It’s graduation season, which means that along with asking grads the dreaded question (“So, what’s next?”), it’s also the time of year when people dole out unsolicited and outdated—or at least largely unrealistic—career advice.
Consisting primarily of quotes from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” as well as the ever-popular “find a job that makes you happy,” these clichés lean heavily on the idea that happiness should be our ultimate goal in life.
Though well-meaning, this kind of advice reinforces the idea that finding “happiness” means we’re succeeding, while anything less than that amounts to some type of failure. That’s why, instead of an endless pursuit of happiness, some experts say we’re better off setting our sights on fulfillment. Here’s what to know.
Why pursuing happiness can backfire
Most people are programmed to think of “happiness” as achieving certain goals—like landing your “dream job”—or reaching specific milestones in life, like homeownership, or getting married.
“If you think you’re only going to be happy if you have a particular job, for example, then you’re in real trouble, because it can be taken away from you at any moment,” human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD told Psycom in a recent interview. “Constantly pursuing this thing called ‘happiness’ automatically tells you it’s not here.”
Why seek fulfillment instead of happiness
Fulfillment, on the other hand, isn’t a specific, singular goal, but rather, “the process of living a valued life,” according to clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, PhD.
In practice, this means pursuing and engaging in things that you’re passionate about, and/or truly matter to you—like having the time and money for traveling or a particular hobby, helping to further a particular cause, or having the time and mental and emotional bandwidth to maintain and build friendships.
This focus makes fulfillment both more attainable and sustainable than constantly chasing happiness.
“Fulfillment may help a person better cope with other feelings such as disappointment, sadness, loss, and anger,” Barbera noted in the same interview with Psycom. “This means working towards embracing a range of emotions from joy and excitement, to boredom, disappointment, sadness, fear, anxiety, and even embarrassment or shame.”