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'Career doctor' Liz Bentley: We need to stop chasing happiness and go after THIS instead

In chasing fulfilment, we pursue a life of meaning and purpose, says executive career coach Liz Bentley.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Miller Hawkins

Newsflash: The road to happiness is not actually paved by chasing happiness!

This is contrary to what we have been led to believe. In the last decade, there’s been an avalanche of books, articles and social media posts pushing us to think we should be working toward a consistent state of joy.

While trying to be happy seems sensible, it’s often a confusing and misleading message. That’s because happiness resides in moments and periods of time. Being overly focused on this can derail us from the hard work we need to do in our lives.

Instead, we need to focus on fulfillment.

Happiness versus fulfillment: What’s the difference?

Moments of happiness can come from simple things like a walk in the park or coffee with a friend and it is good to fill your days with activities that make you feel happy. But that is not enough, because real joy and even truly enjoying any activity, big or small, will ultimately come from how we feel about ourselves on the inside, what I call our “inner journey.”

And how we feel about ourselves—our confidence, ability to live in integrity and show up to our life—comes from our ability to handle struggles, live in discomfort and push ourselves to grow and achieve the hard things on the outside, which is our “outer journey.” This is the swirl of life outside of us pushing in (e.g., politics, the marketplace, your social circle, etc.). These two journeys intersect and impact each other, making us ebb and flow in our emotions, from joy to hopelessness and everything in between. In other words, we are not supposed to always feel happiness, because life is not always happy. But what we can feel, and what is more important, is a sense of fulfillment.

The difference is that fulfillment isn’t about a destiny or a momentary feeling; it embodies the whole journey and it’s the experience of that journey that makes life feel fulfilling. In chasing fulfilment, we pursue a life of meaning and purpose. On that journey there are many ups and downs, but it pushes us to evolve, lean in to the hard and grow to become the best version of ourselves. And while there are many moments of happiness on this path, arguably those tougher moments are even more satisfying than the constant quest for just happiness without the real work.

In fact, sometimes chasing happiness can sabotage us when we face hard things. Instead of leaning in to the hard to grow, improve and hurdle something difficult, we lean out when the going gets tough toward something that makes us feel better. Relieving the stress and struggle provides a moment of relief but ultimately leads to more problems and can derail the bigger picture. For example, if market pressures are making a job far more demanding, instead of being self-disciplined and working harder than we ever have, we may mentally quit and do things that make us happy in the moment like leaving work early for drinks with friends. We chose the moments that make us happy instead of staying in the hard and going for something bigger.

Here's how to shift your thinking and chase a life of fulfillment instead of happiness:

1. Live a life with meaning and purpose, NO EXCUSES

This may seem obvious but many of us can lose sight of the fact that life is what we make of it, and we all have different values and things that matter to us as individuals. Find your meaning in every day and make sure it lines up with what you really believe in. If it doesn’t, then make the right changes, the changes that will get you on the correct path.

While making this course correction, make sure you are not just making excuses and just trying to avoid doing things that are hard. I have found many times in my executive coaching that people are using their lack of meaning as an excuse for not showing up to things they don’t want to do or are afraid to tackle. So, it’s important to get clear on what having meaning actually means.

For example, if you are a manager at work, your meaning can be that you provide for your family, you run a team of people who enjoy coming to work every day and you give excellent service to your clients. If suddenly your job changes and you get a boss that is poisoning your work culture, that doesn’t mean your purpose has changed. It just means you have new challenges to face as your reach for what you believe in. It’s important to realize that sometimes we need to evolve our meaning as our life changes.

2. Build REAL confidence

For most of us, confidence doesn’t always come naturally and is tested throughout the trials and tribulations of our lives.

Finding fulfillment is hard and takes a lot of real confidence. What I call real confidence gives you faith in yourself even when no one else believes in you. There are times in life where we need to walk the road alone, stand up for things where others disagree, push ourselves to grow, and evolve and tackle hard things that scare us.

We know that we may fail but that failure is just part of the process and that in failure we grow and learn. It is in these times that our character and our grit are tested. Our days may feel dark, our faith may waver and at moments life may seem unbearable. This is when you will need to dig deep to find your courage and practice your belief in yourself and that you can do anything. Lean into yourself to hear your inner voice say that no matter the challenge, you can grow and adapt to chase a life you want.

3. Get vulnerable

In vulnerability we are able to see our truth. We put our ego down to see where we struggle and address places where we feel unhappy and need to grow and change.

This allows us to be accountable and learn where and how we need to shift. Vulnerability isn’t about beating ourselves up for what we have done wrong; it’s about loving ourselves through the hard so that we can stop making excuses and blaming others for the deficiencies in our own life. For example, if we lose a business deal and we blame it on a client’s difficult personality, we are usually not seeing or admitting to what we did wrong and how we should have handled the deal differently.

In vulnerability we can get an accurate assessment of ourselves and while the realization of our weaknesses is painful at first, ignoring them is worse. By uncovering our truth with confidence and meaning, we will grow and continue to chase fulfillment.

4. Forgive yourself

While we are all striving to be our best and some of us even take pride in being perfectionists, it is critical to be forgiving of our mistakes. We are going to make them! Life is not about always getting it right; in fact, our greatest growth can come from getting it wrong. Forgiveness takes the confidence to see our truth and get vulnerable to make those critical and timely adjustments that can make all the difference in our efforts and results. Forgiveness also allows us to take more risk and go for big goals; we know that we might fail but learn and adjust along the way while continually pushing ourselves to go for things that are hard and difficult to achieve.

5. See the GIFTS, big and small

Do not ignore or underplay the gifts and victories you get along the way. There will be small and big ones, cherish them all and look for them. Try to deposit each one inside your body the way you put money in the bank. Build up your inventory of faith and good feelings about yourself so that you have extra resilience to not quit and keep working when life looks less optimistic. And don’t step over even the smallest of gifts like a grateful colleague, a thank you from a friend and sometimes just a beautiful, sunny day. All good things will add up in our mind and body making our journey all the more pleasant.

Living a life of fulfillment is rooted in being committed to evolving yourself as the world around you shifts and changes. There will be many times when you want to mentally quit and revert back to the quick fixes that you hope will bring you happiness. Stay strong and stay the course, because fulfillment will be more enduring, and it will propel you to keep growing and experience far more that this world has to offer.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries