How do we define a well-lived life? First scientific evidence helps us get closer to an answer

By Doris Baumann, University of Zurich

Image: Maridav/Shutterstock

Doris Baumann is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Psychology at the University of Zurich. She is particularly interested in the factors that contribute to living and aging well. In her thesis, she investigates fulfillment in life from a positive psychological perspective. She wants to inspire and support people in finding their niche, where they can be at their best, fulfill their potential, and make unique contributions.

A transition, such as the beginning of a new year or entering the second half of life, can strengthen our desire to be more aware of what really matters to us. People naturally take stock of their lives and look ahead to determine their priorities for their next chapter in life.

In the end, humans want to be able to look back on a life well-lived. But what constitutes a fulfilled life? And what are its defining characteristics?

Though our study published in Frontiers in Psychology confirms the relevance of the concept of fulfillment in life for individuals of different ages, it has been neglected in psychological research. Together with Prof Willibald Ruch, we have initiated this new line of research in the field of positive psychology to fill this gap and advance the study of the good life.

To establish a theoretical foundation, we provided a conceptualization and a model of fulfillment. There is indeed a difference between happiness and fulfillment. The latter is long-lasting and comes from deriving a sense of wholeness, from perceiving congruence, and from recognizing value regarding one’s self, life, and impact.


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Assessing a fulfilled life

Our understanding of a fulfilled life comprises both cognitive and affective aspects. Our model of fulfillment in life entails that individuals be able to develop and realize their full potential; become whole and complete, feel true to themselves, and lead authentic lives. It further involves the feeling that one’s existence is significant and the ability to leave one’s unique mark on this world and to contribute to others’ well-being. Given that fulfillment is a new research area, it was essential to study the concept from different angles. Therefore, we investigated what laypersons understand by a fulfilled life.

After building a conceptual framework, the next important step in advancing the empirical study of a fulfilled life was to test whether this concept can be measured. We developed a multidimensional instrument based on our model. In our article, ‘Measuring What Counts in Life: The Development and Initial Validation of the Fulfilled Life Scale (FLS)’, published in Frontiers in Psychology, we demonstrated that a fulfilled life can be assessed. We evaluated the questionnaire using the standard criteria of reliability and validity.

In addition to its use in research, the FLS can also be applied in practice. Life and career coaches could employ the scale to support their clients in building a life that suits them well and that they experience as worthwhile. A fulfilled life can be regarded as an indicator of the good life and a proxy for aging well.

Is the pursuit of a fulfilled life vanity, selfish, or a luxury? Quite the contrary, it is essential for humans not only to be free from mental illness but to thrive at all life stages.

Doris Baumann

The importance of fulfillment

Is the pursuit of a fulfilled life vanity, selfish, or a luxury? Quite the contrary, it is essential for humans not only to be free from mental illness but to thrive at all life stages. Our findings indicate that appraising one’s life as fulfilled is a predictor of mental well-being. Furthermore, perceiving one’s life as fulfilled is associated with better self-rated health. Individuals experiencing a fulfilled life reported a more positive attitude toward aging.

That a fulfilled life is not a self-centered life is demonstrated by our results showing that high levels of fulfillment are related to generative concerns (eg, caring for the well-being of younger generations) and voluntary engagement. Investigating participants’ conceptions revealed that making an impact and leaving a positive mark in others’ lives is indeed viewed as an essential component of a fulfilled life.

What can support the endeavor to create a fulfilling existence? Certain attitudes toward life, such as performing meaningful activities, engaging in tasks in which one feels absorbed, or pursuing goals from which one derives a sense of achievement, have been shown to be conducive to experiencing a fulfilled life. Sensing one’s profession or an activity as a calling can also provide a strong sense of fulfillment.

Our findings reveal a slight increase in life fulfillment as individuals age. People might acquire more resources and qualities to lead a fulfilling life as they get older. These may include knowledge, life experience, or expertise that can be passed on. Through generative actions, people can derive contentment and a sense of meaning. On the other hand, older adults have developed their character strengths, which help them overcome adversities and create a fulfilling life.

Finally, longevity and the increase of healthy years in one’s life provide unprecedented opportunities. Today, people have a longer time frame to realize their strengths, pursue their dreams, and leave a legacy. Later life offers greater freedom to be who one is, express oneself, and choose what is personally meaningful. Will you take advantage of these new possibilities for leading a more fulfilling life?

Doris Baumann. Image: Renate Szinyei, goldenpictures.ch