and fulfillment is understanding what truly motivates you. If you can hone in on what gets you out of bed in the morning, then you will soon make choices based on what brings you fulfillment, which, in turn, will translate into deep engagement in what you do, leading you to feel content and fulfilled.

Craft a Personal Mission Statement

This may sound woo-woo and very self-development-workshopy, but if every Fortune 500 company has a mission statement, what’s stopping us from creating one for ourselves? Self-reflection on our values is the first step to identifying what constitutes meaning and fulfillment for each of us.

Crafting a personal mission statement can help us identify our values, purpose, and guiding principles, ultimately leading to a more fulfilling life.

As David Brooks called it, the key here is to pay attention to “Eulogy values instead of Resume values.” Instead of thinking about “I want to work less” or “I want to maintain an ideal weight,” think about how you want to be remembered or what your idea of a great day or week would be.

And then, of course, align your actions to your mission statement. Wait, what? I know. It’s easier said than done, but shouldn’t we at least try?


Finding purpose, joy, and significance in work and daily life cannot be overstated. Our job is to align our actions and choices with our values. Meaning and fulfillment will follow.

In a 2018 publication, psychologist Laura King argues that despite technological changes and our fast-paced world, our desire to find meaning and fulfillment remains strong. And, more helpfully, she emphasizes how purpose is everywhere. Even simple things such as walking the dog, hanging out with family, or even being in a good mood fill our lives with meaning.

King says, “We tend to think of meaning as this most profound of human experiences. Yet all of these more ordinary things also foster our sense of meaning. And that, I think, is an incredibly huge relief."

Success can provide the resources and opportunities that enable us to pursue what brings us fulfillment. When we align our external achievements with our internal values and sense of purpose, we experience a more profound sense of contentment.

When you pursue fulfillment, you don’t take shortcuts, which, in turn, means you are deeply engaged and care about what you do. And that’s how miracles happen. As Todd Rose said in an interview, “We’ve got to have a cure for cancer. It’s got to be in some little kid’s head somewhere.”



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