“I can’t get no satisfaction, ‘cause I try and I try and I try…”
So sang the Rolling Stones in their 1965 hit “Satisfaction”. There are a few things that united almost all human minds. I believe one of these is the deep seated, fundamental, powerful desire and striving we all have for life fulfilment. A 2016 study by the Metrus Institute found that nearly every respondent reported harbouring a desire to be fulfilled1.
But is life fulfilment actually possible?
There is a diverse plethora of pursuits in which people seek fulfilment. Many pursue money or material possessions in the hope that these will bring satisfaction. Others seek fulfilment in success in their chosen fields or goals. For others, satisfaction is thought to be found in accomplishing moral good such as altruism or justice. And probably most commonly of all, many link life fulfilment with sustained emotional happiness.
But can any of these guarantee life satisfaction if obtained? I am not sure they can.
Money and Material Possessions
There have been numerous studies that have shown there is either no or negative correlation between very high wealth and life satisfaction. And it does not take much research to realise that some of the wealthiest people in the world are also some of the least fulfilled, and that enormous material wealth often correlates with increased life dissatisfaction2.
John Rockefeller was an oil tycoon who became the first American billionaire in 1916 and is widely considered the wealthiest American of all time. When asked in an interview: “How much money is enough?”, Rockefeller famously responded: “Just a little bit more”.
The comedian and actor Russell Brand once remarked in an interview:
“I thought it would be good to be rich and famous, it would be good to be the opposite of this, it would be good to have stuff, it’d be good to have money, it’d be good to be invited to the party. Well I’ve been invited, I’ve been in… I’ve seen the other side of the looking glass; it ain’t f***ing worth it. It don’t feed your soul; I still feel empty inside”3
Massive wealth proves time and time again not to produce life satisfaction in the way many anticipate.
Many people devote their working lives to climbing a career ladder, accomplishing a set of life goals or becoming the highest or the best at their chosen discipline. However, the most “successful” people across the spectrum fields often find themselves unexpectedly dissatisfied with their success.
In an article for Entrepreneur Europe4, Sarah Vermunt, Founder of the career and entrepreneur coaching company Careergasm, wrote:
“Do I consider myself “successful?” I do. I’ve created a pretty awesome business; I’m well respected in my field; and I have multiple degrees. I love my home, and my relationships are strong… if you’re looking for personal fulfilment, it’s not likely that traditional measures of success are going to get you there… Success, when you boil it down, seems to be about what we think will make us happy. It’s a lure, shiny and seductive – but there’s a hook: You can do everything right in the pursuit of attaining traditional success, but happiness and personal fulfilment are not guaranteed.”4
In an article for the Telegraph, heptathlete Denise Lewis OBE described her emotional journey after winning gold in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games:
“After all the congratulations and backslaps and hugs, the press conferences and the fuss, there’s finally this moment after some hours when you’re going back to the village that you have this moment, not of emptiness, but simply: ‘Is that it? What do I do now?’”5
The comedy actor Josh Radnor, star of How I Met Your Mother, in lecture for INKtalk, candidly recalled:
“When How I Met Your Mother first went on the air I ran into an actress that I knew and she said “are you like so happy all the time?” I had bought into the not uncommon notion that when I taste success, when I get over there then I’ll be happy. But the strangest thing happened. As the show got more successful, I got more depressed.”6
Success can certainly lead to temporary exhilaration and emotional satiation. But it too often disappoints when people look to it for long-term life fulfilment.
There are many who aim their lives at accomplishing moral good in the anticipation that it will lead to fulfilment, whether it be in altruism, justice, helping others, or simply being a good person. That is certainly one of the reasons why I applied to study medicine at university aged 17- because I thought that committing to a career of caring for others would give me a sense of personal fulfilment.
However, a total fixation with moral good can very often lead to emotional ache rather than life fulfilment. As an example, a 2011 review paper7 found that 25% of ambulance paramedics and 34% of hospice nurses met the criteria for “compassion fatigue”- a state of emotional pain and distress due to high-intensity care-giving.
I have experience both personally and through colleagues of some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy working healthcare and don’t often find it wonderfully meaningful and rewarding- I do. However, if caring for others becomes the anchor onto which one holds in the hope that it will eventually lead to life fulfilment, I think it will at best disappoint and at worst induce anguish.
