Contrary to popular belief, life is not about being happy. Don't get me wrong -- happiness is important -- it has us drop into and experience the joy of being alive and the joy of the moment. By all means, do things that bring you joy and happiness. And notice that happiness is merely an emotional state: fleeting, temporary and elusive.
Fulfillment, on the other hand, is consistent and has room for the full range of emotional experiences. For instance, you can be unhappy and yet very fulfilled. When I was 28, my mom died of lung cancer. I was at a place in my life where I could go home and care for her for nine months as she was dying. It was not a "happy" time, but it was rich, full and very important in my life. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It changed me in so many ways... shifted my relationship with death and therefore life. I was being well-used and thus was very fulfilled. Those difficult, life-changing situations and decisions do not necessarily make us "happy" in the moment. And yet they are the source of the interwoven tapestry of a life well-lived.
Happiness gets slippery when it slides into its distorted version of taking shortcuts or indulging in what feels good now (easier, faster, more comfortable) over what nourishes us over the long-haul. Standing for integrity has a way of yielding magical results beyond anything you could plan.
Each year, my husband and I go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland. Last season, just as the tech crew was getting ready for the Sunday matinee in the Angus Bowmer Theater, they heard a loud crack. One of the major supporting beams had split. The theater was unsafe and had to be closed.
Hundreds of people were already on their way to the little town of Ashland. The sensible thing to do would have been to cancel all shows in the Bowmer indefinitely and refund people's money. They would have understood. But that's not who OSF is. They are a regional theater and are very tight with the local community, a relationship that has been cultivated over the past 30 years or so. They have an audience base (like me) that is fiercely loyal. It's sort of like Apple for theater people. They felt that it would be wrong to just cancel shows, even if it was the easiest thing.
Instead, they found alternative locations. For the first show, the actors performed in a readers' theater style seated and reading their roles. Slowly, over the course of the week, different set pieces found their way into the temporary venues. By the weekend, theater-goers were seeing nearly a full show, complete with costumes and movement. OSF gave ticket-holders a choice to turn their tickets back in to the box office for Bowmer shows, saying that they didn't feel right about charging for something that wasn't their usual standard. Only a small minority turned their tickets in for a refund. There was no assigned seating for the shows and the lines outside each one were fairly long. Young people volunteered to stand in line for old folks so they wouldn't have to stand so long. People shared their food with strangers in line. The atmosphere was completely festive. At showtime, not everyone had a seat so everybody -- the house manager, the ushers and the audience -- all jockeyed around until everyone who wanted to see the show had a place to sit. They sat in the aisle, on the floor, gave older folks their seats. It was amazing. At the end of the show, the actors applauded the audience.
Yes, it was an extraordinary time. And it was made possible by the relationships and good will that OSF had generated over many, many years. The "emergency" occurred within a long-standing context, a shared vision and a sense of connection to something much larger than the mundane day-to-day. When the big challenge came, the foundation, built with care from a thousand moments and a thousand decisions, held. OSF would have saved money by doing the easier thing and canceling the Bowmer shows. Instead, they chose the more challenging path of fulfillment. You can't design a customer loyalty program to do what their decision that the show must go on did for us OSF fans. You can't plan the kind of magic that gets created by choosing the path of fulfillment over quick indulgence.
Seeking happiness isn't wrong, it's just limiting. It's only one color on the rainbow of human experience. If we try to hold to that one thing, we'll miss the rich experience of being alive with all if its joys, disappointments, passions, grieves and loves. Fulfillment has room for the whole of life, for everything. On your deathbed, you're not going to remember any fleeting moments of happiness. You're only going to recall what left you feeling fulfilled... or not.
Karen Kimsey-House, MFA, CPCC, MCC, is the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the oldest and largest in-person coach training school in the world, and the co-author of the best-selling Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Liveshttp://www.amazon.com/Co-Active-Coaching-Changing-Business-Transforming/dp/1857885678/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337094550&sr=1-1. Karen was one of four pioneers of the profession, and in honor of its 20th birthday this year, she is sharing her insights about human transformation in a ten-part series, Disrupt Your Life in a Good Way.