Do you feel fulfilled?

It’s a deep question—and one that requires even deeper inner work to answer.

“Psychologists define fulfillment as the realizing of one's deepest desires and capacities,” psychologist Anna Rowley, Ph.D., tells Shine. “To find fulfillment is to dream, to strive and struggle, and, oftentimes, to engage with adversity.”

“To find fulfillment is to dream, to strive and struggle, and, oftentimes, to engage with adversity.”
- Anna Rowley, Ph.D.

We often think we can stumble into fulfillment—it's something we'll feel when we get that job or find that partner. The truth: Finding what fulfills us is an active, not passive, process.

“To get a deeper understanding of fulfillment, we need to learn about what really motivates or drives us," Rowley says.

To do that, Rowley points to self-determination theory, or the idea that we’re driven by three universal motivations: the need for autonomy, for mastery, and for community. When these needs are met is when we feel a sense of fulfillment, according to experts.

But while the needs themselves are fundamental, they manifest differently in different people. Some are more motivated by autonomy than community. For others, mastery is everything. Your friend may find ultimate fulfillment in climbing the corporate ladder, while your brother might believe that raising socially conscious children is of greatest importance.

Uncovering your primary needs and motivations can help clear the path to more fulfillment—and bring clarity to your everyday life.

Wondering what matters to you? Rowley suggests performing a mini “fulfillment audit,” diving into recent experiences to understand what fuels you. Grab a pen and paper, then ask yourself the following questions.

When is the last time you made a choice based on your needs? And how did it feel?

When you make decisions based on your own inner compass, you’re flexing your autonomy.

Maybe it’s turning down a job offer that would’ve led to burnout, or signing up for that expensive gym membership because you know it’ll motivate you. When you’re steering the ship, choosing what to do and what not to do—that can be seriously satisfying.

When you make decisions based on your own inner compass, you’re flexing your autonomy.

But while autonomy is one of our fundamental needs, that doesn’t mean that every choice we make for ourselves feels good. You might reject a dinner party invite for a few hours of self-care, only to realize you’re craving human connection. You could finally adopt a puppy and find yourself in way over your head.

To get a better sense of what does drive you, jot down recent autonomous choices you’ve made, and whether they left you fulfilled or not. Then, look for the common denominator.

When is the last time you mastered something?

Maybe it was getting an A+ performance review. Or perhaps you finally beat that video game level.

When we really nail something, research shows, we tend to feel fulfilled: One study found that when participants were given spontaneous positive feedback on their performance, they were more motivated to keep performing a task.

Make a list of everything you’ve mastered recently, and think through how satisfying it was. If recalling something you’ve mastered brings that warm, happy feeling of success, consider how you might add more of it to your life.

Love words? You might tackle a daily crossword puzzle over coffee.

If work seems like a dead end, think about taking on a new hobby. Building the opportunity to master something into your daily life can up your fulfilment, and motivate you to embrace what makes you feel good.

When was the last time you felt like you belonged to something?

Our childhoods are built around belonging: There are playgroups, classes, clubs, sports teams, religious groups, and more. But as we age, the onus shifts to us when it comes to finding a community.

By now, you might feel as though you’re floating in your own one-person group, or at least craving a little more connection.

Start by thinking about who you feel most comfortable with, and who knows you best. Do they motivate you to be a better person? Get you out of the house when Netflix is calling your name? Think about what you like about community and the people in yours, and consider a few ways to build belonging. Maybe it’s joining a club or a team, or posting book reviews on Goodreads. (Perhaps it’s becoming a Shine member and joining the Shine Squad!)

Being seen for who you are can be fulfilling.

Of course, not everybody wants to fit in. To some, autonomy is king, and belonging to a certain group or category just doesn’t feel right. But even then, being seen for who you are can be fulfilling, and might be found by wearing your cherished vintage kicks, or just reconnecting with family.

Find your ideal mix of autonomy, mastery, and community. And remember: If it’s fulfilling, it’s the right move.