This is probably the most commonly espoused source of promised life fulfilment in the West. I’ve heard many impassioned teachers and speakers confidently advising that the true path to life fulfilment is finding something in life that makes one happy. Happiness is even listed in the American Declaration of Independence as one of citizens’ “unalienable rights” along with life and liberty.
However, our experience of happiness is almost always as a transient and changeable emotion dependent on a wide range of transient and changeable external factors. This thus seems like a risky, if not futile, pursuit onto which to pin our hopes of long-term life fulfilment. Interestingly, there also seems to be some evidence that pursuing happiness does not actually lead to happiness, as psychologist and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith put forward in her 2017 TED Talk:
“I used to think the whole purpose of life was pursuing happiness. Everyone said the path to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment. But instead of ever feeling fulfilled, I felt anxious and adrift… Eventually, I decided to go to graduate school for psychology to learn what truly makes people happy. But what I discovered there changed my life. The data showed that chasing happiness can make people unhappy… There’s an emptiness gnawing away at people, and you don’t have to be clinically depressed to feel it. Sooner or later, I think we all wonder: Is this all there is?”8
The ‘data’ that Smith refers to is mainly from Mauss et al, whose series of experiments in 20119 found that the more participants valued happiness, the more likely they were to be disappointed and less likely they were to responded positively to happy situations.9
Thus on experiential and evidential grounds, it seems dangerous to pin our pursuit of life fulfilment on seeking emotional happiness alone.
Is There Something More?
So from surveying the psychological evidence, listening to prominent individuals, and reflecting on my own personal experience, it appears that many of the major goals on which people pin their hopes of life fulfilment often disappoint. But despite this, pretty much all of us have some degree of inner restless thirst for fulfilment in life. So what should we make of this thirst?
I think the answer lies in a profound observation made by the philosopher and writer C. S. Lewis first during a wartime BBC radio broadcast and then transcribed in his book Mere Christianity:
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”10
Lewis’ argument is that because our thirst for fulfilment cannot be satisfied through earth-bound endeavours, this is evidence that we are made for another world, and true fulfilment can only be found through experience of the transcendent. But how can one experience this transcendent “true country” that Lewis describes? The bible gives some unique answers to this.
In John 7:37-39, the John records Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of the Tabernacles:
“37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood [in the temple courts] and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the [Holy] Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive…”11
Jesus’ preached here and elsewhere that it is only through perfect relationship with God that humans can be truly and totally satisfied. And as Lewis mentioned, this completely fulfilling perfect relationship with God will only be found in Heaven after death, not on Earth. However, in John 7, Jesus does not simply promise future post-mortem satisfaction. Rather, He speaks of an earthly experience of His followers being indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God, through whom we can relate to God and gain a foretaste of the eternal fulfilment promised in Heaven.
That is not to say that all Christians experience a continued sense of fulfilment all throughout life, or that people who are not Christians cannot experience temporary periods of satisfaction. However, as someone who has been extraordinarily lucky enough to have reasonable wealth, success, moral accomplishments and happiness, I can say with categorical certainty that these things do not come remotely close to the giving the sort of life fulfilment and satisfaction I get from my relationship with God through His Spirit. It is through this relationship that my life gains significance beyond my achievements, purpose beyond my personal goals, belonging beyond the regards of others, meaning beyond my self-esteem, hope beyond the predictable future, and therefore ultimately fulfilment beyond what this world can offer. And I believe this immense and exhilarating life fulfilment is a partial foretaste of the total and eternal satisfaction Christians will experience in Heaven.
And Jesus taught in v37-38 of the above passage that this promise for earthly fulfilment and eternal perfect satisfaction is available to all who simply “come to Him”, accepting Him as their Lord and Saviour, and choosing to enter a relationship with Him.
And so in closing, let me give the final word to the Christian journalist and author Malcom Muggeridge, who summarised this Spirit-given fulfilment better than I ever could:
“I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets–that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue–that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time–that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you — and I beg you to believe me–multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing–less than nothing, a positive impediment–measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”12
- g. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200806/money-and-happiness
- Beck C (2011). “Secondary Traumatic Stress in Nurses: A Systematic Review”. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 25 (1): 1-10
- Mauss I, Tamir M, Anderson C L, Savino N S (2011). “Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness”. Emotion. 11 (4): 807-815
- S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” (1952)
- John 7:37-39 (NIV)
- Malcolm Muggeridge, “Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith” (Ignatius Press, 2005), 97