When clients tell me that they are not happy with their current lives, I generally don’t focus on that word ‘happy’; I talk about fulfilment. But what exactly is fulfilment and why do I prefer using that word over happiness?

These days there is a particular focus on happiness which is mainly fed by social media. We tend to pay more attention to ‘happy’ events in life and like to show off with photos which seem to say:

‘Look how happy I am with my family!’

‘Look what great things I am doing with my life!’

‘Look at me having a great time with all my friends!’

‘Look at what a great holiday I am having!’…..

We show the world the highlights of our lives but do not share when life is just normal or not going so well. Compare it to the weather; we are sharing when the sun shines but when it is just a regular day, a grey and misty day or a horrible day, we rather keep this to ourselves. It looks like life is all about being happy, just a focus on highlights, but highlights are just moments.

And that is where the problem lies with the word ‘happy’. Are we striving towards a continuum of highlights and happy moments? Do we need to be happy all the time, as in, should the sun be shining all day, every day? Is this even possible? And when the sun is not shining, are we failing?

I much prefer focusing on fulfilment. There are many different definitions of the word fulfilment but I would define it as:

A feeling of satisfaction that you get from doing or achieving something that is meaningful to you.

Fulfilment is very personal and is based on your personal values. Personal values are the things in life that are important to you, that are most important in your heart. Your values define the kind of a person you want to be, what is significant and meaningful to you, what you want to stand for in life.

Values are not a snapshot; values never end. That doesn’t mean they can’t change, but it means that life is not about achieving values as if they are goals. It is about living your life according to your values.

Values don’t have to be about doing good to the world. We are not all Mother Teresa and we don’t need to be. Bad people have personal values too and they may be judged by other people, but that’s not the point. It’s personal and if particular things are important to somebody, then it is what it is.

If you can live your life according to your values, you will feel fulfilled.

Now, does living your values and feeling fulfilled mean that you feel happy all the time?

No, living your values can be hard. Think of a doctor; her values may be to use her brain to its full potential, to share her knowledge with the medical profession, to help society to find cures for diseases, to care for sick people….

Imagine this doctor and her work with cancer patients. She will come across many very sad situations and will not be able to cure everybody. However, if she is living her values, she will feel fulfilled, even though she may feel sad about an incurable patient, at times.

Living a fulfilled life is like the weather, it includes happiness and sadness and everything in between but it is a life that is based on values that have meaning to you.


Wendela Elsen helps expat partners find meaningful and fulfilling ways of using their professional skills and experiences, be it in paid work or otherwise. She has been an expat partner herself for more than 20 years. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Taiwan, Japan and now in the UK. She has been professionally active for most of that time in different capacities.